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Mayan Glyphs

The Peoples And Civilizations Of The Americas

Author:      Michael Schwartz

Date:        1999



Document: Deciphering The Maya Glyphs


     Of all the peoples of ancient America, the Maya developed the most

complex system of writing to record their history, religion, philosophy, and

politics. Maya hieroglyphs have baffled and fascinated researchers since the

1820s, when the first steps toward deciphering the rich glyphs and symbols of

Maya monuments, ceramics, and the few surviving Maya books were made. This

process continues, and although we are not yet able to read all the surviving

texts, those that have been deciphered have altered our view of Maya society

and its underlying beliefs.


     One of the problems of decipherment was a false start. In the 16th

century, a Spanish bishop of Yucatan, Diego de Landa, burned many books in an

attempt to stamp out Maya religion. Landa's attempt to describe the Maya

writing based on his questioning of Indian informants was badly flawed. Landa

thought the glyphs were letters, not syllables, and so his description

confused scholars for many years. Despite his deficiencies, however, for many

years Landa provided the only guide available. Unlike the decipherment of

Egyptian hieroglyphs, no text with Maya and some other known language side by

side exists, and so the problem of reading the Maya glyphs remains difficult.


     The first modern advances were made in reading Maya numbers and

identifying glyphs for the months in the calendar cycle. By the 1940s,

scholars could read the dates rather well, and because so many inscriptions

and the four remaining books seemed to be numerical and related to the

calendar, most specialists believed that the Maya writing was primarily about

the calendar system and that the Maya were obsessed with time. Many things

complicated the reading of the other glyphs, such as the fact that scholars

were not sure which of the various Maya languages that survive was the

language of the inscriptions. In 1952, a young Russian researcher argued that

the Maya glyphs combined signs that stood for whole words with others that

represented sounds. In this, the Maya script was like ancient Egyptian and

cuneiform writings. Although the theory was not fully accepted at first, it

has proven to be accurate.


     A major breakthrough took place in 1960, when art historian Tatiana

Proskouriakoff noted that on certain sets of monuments the earliest and last

dates were never more than 62 years apart, and that the first date was always

accompanied by one certain glyph and the next always by another. She

recognized that the images on the monuments were not gods or mythical figures,

but kings, and that the first glyph indicated birth and the second accession.

Sixty-two years was consistent with a human life span. With this approach,

scholars have figured out the names of the rulers and their families and

something about the dynastic history of a number of Maya cities.


     Scholars now understand that, despite regional variations, the texts were

written in a language widely understood throughout the Maya region. The glyphs

combine syllables, symbols, emblems, and ideas in what is basically a complex

phonetic system. Now that we are able to read numbers, dates, place or city

emblems, and a few nouns and verbs, a new window has been opened on the

ancient Maya.


     Art historians Linda Schele and Mary Ellen Miller, in their excellent

volume The Blood of Kings: Ritual and Dynasty in Maya Art (1986), provide a

reading and interpretation of a famous Maya sculpture. Here Lord Shield

Jaguar, a ruler of Yaxchilan who was between 40 and 60 years old at the time,

holds a torch to illumine a ceremony of blood-letting self-sacrifice. His

wife, Lady Xoc, draws a rope with thorns through her tongue, after which he

too will sacrifice his blood to sustain the gods. This ceremony took place on

October 28, 709. The short accompanying text in glyphs dates the ceremony,

identifies the people portrayed, and describes their actions.


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