Maya script
Not to be confused with Maya Embedded Language
Maya Embedded Language
The Maya Embedded Language is a scripting language used to simplify tasks in Autodesk's 3D Graphics Software Maya. Most tasks that can be achieved through Maya's GUI can be achieved with MEL, as well as certain tasks that are not available from the GUI...

, a scripting language for the Autodesk Maya software.

The Maya script, also known as Maya glyphs or Maya hieroglyphs, is the writing system of the pre-Columbian
The pre-Columbian era incorporates all period subdivisions in the history and prehistory of the Americas before the appearance of significant European influences on the American continents, spanning the time of the original settlement in the Upper Paleolithic period to European colonization during...

 Maya civilization
Maya civilization
The Maya is a Mesoamerican civilization, noted for the only known fully developed written language of the pre-Columbian Americas, as well as for its art, architecture, and mathematical and astronomical systems. Initially established during the Pre-Classic period The Maya is a Mesoamerican...

 of Mesoamerica
Mesoamerica is a region and culture area in the Americas, extending approximately from central Mexico to Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica, within which a number of pre-Columbian societies flourished before the Spanish colonization of the Americas in the 15th and...

, presently the only Mesoamerican writing system
Mesoamerican writing systems
Mesoamerica, like India, Mesopotamia, China, and Egypt, is one of the few places in the world where writing has developed independently. Mesoamerican scripts deciphered to date are logosyllabic, combining the use of logograms with a syllabary, and they are often called hieroglyphic scripts...

 that has been substantially deciphered. The earliest inscriptions found which are identifiably Maya date to the 3rd century BCE in San Bartolo
San Bartolo (Maya site)
San Bartolo is a small pre-Columbian Maya archaeological site located in the Department of Petén in northern Guatemala, northeast of Tikal and roughly fifty miles from the nearest settlement...

, Guatemala
Guatemala is a country in Central America bordered by Mexico to the north and west, the Pacific Ocean to the southwest, Belize to the northeast, the Caribbean to the east, and Honduras and El Salvador to the southeast...

, and writing was in continuous use until shortly after the arrival of the Spanish
Spanish Empire
The Spanish Empire comprised territories and colonies administered directly by Spain in Europe, in America, Africa, Asia and Oceania. It originated during the Age of Exploration and was therefore one of the first global empires. At the time of Habsburgs, Spain reached the peak of its world power....

Conquistadors were Spanish soldiers, explorers, and adventurers who brought much of the Americas under the control of Spain in the 15th to 16th centuries, following Europe's discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus in 1492...

s in the 16th century CE (and even later in isolated areas such as Tayasal
Tayasal is a pre-Columbian Maya archaeological site that dates to the Postclassic period. The site is located in the southern Maya lowlands on a small island in Lake Petén Itzá, now part of the Department of Petén in northern Guatemala...

). Although most Mayan languages utilize the Latin alphabet, Maya writing is still used and taught in some Maya speaking areas of Mexico where it has received official support and promotion by the Mexican government and is taught in universities and public schools in Mayan speaking areas. Maya writing used logogram
A logogram, or logograph, is a grapheme which represents a word or a morpheme . This stands in contrast to phonograms, which represent phonemes or combinations of phonemes, and determinatives, which mark semantic categories.Logograms are often commonly known also as "ideograms"...

s complemented by a set of syllabic
A syllabary is a set of written symbols that represent syllables, which make up words. In a syllabary, there is no systematic similarity between the symbols which represent syllables with the same consonant or vowel...

A glyph is an element of writing: an individual mark on a written medium that contributes to the meaning of what is written. A glyph is made up of one or more graphemes....

s, somewhat similar in function to modern Japanese writing. Maya writing was called "hieroglyphics" or hieroglyphs
Hieroglyph or hieroglyphics may refer to:*Anatolian hieroglyphs*Chinese character*Cretan hieroglyphs*Cursive hieroglyphs*Dongba script*Egyptian hieroglyphs*Hieroglyphic Luwian*Mayan hieroglyphs...

 by early European explorers of the 18th and 19th centuries who did not understand it but found its general appearance reminiscent of Egyptian hieroglyphs, to which the Maya writing system is not at all related.

The languages

It is now thought that the codices and other Classic texts were written by scribes, usually members of the Maya priesthood
Maya priesthood
Until the discovery that Maya stelae depicted kings instead of high priests, the Maya priesthood and their preoccupations had been a main scholarly concern. In the course of the 1960s and over the following decades, however, dynastic research marginalized interest in the subject...

, in a literary form of the Ch'olti' language
Ch'olti' language
The Ch'olti' language is an extinct Mayan language which was spoken in the Manche region of eastern Guatemala. It is only known from a single manuscript written between 1685 and 1695 which was first studied by Daniel Garrison Brinton. Ch'olti' belongs to the Cho'lan branch of the Mayan languages...

. It is possible that the Maya elite spoke this language as a lingua franca
Lingua franca
A lingua franca is a language systematically used to make communication possible between people not sharing a mother tongue, in particular when it is a third language, distinct from both mother tongues.-Characteristics:"Lingua franca" is a functionally defined term, independent of the linguistic...

over the entire Maya-speaking area, but also that texts were written in other Mayan languages
Mayan languages
The Mayan languages form a language family spoken in Mesoamerica and northern Central America. Mayan languages are spoken by at least 6 million indigenous Maya, primarily in Guatemala, Mexico, Belize and Honduras...

 of the Peten
Petén Basin
The Petén Basin is a geographical subregion of Mesoamerica, located in the northern portion of the modern-day nation of Guatemala, and essentially contained within the department of El Petén...

 and Yucatán
Yucatán Peninsula
The Yucatán Peninsula, in southeastern Mexico, separates the Caribbean Sea from the Gulf of Mexico, with the northern coastline on the Yucatán Channel...

