The Maya Finally Speak
Decoding the Glyphs Unlocked Secrets of a Mighty Civilization
by David Stuart
These are heady times for
those who study the great Mesoamerican
civilization of the Maya. The flow of knowledge is becoming a flood — for
in the past two decades, the Maya glyphs have been unlocked,
releasing a written language no one had read since the sixteenth century.
This likely is the last of
the great archaeological decipherments. Now
that the ancient Maya can tell us their story, doors are flung open on
the history and religion of the civilization that flourished from
about A.D. 200 to 1500.
At first glance, Maya hieroglyphs
seem like a baroque form of picture
writing. The Maya used a script of animal heads, body parts, gods, and
many other completely mysterious images, all arranged into blocks to
make a text. The common wisdom for many decades held that the
glyphs were nothing more than a cumbersome pictographic system in
which each image represented a specific word or idea.
That view was utterly wrong.
Maya writing was, in fact, a robust,
phonetic script that used a combination of signs, each representing
consonant-and-vowel syllables, to spell words.
Only a few Maya sites, such
as Copán and Palenque, had been studied
by the early twentieth century, and the precious few hieroglyphic
texts — mostly carved into stone monuments — remained tantalizingly
opaque. The words of the Maya remained a puzzle until the 1950s,
when two remarkable scholars, working independently and largely in
the background, paved the way for the actual decipherment.
Yuri Knorosov was a young
Russian with a keen interest in languages
and writing systems. During World War II, he had come across a
replica of a remarkable 74-page book of Maya glyphs that was
preserved in the royal library of Dresden, Germany. It had been
brought to Europe from Mexico in the early sixteenth century.
Knorosov, with his fresh
eyes and a knowledge of Egyptian hieroglyphs
and other scripts, attacked the Maya glyphs with few of the
preconceived notions held dear by scholars in the West.
He revisited the notorious
"Landa Alphabet," which was written in the
1560s by Spanish Friar Diego de Landa (who also destroyed as
sacrilegious almost every bark-paper book written by the Maya).
In a few short pages, Landa
had described "certain characters or
letters with which they wrote in their books their ancient affairs and
their sciences" and insisted the Maya used an alphabet of letters just
as Europeans did. He provided drawings of glyphs said to represent the
ABCs of the Maya.
The drawings were crude and
hard to connect to the ancient texts,
and most scholars decided an alphabet could never be blended into
the hundreds of symbols used in ancient Maya texts.
Knorosov dug deeper and deduced
Landa's fundamental failure: The
friar clearly had misunderstood the essence of Maya writing. Assuming
an alphabet, he would say a letter and ask his Maya informant to write
the symbol for it. The informant, of course, had no idea what a letter
was, so he simply matched a symbol to the sound of the Spanish
pronunciation. Thus "B" became the Maya sign for "be," "C" became
"se," and so forth.
The glyphs, Knorosov realized,
represented not letters but syllables.
He tested this idea with his facsimile of the Dresden Codex, quickly
saw promising results, and published his first announcement in 1952.
Knorosov's surprisingly simple
results, published initially in the Soviet
Union, took many years to be accepted in the West. And despite a
number of erroneous readings, we know now that Knorosov was
essentially correct in his interpretation of the mechanics of the glyphs.
Among scholars who had read Knorosov's original work was Tatiana
Proskouriakoff of Harvard's Peabody Museum, a fellow Russian by birth.
Perhaps inspired by Knorosov's
progressive ideas, Proskouriakoff
published a breakthrough paper in 1960 in which she elegantly
demonstrated that the inscriptions at the Maya city of Piedras Negras
contained patterns of dates followed by life histories — the births,
inaugurations, and deaths of kings and their kinfolk. Her ideas relied on
none of Knorosov's phonetic evidence, but presented with flawless
logic the simple-but-powerful notion that the Classic Maya wrote
The following decades witnessed
the blossoming of Maya epigraphy
into a more mature discipline that combines Knorosov's linguistic
evidence with the historical data gleaned from Proskouriakoff's
Many scholars, often working
in teams amid continuing excavations,
are contributing to the effort. Today, about 80 percent of Maya
inscriptions are readable, and the writing system is essentially
DAVID STUART is Associate
Director of the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphs
at Harvard University's Peabody Museum.