Reading The Primary Standard Sequence

What Is the Primary Standard Sequence?

The Primary Standard Sequence, sometimes abbreviated as PSS, is a dedicatory phrase of hieroglyphs that is usually found lining the rims of Classic-period ceramics. Although in most cases, the PSS is entirely separate from the images featured on codex-style vessels, it is a great place to start when learning to read Maya ceramics and can offer a great deal of information about their history. 

Found on plates, drinking vessels, food dishes, and more, The Primary Standard Sequence usually identifies the owner of the item, and sometimes additionally names the scribe who painted it. This practice, sometimes referred to as “name-tagging” or simply “tagging” was common throughout the Classic period, and many personal items, such as earspools and bloodletters, can be found bearing the names of their owners. (For more examples of personal objects, check out Classic Maya carved bones, shell and jade).

Although the exact origin of the Primary Standard Sequence is not entirely clear, some date its predecessors all the way back to the Preclassic period. By the end of the Early-Classic, it had become a staple of polychrome vessels.

How To Start Reading The PSS

The Primary standard sequence is not as straightforward as the calendrical initial series often found on monumental inscriptions. Indeed, the moniker “standard” can be a bit misleading due to the wide amount of variation typically seen in the series. The PSS can be lengthened or shortened to fit the space allocated by the vessel, and can include additional information such as noble titles and parentage statements in the most extended examples. This guide will examine a few key signs to look for in order to start to map the text.

One shortcut for reading the PSS is to look for the glyphic phrase that represents the item that is being possessed. On tall, round drinking vessels, for example, look for the phrase “yu-k’ib”, roughly translated as  “it is his cup”. Although this does not always indicate the literal beginning of the passage, it is a good glyph to look for to orient yourself to the rest of the phrase. The glyphic expression for “yu-k’ib”. This features the syllable “k’i”, which resembles a wing or a pair of wings, and the syllable “bi”,  which includes five dots reminiscent of a 5-sided die. 

This phrase may be replaced by the phrase lak, meaning plate, or jawante, when referring to a tripod bowl. 

Following the statement of the type of vessel is a glyph to explain what the vessel was meant to contain. On the “k’ib” vessels, this is usually the sign for chocolate. The chocolate sign utilizes the syllable “ka” which is portrayed as a fish or a fish’s fin. This “ka” is sometimes duplicated using two dots, and then is ultimately followed by the “wa” syllable. Together,  “ka-ka-wa” spells out kakaw, the word for chocolate. 

Looking for Names & Titles

As mentioned, “name-tagging” is the practice of identifying the object as belonging to its specific owner. Many painted vases include the titles and names of their owners, and some additionally feature the names of the scribes who painted them. For this reason, the full reading of the Primary Standard Sequence can be enhanced by an understanding of Classic Maya Titles, emblem glyphs, and common nominal phrases. 

The owner of the vessel is found somewhere after the yu-k’ib phrase. Again, the sequence can be lengthened or shortened, so the name may or may not directly follow the kakaw glyph described above. The name of the painter, if present, is usually preceded by the phrase u-ts’ib. U-ts’ib can be understood as “it is his writing” and may include the verbal ending –naj, which would make the phrase “he writes it”. In the first example below, Ts’ib is spelled out phonetically, where in the second, it is represented by the head of a bat.

Back To the Start

One other glyph to look for in the PSS is sometimes referred to as the initial sign. Although this often acts as the true beginning of the sequence, it is a highly variable expression, and is sometimes omitted altogether, so it’s not always the best touchstone. The glyph represents a verbal dedication phrase. 

Some elements included in this glyph are the head of God N (one of the paddler gods), or a foot print ascending the profile of a staircase. One proposed reading of this glyph or glyph series is alay, depicted in the examples below phonetically as “a-ALAY-ya”. 

Digging Deeper

Learning the basics of The Primary Standard Sequence is a great window into understanding ceramic inscriptions. To practice some of these readings, visit Mayavase.com and take a look at some of the examples depicted above, or explore additional vessels to put these basics to the test. Additionally, the sources listed below can offer a more in-depth look at the Primary Standard Sequence– unpacking it’s socio-historical role in addition to examining its glyphic elements. 

If you are interested in learning to read Maya Hieroglyphs, check out this beginner’s workshop on reading glyphs by the founder of Mesoamerican Studies Online. 

Sources: 

Coe, Michael D. 2001. Reading The Maya Glyphs. New York, NY: Thames & Hudson Inc. 

Maya Meetings at Texas. 2005. Glyphs on Pots: Decoding Maya Ceramics. Maya Decipherment Website. Accessed on July 5, 2021: https://decipherment.files.wordpress.com/2013/09/stuartceramictexts.pdf 

Mora Marin, David F. 2004. The Primary Standard Sequence: Database Compilation, Grammatical Analysis, and Primary Documentation. FAMSI Website. Accessed July 5, 2021: http://www.famsi.org/reports/02047/FinalReport02047.pdf 

All Images from the Maya Vase Database at Mayavase.com. Top banner from K1523.

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