, especially Yucatec. There is also some evidence that the script may have been occasionally used to write Mayan languages of the Guatemalan Highlands
Guatemalan Highlands
The Guatemalan Highlands is an upland region in southern Guatemala, lying between the Sierra Madre de Chiapas to the south and the Petén lowlands to the north....

. However, if other languages were written, they may have been written by Ch'olti scribe
A scribe is a person who writes books or documents by hand as a profession and helps the city keep track of its records. The profession, previously found in all literate cultures in some form, lost most of its importance and status with the advent of printing...

s, and therefore have Ch'olti elements.


Maya writing consisted of relatively elaborate set of glyphs, which were laboriously painted on ceramics, walls or bark-paper codices
A codex is a book in the format used for modern books, with multiple quires or gatherings typically bound together and given a cover.Developed by the Romans from wooden writing tablets, its gradual replacement...

, carved in wood or stone, or molded in stucco
Stucco or render is a material made of an aggregate, a binder, and water. Stucco is applied wet and hardens to a very dense solid. It is used as decorative coating for walls and ceilings and as a sculptural and artistic material in architecture...

. Carved and molded glyphs were painted, but the paint has rarely survived. About 90% of Maya writing can now be read with varying degrees of certainty, enough to give a comprehensive idea of its structure.

The Maya script was a logosyllabic
A logogram, or logograph, is a grapheme which represents a word or a morpheme . This stands in contrast to phonograms, which represent phonemes or combinations of phonemes, and determinatives, which mark semantic categories.Logograms are often commonly known also as "ideograms"...

 system. Individual symbols ("glyphs") could represent either a word (actually a morpheme
In linguistics, a morpheme is the smallest semantically meaningful unit in a language. The field of study dedicated to morphemes is called morphology. A morpheme is not identical to a word, and the principal difference between the two is that a morpheme may or may not stand alone, whereas a word,...

) or a syllable
A syllable is a unit of organization for a sequence of speech sounds. For example, the word water is composed of two syllables: wa and ter. A syllable is typically made up of a syllable nucleus with optional initial and final margins .Syllables are often considered the phonological "building...

; indeed, the same glyph could often be used for both. For example, the calendaric glyph MANIK’ was also used to represent the syllable chi. (It's customary to write logographic readings in all capitals and phonetic readings in italics.) It is possible, but not certain, that these conflicting readings arose as the script was adapted to new languages, as also happened with Japanese kanji
Kanji are the adopted logographic Chinese characters hanzi that are used in the modern Japanese writing system along with hiragana , katakana , Indo Arabic numerals, and the occasional use of the Latin alphabet...

 and with Assyro-Babylonian and Hittite cuneiform
Cuneiform can refer to:*Cuneiform script, an ancient writing system originating in Mesopotamia in the 4th millennium BC*Cuneiform , three bones in the human foot*Cuneiform Records, a music record label...

. There was ambiguity in the other direction as well: Different glyphs could be read the same way. For example, half a dozen apparently unrelated glyphs were used to write the very common third person
Grammatical person
Grammatical person, in linguistics, is deictic reference to a participant in an event; such as the speaker, the addressee, or others. Grammatical person typically defines a language's set of personal pronouns...

 pronoun u-.

Maya was usually written in blocks arranged in columns two blocks wide, read as follows:

Within each block, glyphs were arranged top-to-bottom and left-to-right, superficially rather like Korean Hangul
Hangul,Pronounced or ; Korean: 한글 Hangeul/Han'gŭl or 조선글 Chosŏn'gŭl/Joseongeul the Korean alphabet, is the native alphabet of the Korean language. It is a separate script from Hanja, the logographic Chinese characters which are also sometimes used to write Korean...

 syllabic blocks. However, in the case of Maya, each block tended to correspond to a noun or verb phrase
In everyday speech, a phrase may refer to any group of words. In linguistics, a phrase is a group of words which form a constituent and so function as a single unit in the syntax of a sentence. A phrase is lower on the grammatical hierarchy than a clause....

 such as his green headband. Also, glyphs were sometimes conflated, where an element of one glyph would replace part of a second. Conflation occurs in other scripts: For example, in medieval Spanish manuscripts the word de 'of' was sometimes written Ð (a D with the arm of an E). Another example is the ampersand
An ampersand is a logogram representing the conjunction word "and". The symbol is a ligature of the letters in et, Latin for "and".-Etymology:...

 (&) which is a conflation of the Latin "et". In place of the standard block configuration Maya was also sometimes written in a single row or column, 'L', or 'T' shapes. These variations most often appeared when they would better fit the surface being inscribed.

Maya glyphs were fundamentally logographic. Generally the glyphs used as phonetic elements were originally logograms that stood for words that were themselves single syllables, syllables that either ended in a vowel or in a weak consonant such as y, w, h, or glottal stop
Glottal stop
The glottal stop, or more fully, the voiceless glottal plosive, is a type of consonantal sound used in many spoken languages. In English, the feature is represented, for example, by the hyphen in uh-oh! and by the apostrophe or [[ʻokina]] in Hawaii among those using a preservative pronunciation of...

. For example, the logogram for 'fish fin' (Maya [kah] — found in two forms, as a fish fin and as a fish with prominent fins), came to represent the syllable ka. These syllabic glyphs performed two primary functions: They were used as phonetic complements to disambiguate logograms which had more than one reading, as also occurred in Egyptian, and they were used to write grammatical elements such as verbal inflections which did not have dedicated logograms, as in modern Japanese. For example, bahlam 'jaguar' could be written as a single logogram, BALAM, complemented phonetically as ba-BALAM, or BALAM-ma, or ba-BALAM-ma, or written completely phonetically as ba-la-ma.

