Discovering Archaeology
November/December 1999

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.