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Quick Facts
  Type   Logosyllabic
  Family   Mesoamerican
  Location   Southern Mesoamerica
  Time   400 BCE to 1697

Contents: Introduction | The Decipherment

If you still think that Maya writing is an unsolved enigma, you're about 10 years out of circulation. Decipherment is still in progress, but so far linguists have worked out a grid of syllabic glyphs in Maya, as well as a significant portion of logograms.

The Maya wrote both logographically and phonetically. Very often logograms have phonetic complements to facilitate the correct identification of the logogram.

The earliest examples of Maya writing dates from the Late Preclassic, appearing perhaps as early as 400 BCE. However, some of the first dated monuments sometimes around 1st century CE. A good example of Preclassic Maya writing is a jade mask found in the Petén.

Because there is already a page devoted entirely to Maya writing, I would not repeat them here. Please visit Nancy McNelly's page on Maya languages and writings, which includes audio samples of Maya pronounciation, a chart of major Maya languages, and a lot of good stuff.

You can also find more information about the beginning of Maya writing in Origins and Developement of Mesoamerican writing.

Instead, what I have here in the academic soap opera behind the decipherment of Maya hieroglyphs.

The Decipherment of Maya Hieroglyphs

The story really started with Bishop Diego de Landa, who avidly committed to destroy every Maya book that he could find. Ironically, though, when he was composing his Relación de las cosas de Yucatán, he included a very sketchy and rather erroneous "summary" of Maya hieroglyphics. Apparently, he assumed that Mayas wrote with an alphabet, and so he asked his native informants on how to write "a", "b", "c", and so forth, in Maya. The Mayas, on the other hand, heard the syllables "ah", "beh", "seh" (as "a", "b" and "c" would be pronounced in Spanish), and so forth, and naturally gave the glyphs with these phonetic values. So, in a sense, Landa recorded a very small section of the Maya syllabary, and the Mayanist equivalent of the Rosetta Stone.

In a sense, for all Landa did to destroy any traces of Maya writing, he also unwittingly preserved for us the key to rediscovery and decipherment. He, therefore, defeated himself. One point for knowledge and zero for ignorance.

The next step came really when the Maya civilization was rediscovered by John Lloyd Stephens and his talented artist companion Frederick Catherwood in the mid 19th century. Not only were their books bestsellers but also the drawings in them were (and still are) extremely accurate.

No doubt Sir Eric Thompson is one of the greatest Mayanist ever lived. Among his greatest contribution to the field was a systematic catalog of all Maya hieroglyphs. He divided the glyphs into three sets, affixes, main signs, and portraits. The affixes are usually the little squished glyphs while the main signs are usually somewhat square in shape. The portraits are usually heads of humans, gods, or animals, and usually can appear as either affixes or main signs. Thompson gave each one a number, the lowest number going to the most frequent glyph to appear on texts, and higher numbers for less frequent signs. Affixes start at 1 and stops at 500. Main signs go from 501 to 999. And Portraits from 1000 up. You can take a lot at this cataloging by going to Maya Epigraphic Database.

However, Thompson was set in his mind that Maya hieroglyphs were "ideographic", which literally means that each glyph expresses an abstract idea in the human mind. These ideograms were, according to him, the main signs, while the affixes were modifiers of the ideogram (like numbers, verbal endings, plurals, etc). As for phoneticism, he thought that rebus was the major way for the Maya to "spell" something. He considered the Landa's "alphabet" completely wrong.

On the other side of the coin was Yuri Valentinovich Knorozov, who advocated phoneticisms, and saw the key in Landa's work. He was not the first to advocate a phonetic approach to Maya glyphs, though. The great linguist Benjamin Whorf had also tried to "read" Maya glyphs earlier without success, because he took Landa's alphabet as if it really was an alphabet. What set Knorozov apart was that he realized Landa's alphabet was really part of the Maya syllabary, and he succeeded in identifying many of the syllabic glyphs.

As for the content of the texts, Thompson strongly argued for esoteric knowledge like astrology and pointless mathematics. This view was derived from his opinion that the Maya were peaceful astronomy priests. However, evidence soon emerged that the texts recorded something other than Maya science.

The German-Mexican Heinrich Berlin identified a set of glyphs with similar affixes but different main signs. Each of these glyphs appear most frequently in one site, so it is quite possible to assume that each glyph identifies a site. He called these "Emblem Glyphs".

But perhaps the greatest advance was made by Tatiana Proskouriakoff, who took a logical approach to monuments and texts on them. She noticed that stelas come in groups. Many of the recorded dates in a group do not seem to apply to any religious or astronomical events. In fact, the dates on these monuments fit with that of a person's life time. Proskouriakoff therefore theorized that at least some of Classic Maya texts recorded the lifetime of a ruler.

Once the historical approach is opened, myriad of glyphs were identified with events in life, such as birth, accession, death, and so on. In the early seventies, it became possible for the first time to work out dynastic lists of rulers in particular sites. From around the same time, Knorozov's phoneticism became more widely accepted, and further advances in deciphering syllabic signs continued. With these major tools of decipherment in hand, Maya texts started to come to light for the past 20 years. New discoveries continue to pile out, and any paper published six months ago might already be obsolete.

Related Scripts:

  • La Mojarra Script
  • Zapotec
  • Mesoamerican Writing Systems


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