Harmonic and disharmonic echo vowels

Phonetic glyphs stood for simple consonant-vowel or bare-vowel syllables. However, Maya phonotactics
Phonotactics is a branch of phonology that deals with restrictions in a language on the permissible combinations of phonemes...

 is slightly more complicated than this: Most Maya words end in a consonant, not a vowel, and there may be sequences of two consonants within a word as well, as in xolte’ [ʃolteʔ] 'scepter', which is CVCCVC. When these final consonants were sonorant
In phonetics and phonology, a sonorant is a speech sound that is produced without turbulent airflow in the vocal tract; fricatives and plosives are not sonorants. Vowels are sonorants, as are consonants like and . Other consonants, like or , restrict the airflow enough to cause turbulence, and...

s (l, m, n) or gutturals (j, h, ’) they were sometimes ignored ("underspelled"), but more often final consonants were written, which meant that an extra vowel was written as well. This was typically an "echo" vowel
Echo vowel
In speech, an echo vowel is a vowel that repeats the final vowel in a word. For example, in Chumash, when a word ends with a glottal stop and comes at the end of an intonation unit, the final vowel is repeated after the glottal stop, but is whispered and faint, as in for "arrow" . In Rukai , echo...

 that repeated the vowel of the previous syllable. That is, the word [kah] 'fish fin' would be underspelled ka or written in full as ka-ha. However, there are many cases where some other vowel was used, and the orthographic rules for this are only partially understood; this is largely due to the difficulty in ascertaining whether this vowel may be due to an underspelled suffix. Lacadena and Wichmann (2004) proposed the following conventions:
  • A CVC syllable was written CV-CV, where the two vowels (V) were the same: yo-po [yop] 'leaf'
  • A syllable with a long vowel (CVVC) was written CV-Ci, unless the long vowel was [i], in which case it was written CiCa: ba-ki [baak] 'captive', yi-tzi-na [yihtziin] 'younger brother'
  • A syllable with a glottalized
    Glottalization is the complete or partial closure of the glottis during the articulation of another sound. Glottalization of vowels and other sonorants is most often realized as creaky voice...

     vowel (CV’C or CV’VC) was written with a final a if the vowel was [e, o, u], or with a final u if the vowel was [a] or [i]: hu-na [hu’n] 'paper', ba-tz’u [ba’tz’] 'howler monkey'.
  • Preconsonantal [h] is not indicated.

That is, a simple vowel is intended if the vowels are the same (harmonic), and either two syllables are intended (likely underspelled) if the vowels are not the same (disharmonic), or else a single syllable with a long vowel (if V1 = [a e? o u] and V2 = [i], or else if V1 = [i] and V2 = [a]) or with a glottalized vowel (if V1 = [e? o u] and V2 = [a], or else if V1 = [a i] and V2 = [u]). The long-vowel reading of [Ce-Ci] is still uncertain, and there is a possibility that [Ce-Cu] represents a glottalized vowel (if it's not simply an underspelling for [CeCuC]), so it may be that the disharmonies form natural classes: [i] for long non-front vowels, otherwise [a] to keep it disharmonic; [u] for glottalized non-back vowels, otherwise [a].

A more complex spelling is ha-o-bo ko-ko-no-ma for [ha’o’b kohkno’m] 'they are the guardians'. (Vowel length and glottalization are not always indicated in common words like 'they are'.) A minimal set is,
ba-ka [bak]
ba-ki [baak]
ba-ku [ba’k] = [ba’ak]
ba-ke [baakel] (underspelled)
ba-ke-le [baakel]

Verbal inflections

Despite the fact that it depended on consonants which were frequently not written, the Mayan voice system was reliably indicated. For instance, the paradigm for a transitive verb with a CVC root is as follows:
Active voice
Active voice is a grammatical voice common in many of the world's languages. It is the unmarked voice for clauses featuring a transitive verb in nominative–accusative languages, including English and most other Indo-European languages....

u--wa utzutzu’w "s/he finished it"
Passive voice
Passive voice is a grammatical voice common in many of the world's languages. Passive is used in a clause whose subject expresses the theme or patient of the main verb. That is, the subject undergoes an action or has its state changed. A sentence whose theme is marked as grammatical subject is...

-tza-ja tzu⟨h⟩tzaj "it was finished"
Mediopassive -yi tzutzuuy "it got finished"
Antipassive -wi tzutzuuw "s/he finished"
Participial -li tzutzuul "finished"

The active suffix did not participate in the harmonic/disharmonic system seen in roots, but rather was always -wa.

However, the language changed over 1500 years, and there were dialectical differences as well, which are reflected in the script, as seen next for the verb "s/he sat" (⟨h⟩ is an infix
An infix is an affix inserted inside a word stem . It contrasts with adfix, a rare term for an affix attached to the end of a stem, such as a prefix or suffix.-Indonesian:...

 in the root chum for the passive voice
Passive voice
Passive voice is a grammatical voice common in many of the world's languages. Passive is used in a clause whose subject expresses the theme or patient of the main verb. That is, the subject undergoes an action or has its state changed. A sentence whose theme is marked as grammatical subject is...

Late Preclassic ? chu⟨h⟩m?
Early Classic -ja chu⟨h⟩m-aj
Classic (Eastern Ch'olan) -mu-la-ja chum-l-aj
Late Classic (Western Ch'olan) -mu-wa-ni chum-waan

Emblem glyphs

An "emblem glyph" is a kind of royal title. It consists of a word ajaw
Ajaw is a political rulership title attested from the epigraphic inscriptions of the pre-Columbian Maya civilization, with a meaning variously interpreted as "lord", "ruler", "king" or "leader". It denoted any of the leading class of nobles in a particular polity and was not limited to a single...

– a Classic Maya term for “lord” of yet unclear etymology but well-attested in Colonial sources – and a place name that precedes the word ajaw and functions as an adjective. An expression “Boston lord” would be a perfect English analogy. Sometimes, the title is introduced by an adjective k’uhul (“holy, divine” or “sacred”), just as if someone wanted to say “holy Boston lord”. Of course, an "emblem glyph" is not a "glyph" at all: it can be spelled with any number of syllabic or logographic signs and several alternative spellings are attested for the words k’uhul and ajaw, which form the stable core of the title. The term "emblem glyph" simply reflects the times when mayanists could not read Classic Maya inscriptions and had to come up with some nicknames isolating certain recurrent structural components of the written narratives.

