John Pohl, THE CODICES John Pohl's



The earliest surviving European study of Maya hieroglyphic writing was made around 1566 by a Spanish bishop named Diego de Landa. Landa described the Maya calendar in detail and included drawings of glyphs. Explanations collected by Landa lay untouched for years but eventually gained significance as a primary source of information about the ancient Maya writing system.

The Maya actually maintained two calendars. One was a solar calendar of 365 days or “kin” much like our own. The other was a divinatory calendar of 260 days, perhaps inspired by the human gestation cycle. By juxtaposing the positive or negative values of the 260 day count against the 365 day count, diviners created mathmatical randomness in their system of prophecy; something like combining numerology with astrology. In this way the outcome of events was preordained by gods who had instituted the calendar’s use in primordial times, the priest’s job was simply to report the augury.

Calendars were also employed to record historical dates. From a zero point projected back thousands of years in the past, “kin” were grouped into counts of 20 days called “uinals”, 360 days or “tuns”, 7,200 days or “katuns”, and 144,000 days or “baktuns”. Days calculated in the 260 day cycle were named by combining thirteen numerals with twenty day signs. The entire series of permutations is refered to as a “Long Count” by epigraphers. While some dates commemorate births, marriages, and deaths, others signify important anniversaries or Period Endings. Classic monuments contain so many dates that at one time it seemed to some epigraphers that the Maya were obsessed with time and hardly concerned with anything as mundane as biographical history.

Dates are the easiest glyphs to spot on stone inscriptions, because they contain numerical “bars and dots.” The bars represent counts of five, and the dots represent single digits. Early in the twentieth century, the Carnegie Institution’s Sylvanus Morley became so preoccupied with recording dates that he all too frequently ignored other texts. Such a calendrical bias prompted leading scholars to characterize the Maya as a race of astronomer priests, mesmerizing their people with their ability to foretell celestial events. Part of the problem was also a longstanding failure to recognize glyphs as having phonetic values, even though Bishop Landa had originally reported that they did. Instead, it was thought that the non-calendrical glyphs were logographs, literal depictions of gods, animals, and ritual objects. The Maya's messages were therefore so imbedded in ancient mysticism, ritual, and poetic metaphor as to be hopelessly undecipherable.

All of this began to change in the 1960’s when Harvard researcher Tatiana Proskouriakoff published a study of inscriptions from the Maya site of Piedras Negras and concluded that the glyphic texts were biographical. Proskouriakoff had noticed that a series of distinctive, non-calendrical glyphs frequently accompanied scenes of “gods” seated in niches on stelae. By calculating the number of years that had elapsed between the dates on the monuments, she determined that they had no particular astronomical significance, but rather reflected the life-spans and events of real people. The non-calendrical glyphs, she theorized, stood for the birth of an actual ruler, his subsequent accession to the niche or throne, and finally his death. (It may be no accident that Alfonso Caso had deduced the same principals in Mixtec pictographic writing a few years earlier.) At the same time that Proskouriakoff was working on dynastic history, a German-born investigator living in México City (Heinrich Berlin) identified a series of signs that he termed Emblem Glyphs, the names for actual city states. To a system of calendrical dates, scholars were adding both people and places - finally creating the foundation for a historical approach to Maya writing.

Stimulated by these and other discoveries, one group of scholars decided to meet at Palenque in 1973, with the express purpose of developing a systematic approach to deciphering the site’s texts. Several were university professors and graduate students, while others were non-professionals. All came from diverse backgrounds in archaeology, linguistics, art history, fine art, architecture, and ethnography. Meeting over the course of a week, the group alternated between presenting research papers, and working in small groups with whatever photographs and drawings of the inscriptions they had available. Daily trips were made to examine the carved reliefs on site.

The results of the First Palenque Roundtable, as it was called, were astounding; most notably Floyd Loundsbury’s, Linda Schele’s, and Peter Mathews’ presentation of an entire dynastic sequence for Palenque as well as the life stories of six successive kings. The group concluded that most of the inscriptions seemed to emphasize two people in particular. The first was a king they called “Lord Shield” because his name sign resembled a war shield. “Lord Shield”, they believed, was the person archaeologist Alberto Ruz Lhuillier had discovered in the crypt beneath the Temple of the Inscriptions. The second major protagonist was his son, “Snake Jaguar”, who constructed the impressive Group of the Cross.

What began as a small working group was transformed into a series of conferences that led to a revolution in Maya hieroglyphic decipherment. Readings were subsequently proposed for major events such as “enthronement”, “capture of an enemy”, “sacrifice”, and family key relationships such as, “wife of”, “child of”. Some of the first decipherments at Palenque are still widely accepted, others have had to be modified or remain a source of debate. However, all epigraphers now recognize the texts as being fundamentally historical and all advocate the study of Maya languages in their decipherment. While this perspective seems elementary today, it was revolutionary at the time.

For more information on Maya Writing, click here.

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