Johnston thinks that object is a scribe's pen, an instrument used to paint and carve stone stone, etching a dramatic story of life and death. The implication, he says, is that all nine captives in the mural were scribes, and their fingers had indeed been broken to ensure they would never again be able to tout the virtues of another king.
That sent Johnston back to the archives, where he looked for similar clues in other murals. In all, he says, he found five painted and sculpted scenes that support his theory, which he spelled out in the current issue of the British anthropology journal, Antiquity.
A Knife or a Pen?
Not everybody agrees, of course. Deciphering ancient history is a little like reading tea leaves. If there's enough evidence, theories eventually become accepted, although subject to re-examination.
Some experts who have looked at the evidence see an obsidian knife, used to cut the fingers, instead of the pen seen by Johnston.
But Johnston is convinced he's on the right track.
It seems strange, though, that the conquering king felt it necessary to break the scribes' fingers if he was going to have them killed anyway.
"Well, that's puzzling," Johnston admits.
But, he adds, it fits neatly with the way things seemed to go down in those days. Captives, including scribes, were forced to go through a number of rituals.
"The first one was public display," Johnston says. The nine captives were depicted at the feet of their conquering king dressed only in loin cloths, another sign of humiliation.
"Next they were tortured," and if the captives were scribes, Johnston believes, their fingers were broken. "And then they were usually, but not always, executed."
They became, he says, "sacrifices to the gods."
But many of their works survived, because they weren't churning out press releases. They were carving their stories in stone, and they have survived all these years to offer tantalizing clues about a time when being the official spokesman could be a really tough assignment.
Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on ABCNEWS.com. A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.