This title was identified in 1958 by Heinrich Berlin, who coined the term "emblem glyph". Berlin noticed that the "emblem glyphs" consisted of a larger "main sign" and two smaller signs now read as k’uhul ajaw. Berlin also noticed that while the smaller elements remained relatively constant, the main sign changed from site to site. Berlin proposed that the main signs identified individual cities, their ruling dynasties, or the territories they controlled. Subsequently, Marcus argued that the "emblem glyphs" referred to archaeological sites, broken down in a 5-tiered hierarchy of asymmetrical distribution. Marcus' research assumed that the emblem glyphs were distributed in a pattern of relative site importance depending on broadness of distribution, roughly broken down as follows: Primary regional centers (capitals) (Tikal, Calakmul, and other "superpowers") were generally first in the region to acquire a unique emblem glyph(s). Texts referring to other primary regional centers occur in the texts of these "capitals", and dependencies exist which utilize the primary center's glyph. Secondary centers (Altun Ha, Luubantuun, Xunantunich, and other mid-sized cities had their own glyphs but are only rarely mentioned in texts found in the primary regional center, while repeatedly mentioning the regional center in their own texts. Tertiary centers (towns) had no glyphs of their own, but have texts mentioning the primary regional centers and perhaps secondary regional centers on occasion. These were followed by the villages with no emblem glyphs and no texts mentioning the larger centers, and hamlets with little evidence of texts at all. This model was largely unchallenged for over a decade until Mathews and Justeson, as well as Houston argued once again that the ‘emblem glyphs’ were the titles of Maya rulers with some geographical association.

The debate on the nature of "emblem glyphs" received a new spin with the monograph by Stuart and Houston. The authors convincingly demonstrated that there were lots of place names-proper, some real, some mythological, mentioned in the hieroglyphic inscriptions. Some of these place names also appeared in the "emblem glyphs", some were attested in the "titles of origin" (various expressions like “a person from Boston”), but some were not incorporated in personal titles at all. Moreover, the authors also highlighted the cases when the "titles of origin" and the "emblem glyphs" did not overlap, building upon an earlier research by Houston. Houston noticed that the establishment and spread of the Tikal-originated dynasty in the Petexbatun region was accompanied by the proliferation of rulers using the Tikal "emblem glyph" placing political and dynastic ascendancy above the current seats of rulership.

Numerical system

The Mayas used a positional base-twenty numerical system which only included whole numbers. For simple counting operations, a bar and dot notation was used. The dot represents 1 and the bar represents 5. A shell was used to represent zero. Numbers from 6 to 19 are formed combining bars and dots. Numbers can be written horizontally or vertically.
The value of a number depends on its position going from the bottom line upward in the configuration. The initial position (viz bottom line) has the value represented in the symbol. On the following line, the value of the symbol is multiplied by 20; on the third line from the bottom it's multiplied by 400, and each successive line is growing by powers of 20. This positional system allows to calculate large figures, necessary for chronology and astronomy.


It was until recently thought that the Maya may have adopted writing from the Olmec
The Olmec were the first major Pre-Columbian civilization in Mexico. They lived in the tropical lowlands of south-central Mexico, in the modern-day states of Veracruz and Tabasco....

 or Epi-Olmec. However, recent discoveries have pushed back the origin of Maya writing by several centuries, and it now seems possible that the Maya were the ones who invented writing in Mesoamerica.

Knowledge of the Maya writing system continued into the early colonial era and reportedly a few of the early Spanish
Spain , officially the Kingdom of Spain languages]] under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. In each of these, Spain's official name is as follows:;;;;;;), is a country and member state of the European Union located in southwestern Europe on the Iberian Peninsula...

 priests who went to Yucatán
Yucatán officially Estado Libre y Soberano de Yucatán is one of the 31 states which, with the Federal District, comprise the 32 Federal Entities of Mexico. It is divided in 106 municipalities and its capital city is Mérida....

 learned it. However, as part of his campaign to eradicate pagan rites, Bishop Diego de Landa
Diego de Landa
Diego de Landa Calderón was a Spanish Bishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Yucatán. He left future generations with a mixed legacy in his writings, which contain much valuable information on pre-Columbian Maya civilization, and his actions which destroyed much of that civilization's...

 ordered the collection and destruction of written Maya works, and a sizable number of Maya codices
Maya codices
Maya codices are folding books stemming from the pre-Columbian Maya civilization, written in Maya hieroglyphic script on Mesoamerican bark cloth, made from the inner bark of certain trees, the main being the wild fig tree or Amate . Paper, generally known by the Nahuatl word amatl, was named by...

 were destroyed. Later, seeking to use their native language to convert the Maya to Christianity, he derived what he believed to be a Maya "alphabet" (the so-called de Landa alphabet
De Landa alphabet
The de Landa alphabet is the correspondence of Spanish letters and glyphs written in the pre-Columbian Maya script, which the 16th century Bishop of Yucatán, Fray Diego de Landa recorded as part of his documentation of the Maya civilization during his tenure there...

). Although the Maya did not actually write alphabetically, nevertheless he recorded a glossary of Maya sounds and related symbols, which was long dismissed as nonsense but eventually became a key resource in deciphering
Decipherment is the analysis of documents written in ancient languages, where the language is unknown, or knowledge of the language has been lost....

 the Maya script, though it has itself not been completely deciphered. The difficulty was that there was no simple correspondence between the two systems, and the names of the letters of the Spanish alphabet meant nothing to Landa's Maya scribe, so Landa ended up asking the equivalent of write H: a-i-tee-cee-aitch "aitch", and glossed a part of the result as "H".

Landa was also involved in creating a Latin orthography
The orthography of a language specifies a standardized way of using a specific writing system to write the language. Where more than one writing system is used for a language, for example Kurdish, Uyghur, Serbian or Inuktitut, there can be more than one orthography...

 for the Yukatek Maya language
Yukatek Maya language
Yucatec Maya , called Màaya t'àan by its speakers, is a Mayan language spoken in the Yucatán Peninsula and northern Belize...

