Weaving Words and Interwoven Meanings Textual Polyvocality and Visual Literacy in the Reading of Copán’s Stela J

By Kathryn M. Hudson and John S. Henderson

Orthodox analytical approaches to analyses of Maya stelae—monuments that celebrate Maya kings visually and in hieroglyphic texts (see fig. 1)—proceed as though each contains two distinct and only vaguely related elements: the text and the accompanying imagery. These features are most often conceptualized, analyzed, and interpreted separately in a methodological framework that has created a widely shared perspective in which text and context have become thoroughly divorced from each other but reified as distinct constituent elements. Epigraphic and art historical approaches to Maya monuments thus operate independently from one another, and they are rarely well integrated with archaeological analyses. One result of this separation is that studies of Maya monumental texts have become so intertwined with the practice of epigraphy that they are conceptualized in narrowly linguistic terms. This affords linguistic texts a privileged status disproportional to their total contributions to the textual whole and promotes a narrow understanding of how Maya texts should be read. This paper illustrates the problematic nature of this orthodoxy through an analysis of Copán’s Stela J (see fig. 2), showing how Maya stelae were polyvocal, designed to be read in multiple ways.