The Maya are known for the beauty and sophistication of their art and for being one of a handful of cultures in world history to have independently developed a system of writing. With very few exceptions, Maya public art depicts official occasions, such as the dedication of a building, the crowning of rulers, or important calendric stations and anniversaries, thus revealing little about the inner workings of other aspects of life in Maya society.
It is our good fortune that there are hundreds of ceramic painted vases and other containers that do allow a glimpse into a wide variety of activities that went on in their ancient world.
Aside from being especially beautiful, the vase that I will now show depicts a scene that interpreters will probably find fascinating.
The scene shows the interaction of six characters inside a palace (notice the slightly pink drapes tied just below the lengthy text that runs along the upper part of the scene, as well as the two characters who hold torches to light the scene). Let’s identify the characters in the scene by using the letters A to F, from left to right. It depicts visitors (characters A and C) bringing tribute (the two bundles on the ground and the item that A holds with his right hand) to a ruler or dignitary (E), who sits on an elevated bench. One of the visitors (C) is speaking to the ruler, possibly describing the tribute or formally delivering it.
The character that I want to draw your attention to, however, is D. If we look closely, we can see that he is also speaking: his mouth is open and there is a thin line connecting it with the text that was written above and slightly to his right. If we take a close look at his headdress, we notice there is a protruding element that ends in a red-painted hook. This is the handle of a reed brush used for both writing and painting. The wearing of this element in his headdress marks him as an artist and a man of learning. The upper end of this element physically overlaps a short text, consisting of two glyphic blocks, thus associating the text with the character. This short text is fully phonetic in nature. It reads chi-ji-la-ma, to render the Classic Maya word CHIJLAM, which means, precisely, “interpreter”.
What is going on in this scene is that the two characters that bring the tribute in (A and C) are most probably foreigners who do not speak the language of the local court and need the services of an interpreter (D), in order to communicate with the ruler that they are bringing the tribute to (E).