, meaning that he created a system for writing Yukatek in the Latin alphabet
Latin alphabet
The Latin alphabet, also called the Roman alphabet, is the most recognized alphabet used in the world today. It evolved from a western variety of the Greek alphabet called the Cumaean alphabet, which was adopted and modified by the Etruscans who ruled early Rome...

. This was the first Latin orthography for any of the Mayan languages, which number around thirty.

Only four Maya codices
Maya codices
Maya codices are folding books stemming from the pre-Columbian Maya civilization, written in Maya hieroglyphic script on Mesoamerican bark cloth, made from the inner bark of certain trees, the main being the wild fig tree or Amate . Paper, generally known by the Nahuatl word amatl, was named by...

 are known to have survived the conquistadors. Most surviving texts are found on pottery recovered from Maya tombs, or from monument
A monument is a type of structure either explicitly created to commemorate a person or important event or which has become important to a social group as a part of their remembrance of historic times or cultural heritage, or simply as an example of historic architecture...

s and stelae
A stele , also stela , is a stone or wooden slab, generally taller than it is wide, erected for funerals or commemorative purposes, most usually decorated with the names and titles of the deceased or living — inscribed, carved in relief , or painted onto the slab...

 erected in sites which were abandoned or buried before the arrival of the Spanish.

Knowledge of the writing system was lost, probably by the end of the 16th century. Renewed interest in it was sparked by published accounts of ruined Maya sites in the 19th century.


The decipherment of the writing was a long and laborious process. 19th century and early 20th century investigators managed to decode the Maya numbers
Maya numerals
Maya Numerals were a vigesimal numeral system used by the Pre-Columbian Maya civilization.The numerals are made up of three symbols; zero , one and five...

 and portions of the texts related to astronomy
Astronomy is a natural science that deals with the study of celestial objects and phenomena that originate outside the atmosphere of Earth...

 and the Maya calendar
Maya calendar
The Maya calendar is a system of calendars and almanacs used in the Maya civilization of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, and in many modern Maya communities in highland Guatemala. and in Chiapas....

, but understanding of most of the rest long eluded scholars. In the 1930s, Benjamin Whorf
Benjamin Whorf
In studying the cause of a fire which had started under the conditions just described, Whorf concluded that it was thinking of the "empty" gasoline drums as "empty" in the meaning described in the first definition above, that is as "inert," which led to a fire he investigated...

 wrote a number of published and unpublished essays, proposing to identify phonetic elements within the writing system. Although some specifics of his decipherment claims were later shown to be incorrect, the central argument of his work, that Maya hieroglyphs were phonetic (or more specifically, syllabic), was later supported by the work of Yuri Knorozov, who played a major role in deciphering Maya writing. In 1952, Knorozov published the paper "Ancient Writing of Central America" arguing that the so-called "de Landa alphabet" contained in Bishop Diego de Landa's manuscript Relación de las Cosas de Yucatán was actually made of syllabic
A syllabary is a set of written symbols that represent syllables, which make up words. In a syllabary, there is no systematic similarity between the symbols which represent syllables with the same consonant or vowel...

, rather than alphabet
An alphabet is a standard set of letters—basic written symbols or graphemes—each of which represents a phoneme in a spoken language, either as it exists now or as it was in the past. There are other systems, such as logographies, in which each character represents a word, morpheme, or semantic...

ic symbols. He further improved his decipherment technique in his 1963 monograph
A monograph is a work of writing upon a single subject, usually by a single author.It is often a scholarly essay or learned treatise, and may be released in the manner of a book or journal article. It is by definition a single document that forms a complete text in itself...

 "The Writing of the Maya Indians" and published translations of Maya manuscripts in his 1975 work "Maya Hieroglyphic Manuscripts". In the 1960s, progress revealed the dynastic records of Maya rulers. Since the early 1980s it has been demonstrated that most of the previously unknown symbols form a syllabary
A syllabary is a set of written symbols that represent syllables, which make up words. In a syllabary, there is no systematic similarity between the symbols which represent syllables with the same consonant or vowel...

, and progress in reading the Maya writing has advanced rapidly since.

The Maya may have inherited some elements, and perhaps the entire basis, of their ancient writing system from the Olmec
The Olmec were the first major Pre-Columbian civilization in Mexico. They lived in the tropical lowlands of south-central Mexico, in the modern-day states of Veracruz and Tabasco....

s, which was significantly modified and expanded by the Maya of the Pre-Classic era. Pre-Classic texts are less numerous and less well understood by archaeologists than the later Classic and Post-Classic texts. (However, the Isthmian (or Epi-Olmec)
Isthmian script
The Isthmian script is a very early Mesoamerican writing system in use in the area of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec from perhaps 500 BCE to 500 CE, although there is disagreement on these dates...

 script once thought of as a possible direct ancestor of the Maya script is now known to be several centuries too recent, and may instead be a descendant.) Other related and nearby Mesoamerican cultures of the period were also heirs to the Olmec writing system, and developed parallel systems which shared key attributes (such as the base-twenty numerical system
Numeral system
A numeral system is a writing system for expressing numbers, that is a mathematical notation for representing numbers of a given set, using graphemes or symbols in a consistent manner....

 written with a system of bars and dots). However, it is generally believed that the Maya developed the only complete writing system in Mesoamerica
Mesoamerica is a region and culture area in the Americas, extending approximately from central Mexico to Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica, within which a number of pre-Columbian societies flourished before the Spanish colonization of the Americas in the 15th and...

, meaning that they were the only civilization that could write everything they could say.

Other breakthroughs

As Knorozov's early essays contained several older readings already published in the late 19th century by Cyrus Thomas
Cyrus Thomas
Cyrus Thomas was a U.S. ethnologist and entomologist prominent in the late 19th century and noted for his studies of the natural history of the American West.-Biography:Thomas was born in Kingsport, Tennessee...

