Signs of supplication: two mosaic earflare plaques from El Zotz, Guatemala

Nicholas P. Carter, Rony E. Piedrasanta, Stephen D. Houston & Zachary Hruby

Figure 1
Figure 1. The Maya region. Map generated by T. Garrison and N. Carter.
Click to enlarge.

An Early Classic (AD 200–550) Maya tomb at the site of El Zotz in Guatemala has recently yielded two mosaic earflare plaques forming a pair. In this note we suggest they exemplify a form of personal display highlighting acts of entreaty by subordinates and captives.

Investigations by the El Zotz Archaeological Project (PAEZ) between 2006 and 2011 revealed that El Zotz, in Guatemala's Buenavista Valley (Figure 1), was the seat of the Pa' Chan ("Split Sky" or "Fortified Sky") dynasty from the Early Classic period until at least AD 830. Before c. AD 400, elite settlement was concentrated in two architectural groups on hilltops overlooking the valley (Figure 2). One, the El Diablo group, includes a palace and mortuary pyramid and has been intensively excavated by PAEZ. The other, El Tejón, was mapped in 2010 by Alex Knodell and consists of an artificially levelled hilltop, with buildings oriented towards El Diablo, linked by a causeway to another, lower plaza (Figure 3). Since the 1970s, looters plundered buildings at both groups, including several elite tombs. In 2011, while documenting a pillaged elite tomb in El Tejón Structure H6-2 (Figure 4), Rony Piedrasanta encountered in a backfilled robbers' tunnel the plaques discussed here, along with associated jadeite tesserae left by the looters (Piedrasanta 2012).

Figure 2
Figure 2. Map of El Zotz showing the El Diablo and El Tejón groups. Map generated by T. Garrison and N. Carter.
Click to enlarge.
Figure 3
Figure 3. Map of El Tejón showing the building (H6-2) where the earflare plaques were found. Map generated by T. Garrison and N. Carter.
Click to enlarge.

Figure 4
Figure 4. North profile of the looters' tunnel in El Tejón Structure H6-2 (Unit EZ-17B-4X) where the earflare plaques were found. Drawing by R. Piedrasanta and N. Carter.
Click to enlarge.
The earflare plaques

The plaques are discs of marine shell, 60mm in diameter and 2–3mm thick. While most ear ornaments in Classic Maya art are flared, open cylinders with front and back counterweights passing through them, others are simple plugs held in place by the stretched earlobe itself (Figure 5). The El Tejón plaques belonged to the latter kind of earflare. They would have been attached to perishable backings by means of one or two small holes drilled through each plaque. In that setting, only the obverse of each plaque would have been visible; the reverse sides are not decorated.

Figure 5
Figure 5. Two types of Maya earflares: (A) simple plugs and (B) complex assemblages. The El Tejón plaques belonged to examples of the first type. Drawings by N. Carter after photographs by J. Pérez de Lara in D. Stuart (2005: 138-39, 143) of a carved limestone bench panel (c. AD 736), Temple XIX, Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico.
Click to enlarge.

Figure 6
Figure 6. The El Tejón earflare plaques: above, with the recovered jadeite tesserae; below, showing the incised details. Photographs and drawings by N. Carter.
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The front surface of each plaque was inlaid with a mosaic depicting a seated figure holding an offering (Figures 6 and 7). The jadeite tesserae were set into hollows in the plaques created by drilling rows of divots to the desired depth, then scraping away adjoining shell. Only eight tesserae were found, two of them fragmentary, and neither mosaic is complete. Additional details were shown with incisions, made with an obsidian flake and probably packed with cinnabar, surrounding the mosaics and engraved on at least one of the tesserae.

The figure on Plaque A (interpreted as worn in the right ear) offers a sacrificial blade with volutes of fire emerging from its sides. The other, on Plaque B (worn in the left ear), presents an image of the Jaguar God of the Underworld, a deity associated in Maya myth with war and the sun on its nightly passage below the Earth. Both figures are nobles, wearing earflares of their own. Incised tesserae on the lords' backs depict belt assemblages consisting of portraits or name glyphs hung with polished celts (Houston 2010: 275). Each figure touches one hand to the opposite shoulder, elbow upraised, in a gesture of honorable submission.

