JOHN HENDERSON: A writing system still only partly deciphered adds a lot to the romantic appeal of the ancient Maya. Meso-America was the only place in the Americas where writing developed, and only the Maya had developed a general purpose writing system that allowed them to write anything they could say. It was their greatest intellectual achievement. Conquest period accounts say that the Maya wrote genealogies, biographies, accounts of political affairs, collections of songs. They had books of science and history and prophecy and astrology and ritual.
Not all ancient Mayas were literate, though. Writing developed fairly late in Mayan history-- in the first few centuries AD. And some Maya didn't adopt writing for centuries after that. Even in those Maya societies that were literate, the ability to read and write was pretty much limited to highly trained scribes. Most of them worked under the patronage of aristocrats, so the texts we have reflects their interests. That's especially true of inscriptions on public monuments, which are mostly written to glorify kings.
The main reason it's taken so long to decipher Maya writing is that the Spaniards stamped it out. There are no bilingual texts in Maya hieroglyphs and Spanish. The spaniards burned every book they could get their hands on. Diego de Landa, the 16th century bishop of Yucatan, tells it this way. "We found a large number of books in these characters, and as they contained nothing in which there were not to be seen superstition and lies of the devil, we burned them all, which they regretted to an amazing degree and which caused them much affliction."
There are only four books left. They're written on bark paper. They were written shortly before the European invasion. And all of the ones we have are mainly about divination and astrology. Like the other books, knowledge of writing itself went underground after the conquest and was eventually lost. The Maya did continue to write, but with the Spanish alphabet. The most important colonial manuscript we have, the Popol Vuh, which is the mythology and history of the K'iche in highland Guatemala was probably based in part on a now-lost hieroglyphic book.
The closest thing we have to a Maya Rosetta stone is Landa's description of Maya writing and the calendar. He didn't actually understand it, but he does give us a lot of clues that are useful for decipherment. The way calendar dates were written was worked out about 100 years ago. But progress with the rest of Maya writing was slower. Maya archeologist continued to fixate on numbers in the calendar until the middle of the 20th century. So many Maya texts have dates in them that this turned out to be a productive approach, and that's what gave us a chronological framework for the Maya. Until about 1960, most archeologists thought that the dates in the inscriptions, like the dates in the books, were about astrology and religion. We now know that in fact they're about dynastic history.
Early successes in decipherment came from analyzing patterns, especially the connections between glyphs and images, not from looking at texts in terms of Mayan languages. Part of the reason for that was uncertainty about which Mayan languages the texts recorded. There are 30 different Mayan languages spoken today, and none of them is identical to the language of any of the texts. But the main reason language was ignored is that so many early attempts to read texts in Mayan went so wildly wrong. Most archeologists just gave up on that whole approach. Two breakthroughs in the middle of the 20th century revolutionized the decipherment of Maya writing. First, proof that the system was partly phonetic. And second, discovery that the inscriptions record history.
In the 1950s, Yuri Knorozov went back to Landa's his account, figured out how he went wrong, and found clues that some of the glyph stood for syllables. That is, for sounds, not for units of meaning. They're not all syllabic. Most of them stand for concepts or words, and some of them can be a word in one context and a sound in another, so it didn't produce an automatic rush of decipherment. It's the phonetic signs that let Maya scribes write anything they could say, and that's what makes Maya writing such a special achievement.
At about the same time, Tatiana Proskouriakoff and Heinrich Berlin figured out that the inscriptions were mainly about history. Berlin identified what are called emblem glyphs, which refer to specific ancient Mayan cities. Actually, the royal titles, not proper names, but for all practical purposes, Berlin was right. Proskouriakoff recognized references to historical individuals on the monuments-- their names, their titles, relationships between them, the dates of their births, of their installations in office, of their deaths. She also showed that some of those individuals were women, and that radically changed conventional thinking about the role of women in ancient Maya societies. In the last 25 years, archeologists, building on their work, have put together a whole new picture of ancient Maya society, politics, and history.
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Maya civilization is mysterious and fascinating, and probably the least familiar of the great civilizations of the ancient world. This part of CyberTower introduces the ancient Maya, puts them in the context of the larger cultural tradition of ancient Mesoamerica, and provides a point of entry to the sometimes daunting array of more detailed information on their cities, art, and writing.
This video is part 5 of 6 in the Maya Civilization series.