, and the Soviet
Soviet Union
The Soviet Union , officially the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics , was a constitutionally socialist state that existed in Eurasia between 1922 and 1991....

 editors added propagandistic claims to the effect that Knorozov was using a peculiarly "Marxist
Marxism is an economic and sociopolitical worldview and method of socioeconomic inquiry that centers upon a materialist interpretation of history, a dialectical view of social change, and an analysis and critique of the development of capitalism. Marxism was pioneered in the early to mid 19th...

In Marxist philosophy, Leninism is the body of political theory for the democratic organisation of a revolutionary vanguard party, and the achievement of a direct-democracy dictatorship of the proletariat, as political prelude to the establishment of socialism...

" approach to decipherment, many Western Mayanist
A Mayanist is a scholar specialising in research and study of the Central American pre-Columbian Maya civilization. This discipline should not be confused with Mayanism, a collection of New Age beliefs about the ancient Maya....

s simply dismissed Knorozov's work. However, in the 1960s more came to see the syllabic approach as potentially fruitful, and possible phonetic readings for symbols whose general meaning was understood from context began to be developed. Prominent older epigrapher J. Eric S. Thompson
J. Eric S. Thompson
Sir John Eric Sidney Thompson was an English Mesoamerican archeologist and epigrapher. His contributions to the understanding of Maya hieroglyphs lead him to be one of the foremost mid-20th century anthropological scholars. He was generally known as J. Eric S...

 was one of the last major opponents of Knorozov and the syllabic approach. Thompson's disagreements are sometimes said to have held back advances in decipherment. For example, Coe (1992) says "the major reason was that almost the entire Mayanist field was in willing thrall to one very dominant scholar, Eric Thompson".

In 1959, examining what Russian-American scholar Tatiana Proskouriakoff
Tatiana Proskouriakoff
Tat’yana Avenirovna Proskuriakova was an American Mayanist scholar and archaeologist who contributed significantly to the decipherment of Maya hieroglyphs, the writing system of the pre-Columbian Maya civilization of Mesoamerica.-Early life:...

 called "a peculiar pattern of dates" on stone monument inscriptions at the Classic Maya site of Piedras Negras
Piedras Negras, Guatemala
Piedras Negras is the modern name for a ruined city of the pre-Columbian Maya civilization located on the north bank of the Usumacinta River in the Petén department of Guatemala. The name Piedras Negras means "black stones" in Spanish...

, Proskouriakoff determined that these represented events in the lifespan of an individual, rather than relating to religion, astronomy, or prophecy, as held by the "old school" exemplified by Thompson. This proved to be true of many Maya inscriptions, and revealed the Maya epigraphic
Epigraphy Epigraphy Epigraphy (from the , literally "on-writing", is the study of inscriptions or epigraphs as writing; that is, the science of identifying the graphemes and of classifying their use as to cultural context and date, elucidating their meaning and assessing what conclusions can be...

 record to be one relating actual histories of ruling individuals: dynastic histories similar in nature to those recorded in literate human cultures throughout the world. Suddenly, the Maya entered written history.

Although it was now clear what was on many Maya inscriptions, they still could not literally be read. However, further progress was made during the 1960s and 1970s, using a multitude of approaches including pattern analysis, de Landa's "alphabet", Knorozov's breakthroughs, and others. In the story of Maya decipherment, the work of archaeologists
Archaeology, or archeology , is the study of human society, primarily through the recovery and analysis of the material culture and environmental data that they have left behind, which includes artifacts, architecture, biofacts and cultural landscapes...

, art historians, epigraphers, linguists
Linguistics is the scientific study of human language. Linguistics can be broadly broken into three categories or subfields of study: language form, language meaning, and language in context....

, and anthropologists
Anthropology is the study of humanity. It has origins in the humanities, the natural sciences, and the social sciences. The term "anthropology" is from the Greek anthrōpos , "man", understood to mean mankind or humanity, and -logia , "discourse" or "study", and was first used in 1501 by German...

 cannot be separated. All contributed to a process that was truly and essentially multidisciplinary. Key figures included David Kelley, Ian Graham
Ian Graham
Ian Graham is a former Australian rules footballer who played with Collingwood in the VFL during the 1960s.His best season came in 1964 when he won the Copeland Trophy for Collingwood's Best and Fairest player...

, Gilette Griffin, and Michael Coe.

Dramatic breakthroughs occurred in the 1970s – in particular, at the first Mesa Redonda de Palenque, a scholarly conference organized by Merle Greene Robertson
Merle Greene Robertson
Merle Greene Robertson was an American artist, art historian, archaeologist, lecturer and Mayanist researcher, renowned for her extensive work towards the investigation and preservation of the art, iconography and writing of the pre-Columbian Maya civilization of Central America.-Early...

 at the Classic Maya site of Palenque
Palenque was a Maya city state in southern Mexico that flourished in the 7th century. The Palenque ruins date back to 100 BC to its fall around 800 AD...

 held in December, 1973. A working group
Working group
A working group is an interdisciplinary collaboration of researchers working on new research activities that would be difficult to develop under traditional funding mechanisms . The lifespan of the WG can last anywhere between a few months and several years...

 was led by Linda Schele
Linda Schele
Linda Schele was an expert in the field of Maya epigraphy and iconography. She played an invaluable role in the decipherment of much of the Maya hieroglyphics. She produced a massive volume of drawings of stelae and inscriptions, which, following her wishes, are free for use to scholars...

, an art historian and epigrapher at the University of Texas at Austin
University of Texas at Austin
The University of Texas at Austin is a state research university located in Austin, Texas, USA, and is the flagship institution of the The University of Texas System. Founded in 1883, its campus is located approximately from the Texas State Capitol in Austin...