Figure 7
Figure 7. Iconographic details of the El Tejón earflare plaques. Drawings by N. Carter.
Click to enlarge.

Figure 8
Figure 8. Early Classic Lowland Maya earflare plaque in the De Young Museum. Drawing by N. Carter.
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Aural tribute

The El Tejón plaques belong to a genre of objects mainly produced during the Early Classic period. A few depict the faces of royal ancestors. More common are full-body portraits of humans or gods offering tribute: ritual objects, deer or captives. Some such figures are themselves the tribute, as prisoners raising bound wrists in supplication. One earflare plaque in the De Young Museum, made in the central Maya Lowlands between AD 400 and 550, offers a structural parallel to the El Tejón pieces (Fields & Reents-Budet 2005: 184). Worn in the left ear, like El Tejón Plaque B, it shows a kneeling lord holding a Jaguar God of the Underworld effigy (Figure 8).

The El Tejón plaques are unusual among Early Classic inlaid earflares for their reliance on mosaic work and incised lines instead of relief carving or incision alone. Their closest technical analogues may be two shell earflare discs from Chiapa de Corzo, in highland Chiapas, made between 100 BC and AD 250 (Mason 1960). Inlaid with mosaics of jadeite and red and yellow shell, they depict seated figures offering objects resembling the headbands worn by Late Preclassic Zapotec rulers (Figure 9).

Figure 9
Figure 9. Two earflare plaques from Chiapa de Corzo (100 BC–AD 250). Drawings by N. Carter.
Click to enlarge.

Maya iconography associates lordly speech with jewels (Houston et al. 2006: 154). As jewels in lordly ears, figural ornaments like the El Tejón inlaid plaques carried the metaphor further. Their words indicated by "breath beads" or "speech scrolls," captives pled for mercy, venerated ancestors conferred advice or approval, and subordinate lords offering religious paraphernalia recalled the formal speech of ritual. Worn with the figures oriented inward, towards the face, such ornaments were visual tokens of the aural tribute due to royal owners.


We thank Tessa de Alarcón for restoring the plaques, and Caitlin Earley for bringing the Chiapa de Corzo examples to our attention. PAEZ was funded in the US by the National Science Foundation (BCS #0840930), the National Endowment for the Humanities (#RZ-50680-07), the Tinker Foundation, the Brown University Graduate School and Department of Anthropology and the Dupee Family Professorship of Social Sciences (held by Houston).


  • FIELDS, V.M. & D. REENTS-BUDET. 2005. Earflare inlay, in V.M. Fields & D. Reents-Budet (ed.) Lords of creation: the origins of sacred Maya kingship: 184. Los Angeles (CA): Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
  • HOUSTON, S.D. 2010. Belt ornament with the head of an ancestor, in D. Finamore & S.D. Houston (ed.) Fiery pool: the Maya and the mythic sea: 275. Salem (MA): Peabody Essex Museum.
  • HOUSTON, S.D., D. STUART & K. TAUBE. The memory of bones: body, being and experience among the Classic Maya. Austin (TX): University of Texas Press.
  • MASON, J.A. 1960. Mound 12, Chiapa de Corzo, Chiapas, Mexico (Papers of the New World Archaeological Foundation 9). Provo (UT): Brigham Young University.
  • PIEDRASANTA, R. 2012. Excavaciones en el Grupo El Tejón (Operación 17), in J.L. Garrido López, S.D. Houston, E. Román Ramírez & T.G. Garrison (ed.) Proyecto Arqueológico El Zotz informe no. 6, temporada 2011. Report submitted to the Institute of Anthropology and Ethnohistory, Guatemala City.
  • STUART, D. The inscriptions from Temple XIX at Palenque: a commentary. San Francisco (CA): Pre-Columbian Art Research Institute.


*Author for correspondence

  • Nicholas P. Carter*
    Department of Anthropology, Box 1921, Brown University, Providence, RI, USA (email:
  • Rony E. Piedrasanta
    Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala, Guatemala City, Guatemala (email:
  • Stephen D. Houston
    Department of Anthropology, Box 1921, Brown University, Providence, RI, USA
  • Zachary Hruby
    College of the Redwoods, 493 G Street, Apartment B, Arcata, CA, USA