Mayan hieroglyphs: A history of the riddle script

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Mayan Hieroglyphs carved in stucco relief into stone at the Temple of the Foliated Cross, Palenque Archaeological Zone, Mexico.

Mayan hieroglyphs carved on the Temple of the Cross at Palenque, situated on the Yucatan peninsula, chronicle events dating back to June 16, 3122 BC which was the birth of the Maize God as well as the exact date the universe was created according to the Mayan cosmology. Prehistory aside, the Mayan civilization is divided into three time periods. 1100 BC to 250 AD is the Pre-classic period, 250 AD to 900 AD the Classic period and the Post-classic is 900 AD to the Spanish invasion in 1518 AD. During this era the Mayans recorded the, astronomical, religious, scientific, architectural and historical information important to them in what some scholars called puzzle writing. A history of the “riddle script”, Mayan hieroglyphs, must start much further back in time and not too far to the west of their Yucatan homeland.

Situated near the Gulf of Mexico in the modern states of Veracruz and Tabasco is San Lorenzo Tenochititlan, the home of the Olmec culture (2000 BC to 300 BC), one of the five known “pristine” cultures (civilizations that developed without the influence of previous civilizations). The other four consist of the Indus valley, China, Egypt-Sumeria and the Chavin culture of Peru. The origin of the written word in meso-america is traced to the Olmecs and the dot/bar glyphs that make up the numbering system as well.

The actual hieroglyphs used at this time are not similar to the Mayan system but it is the concept of logogram glyphs, symbols that represent a thing or idea, combined with other glyphs that are syllables to make a complete grammar, this basic idea is what is common to all of the writing systems of that area for millennia. The six and one half foot tall Mojarra Stela is the earliest dated example with hieroglyphs that resemble the Mayan.

Stelae are stone monuments, roughly obelisk shaped, that are carved with hieroglyphs to commemorate historic occasions. Their durable nature has allowed modern researchers a window to the past. Although many of the glyphs on the Mojarro stela are similar to Mayan, the language used by this post-Olmec culture has not been translated. It is the glyph shapes and the overall writing format that constitute the connection to the Mayan writing system. The human figure on the stela that the glyphs are carved around has an elaborate headdress and feathered cape also familiar to Mayan paintings and sculpture.

The Long-calendar dates written in the dot/bar glyphs universally used since pre-history in meso-america translate to July, 156 AD. The Long-calendar is one of three intermeshed calendars used then (accurate to this day) and are one of the most amazing feats of mathematical calculation of all time. The Mayans needed the precision of both calendar and mathematics to track the cycles of the all important planet Venus as well as Mars, the moon and even conjunctions of Saturn and Jupiter.

Examples of the first truly Mayan hieroglyphs appear on the walls of the Naj Tunich cave not long after. The cave had been used for ritual purposes before but about this time petroglyphs and paintings combined with hieroglyphs appeared describing child sacrifice, ritual intercourse and ritual bloodletting (piercing the tongue or other sensitive areas). To emphasis the importance of the site, it was variously taken as the home of the Maize God or the entrance to Xibalba, the underworld.

Leaving Xibalba we enter the golden age of Mayan culture, art, science and hieroglyphs. The Classic period (250 AD to 900 AD) brought a proliferation in the representation of hieroglyphs in every medium available to them, engraving glyphs on jade, depicting them on pottery, carving large basalt stela with the intricate designs. They painted every available wall or ceiling, reproduced them on stucco surfaces and wrote and illuminated the long, processed-Agave strips called codices, as the advanced language system permeated the Mayan civilization allowing it to blossom.

During the late Classic period and into the Post-classic (900 AD to 1518 AD) the original works of astronomy, religion, architecture, politics and history were being copied but the production of new works started a long decline. The Dresden Codex is the longest and oldest of the four remaining copies from this Post-classic period, giving us astronomical and astrological almanacs showing eclipses as well as an amazingly accurate and detailed account of the cycles of the planet Venus as well as some details relating to the orbit of Mars. They timed everything from wars to the kings ascension to the throne with precisely calculated events such as the planet Venus first appearing as morning star to the disappearance of Venus, the evening star.

Mayan hieroglyphs as a writing tool soon died out with the enthusiastic help of the Spanish invaders that forbade their use and burned every example of them they could find in huge bonfires. The priest Diego de Landes was not only single handedly responsible for almost completely destroying all libraries full of hieroglyphic manuscripts, but ironically, he wrote a book in 1566 about Yucatan that included a small alphabet that he transcribed with the help of a Spanish-speaking native Mayan. Hundreds of years later this book became the key to unlocking the mystery of the puzzle writing.

After a sabbatical of 250 years the history of the “riddle script”, Mayan hieroglyphs, becomes active again in the early 1800’s. Interest generated by the imaginative interpretations of Mayan architecture drawn by the traveler, Count Waldeck, the more scientific data produced by the lawyer John Stephens and the artist Frederick Catherwood to the 1870 revival of de Landes “Mayan alphabet” by Professor D.G. Brinton of the University of Pennsylvania and the 1895 publication of his book, the first on Mayan hieroglyphs.

Linton Satterthwaite and Benjamin Whorf proposed ground breaking ideas in the 1930’s and they paved the way for Yuri Knorozov to open the door in the 1950’s and ’60’s through which Tatiana Proskouriakoff and the army of translators, archaeologists, art historians, anthropologists, linguists and epigraphers followed and have contributed to the solution of the “riddle script”. The eventual translation of the Mayan hieroglyphs is an ongoing process to this day.