, which included Floyd Lounsbury
Floyd Lounsbury
Floyd Glenn Lounsbury was an American linguist, anthropologist and Mayanist scholar and epigrapher, best known for his work on linguistic and cultural systems of a variety of North and South American languages...

, a linguist from Yale
Yale University
Yale University is a private, Ivy League university located in New Haven, Connecticut, United States. Founded in 1701 in the Colony of Connecticut, the university is the third-oldest institution of higher education in the United States...

, and Peter Mathews, then an undergraduate student of David Kelley's at the University of Calgary
University of Calgary
The University of Calgary is a public research university located in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Founded in 1966 the U of C is composed of 14 faculties and more than 85 research institutes and centres.More than 25,000 undergraduate and 5,500 graduate students are currently...

 (whom Kelley sent because he could not attend). In one afternoon they managed to decipher the first dynastic list of Maya kings – the ancient kings of the city of Palenque. By identifying a sign as an important royal title (now read as the recurring name K'inich), the group was able to identify and "read" the life histories (from birth, to accession to the throne, to death) of six kings of Palenque.

From that point, progress proceeded at an exponential pace, not only in the decipherment of the Maya glyphs, but also towards the construction of a new, historically based understanding of Maya civilization. Scholars such as J. Kathryn Josserand, Nick Hopkins and others published findings that helped to construct a Mayan vocabulary. In 1988, Wolfgang Gockel
Wolfgang Gockel
Wolfgang Gockel was a German archaeologist, best known for his efforts at deciphering the Mayan hieroglyphs....

 published a translation of the Palenque inscriptions based on a morphemic rather than syllabic interpretation of the glyphs. The "old school" continued to resist the results of the new scholarship for some time. A decisive event which helped to turn the tide in favor of the new approach occurred in 1986, at an exhibition entitled "The Blood of Kings: A New Interpretation of Maya Art". It was organized by InterCultura
InterCultura, Inc., was a not-for-profit private foundation, based in Fort Worth, Texas with offices in London, England, founded in 1982 by Gordon Dee Smith , J. Roderick Grierson , Milbry Polk, and several other individuals for the purpose of furthering understanding among cultures by organizing...

 and the Kimbell Art Museum
Kimbell Art Museum
The Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, hosts a small but excellent art collection as well as traveling art exhibitions, educational programs and an extensive research library. Its initial artwork came from the private collection of Kay and Velma Kimbell, who also provided funds for a new...

 and curated by Schele and Yale art historian Mary Miller
Mary Miller
Mary Ellen Miller is an American art historian and Dean of Yale College. In 1998, she was appointed as the Vincent Scully, Jr. Professor of the History of Art. In 2008, she was appointed as Sterling Professor at Yale...

. This exhibition and attendant catalogue – and international publicity – revealed to a wide audience the new world which had latterly been opened up by progress in decipherment of Maya hieroglyphics. Not only could a real history of ancient America now be read and understood, but the light it shed on the material remains of the Maya showed them to be real, recognisable individuals. They stood revealed as a people with a history like that of all other human societies: full of wars, dynastic struggles, shifting political alliances, complex religious and artistic systems, expressions of personal property and ownership and the like. Moreover, the new interpretation, as the exhibition demonstrated, made sense out of many works of art whose meaning had been unclear and showed how the material culture of the Maya represented a fully integrated cultural system and world view. Gone was the old Thompson view of the Maya as peaceable astronomers without conflict or other attributes characteristic of most human societies.

However, three years later in 1989, a final counter-assault was launched by supporters who were still resisting the modern decipherment interpretation. This occurred at a conference at Dumbarton Oaks
Dumbarton Oaks
Dumbarton Oaks is the conventional name for the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, situated on a historic property in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C. The institution is administered by the Trustees for Harvard University. Its founders, Robert Woods Bliss and his wife...

. It did not directly attack the methodology or results of decipherment, but instead contended that the ancient Maya texts had indeed been read but were "epiphenomenal". This argument was extended from a populist perspective to say that the deciphered texts tell us only about the concerns and beliefs of the society's elite, and not about the ordinary Maya. Michael Coe in opposition to this idea described "epiphenomenal" as:
a ten penny word meaning that Maya writing is only of marginal application since it is secondary to those more primary institutions – economics and society – so well studied by the dirt archaeologists.

Linda Schele noted following the conference that this is like saying that the inscriptions of ancient Egypt – or the writings of Greek philosophers or historians – do not reveal anything important about their cultures. Most written documents in most cultures tell us about the elite, because in most cultures in the past, they were the ones who could write (or could have things written down by scribes or inscribed on monuments).

Progress in decipherment continues at a rapid pace today, and it is generally agreed by scholars that over 90 percent of the Maya texts can now be read with reasonable accuracy. As of 2008, at least one phonetic glyph was known for each of the syllables marked in this chart. Based on verbal inflection patterns, it would seem that a syllabogram for [wu] did not exist, not just that it's unattested. No syllable in [p’] is attested.

u     ×


Current leaders in the field of interpreting Maya culture and Maya decipherment include many archaeologists, epigraphers, linguists, and art historians. Key names working at present are:
  • David Stuart
    David Stuart (Mayanist)
    David Stuart is a Mayanist scholar and professor of Mesoamerican art and writing at the University of Texas at Austin.-Early life:He is the son of Mayanist scholars George Stuart and Gene S. Stuart...

     at the University of Texas
  • Dmitri Beliaev, Russian State University for the Humanities
    Russian State University for the Humanities
    The Russian State University for the Humanities , is a university in Moscow, Russia with over 5500 students. It was created in 1991 as the result of the merger of the Moscow Public University and the Moscow State Institute for History and Archives The Russian State University for the Humanities...

    , Moscow
  • Diane Chase and Arlen Chase at the University of Central Florida
    University of Central Florida
    The University of Central Florida, commonly referred to as UCF, is a metropolitan public research university located in Orlando, Florida, United States...

  • John Costello, linguist at New York University
    New York University
    New York University is a private, nonsectarian research university based in New York City. NYU's main campus is situated in the Greenwich Village section of Manhattan...

  • Arthur Demarest
    Arthur Demarest
    Arthur Andrew Demarest is an American anthropologist and archaeologist, known for his studies of the Maya civilization.-Career:Demarest, a Louisiana Cajun, studied Mesoamerican anthropology and archaeology at Tulane University, where he graduated. In 1981 Demarest was granted his doctorate by...

     at Vanderbilt University
    Vanderbilt University
    Vanderbilt University is a private research university located in Nashville, Tennessee, United States. Founded in 1873, the university is named for shipping and rail magnate "Commodore" Cornelius Vanderbilt, who provided Vanderbilt its initial $1 million endowment despite having never been to the...

  • William Fash at Harvard University
    Harvard University
    Harvard University is a private Ivy League university located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States, established in 1636 by the Massachusetts legislature. Harvard is the oldest institution of higher learning in the United States and the first corporation chartered in the country...

  • David Freidel
    David Freidel
    David A. Freidel is an American academic archaeologist, Mayanist scholar and author. He is best known for the books he co-authored with Linda Schele, Maya Cosmos and Forest of Kings. Friedel received both his B. A. and Ph.D. in anthropology from Harvard University. He is married to Carolyn...

     at SMU
    Southern Methodist University
    Southern Methodist University is a private university in Dallas, Texas, United States. Founded in 1911 by the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, SMU operates campuses in Dallas, Plano, and Taos, New Mexico. SMU is owned by the South Central Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church...

  • Nikolai Grube at the University of Bonn
    University of Bonn
    The University of Bonn is a public research university located in Bonn, Germany. Founded in its present form in 1818, as the linear successor of earlier academic institutions, the University of Bonn is today one of the leading universities in Germany. The University of Bonn offers a large number...

    , Germany
  • Stephen Houston at Brown University
    Brown University
    Brown University is a private, Ivy League university located in Providence, Rhode Island, United States. Founded in 1764 prior to American independence from the British Empire as the College in the English Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations early in the reign of King George III ,...

  • linguists Katherine Josserand (deceased as of 2007) and Nicholas Hopkins
  • Tom Jones at Humboldt State University
    Humboldt State University
    Humboldt State University is the northernmost campus of the California State University system, located in Arcata within Humboldt County, California, USA. The main campus, nestled at the edge of a coast redwood forest, is situated on Preston hill overlooking Arcata and with commanding views of...

  • Alfonso Lacadena at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid
  • Simon Martin
    Simon Martin (Mayanist)
    Simon Martin is a British epigrapher, historian, writer and Mayanist scholar. He is best known for his contributions to the study and decipherment of the Maya script, the writing system used by the pre-Columbian Maya civilization of Mesoamerica...

     at the University of Pennsylvania Museum
  • linguist John Robertson at Brigham Young University
    Brigham Young University
    Brigham Young University is a private university located in Provo, Utah. It is owned and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints , and is the United States' largest religious university and third-largest private university.Approximately 98% of the university's 34,000 students...

  • Robert Sharer
    Robert Sharer
    Robert J. Sharer is an American archaeologist, academic and Mayanist researcher. He known for his archaeological investigations at a number of pre-Columbian Mesoamerican sites conducted over a career spanning four decades, and for his archaeological reports, theorizing, and writings in his field...

     at the University of Pennsylvania
    University of Pennsylvania
    The University of Pennsylvania is a private, Ivy League university located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States. Penn is the fourth-oldest institution of higher education in the United States,Penn is the fourth-oldest using the founding dates claimed by each institution...

  • William Sanders of Pennsylvania State University
    Pennsylvania State University
    The Pennsylvania State University, commonly referred to as Penn State or PSU, is a public research university with campuses and facilities throughout the state of Pennsylvania, United States. Founded in 1855, the university has a threefold mission of teaching, research, and public service...

     (deceased as of 2008)
  • Karl Taube
    Karl Taube
    Karl Andreas Taube   is an American Mesoamericanist, archaeologist, epigrapher and ethnohistorian, known for his publications and research into the pre-Columbian cultures of Mesoamerica and the American Southwest. he holds a position as Professor of Anthropology at the College of Humanities,...

     at the University of California, Riverside
  • Dennis Tedlock
    Dennis Tedlock
    Dennis Tedlock is the McNulty Professor of English and Research Professor of Anthropology at the State University of New York at Buffalo. He received his Ph.D. in 1968 from Tulane University...

     at the State University of New York at Buffalo
  • Marc Zender at Harvard, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology
    Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology
    The Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology is a museum affiliated with Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA.Founded in 1866, the Peabody Museum is one of the oldest and largest museums focusing on anthropological material, and is particularly strong in New World ethnography and...

  • linguist Søren Wichmann
    Søren Wichmann
    Søren Wichmann , is a Danish linguist specializing in Mesoamerican languages and epigraphy. He has written extensively about Mayan, Oto-Manguean and Mixe–Zoquean languages. He has done fieldwork on Mixe, Texistepec Popoluca and Tlapanec...

    , the Max Planck
    Max Planck
    Max Karl Ernst Ludwig Planck, ForMemRS, was a German physicist who actualized the quantum physics, initiating a revolution in natural science and philosophy. He is regarded as the founder of the quantum theory, for which he received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1918.-Life and career:Planck came...

     Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology at Leipzig
    Leipzig Leipzig has always been a trade city, situated during the time of the Holy Roman Empire at the intersection of the Via Regia and Via Imperii, two important trade routes. At one time, Leipzig was one of the major European centres of learning and culture in fields such as music and publishing...

and many others, including a growing number of scholars in Latin America, in the nations of the Maya area.
  • epigrapher Yuriy Polyuhovich, at the Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv.
  • linguist Talakh Viktor at Kiev
    Kiev or Kyiv is the capital and the largest city of Ukraine, located in the north central part of the country on the Dnieper River. The population as of the 2001 census was 2,611,300. However, higher numbers have been cited in the press....


External links

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