John Pohl, THE CODICES John Pohl's



It was once thought that the Maya had been the only North American Indian civilization to develop true writing. After establishing a relative chronology for the buildings around Monte Albán’s main plaza, Mexican archaeologist Alfonso Caso discovered that the calendrical and naming glyphs carved on the Danzantes Panels dated to as early as 500 B.C. This meant that Zapotec writing predated Maya by at least three centuries.

Visitors to Monte Albán can see pictographs and hieroglyphic texts everywhere on and around the buildings. Some of the tablets mounted into the walls of Late PreClassic Building J are thought to be preserved in their original positions. Acting on Caso’s hypothesis that the pictographs documented the conquests of actual towns, epigrapher Joyce Marcus compared the place signs to the names for Oaxacan kingdoms later conquered by the Aztec and recorded in their tribute books. She convincingly showed that the signs for Cuicatlan and Etla, for example, appeared in the reliefs. Archaeologists confirmed, from artifacts, that Monte Albán was indeed expanding into those same regions during the Monte Albán II period. The glyphic sign for Etla may in fact refer to San Jose Mogote which was the major center in the Etla Valley arm.

Zapotec calendrical glyphs are recognizable on Monte Albán’s monuments by their accompanying numerals. A bar represents units of five, and dots represent units of one. Since some signs were so similar to the Central Mexican system adopted later by the Aztecs and Mixtecs during the PostClassic, Caso proposed decipherments for Crocodile, Deer, Monkey, and Jaguar among others. However, as many other signs were unique to the Zapotec system, Caso could only make tentative proposals.

More recently, evidence has been found that confirms early dates for a PreClassic Olmec writing system as well. Mary Pohl, Kevin Pope and Christopher von Nagy have discovered artifacts bearing glyphs dating to 650 B.C. A cylinder stamp used to imprint clay and fabric, as well as fragments of a greenstone plaque, were found at a site three miles northeast of La Venta, a center of the Middle Formative period Olmec civilization. These artifacts show that key aspects of Mesoamerican script were present in Olmec writing: the combination of pictographic and phonetic elements to represent speech, the use of a 260-day calendar, and a connection between writing, the calendar and kingship.

Apparently the development of phonetic writing was not as crucial to the evolution of civilization in Mesoamerica as it had been in other parts of the world. Indeed pictographic communication and narrative art can be remarkably effective in facilitating information exchange, especially at the “international” level. This observation is nowhere more evident than in our own contemporaneous revolution in communication through the development of symbologies in film, television, computer language, and advertising - a situation intensified by extreme factional competition among nations for control of the international market place.

Image - Figure 1 - Building J’s carved tablets. Building J’s carved tablets portray hieroglyphic place signs of kingdoms conquered by Monte Albán. The town of Etla was identified by comparing the glyph for “bean” with a known sign from the Aztec Codex Mendoza. Above the glyphic symbol for “town” or “place” is the glyph for “bean”, or Etla. The upside-down head of Etla’s defeated ruler appears beneath the glyphic symbol for “place”. Click on Image for more detail.
Image - Figure 2 - Zapotec calendar. The Zapotecs may have devised the earliest 260-day divinatory calendar. Following Caso’s pioneering work, Javier Urcid later spent ten years drawing and recording hundreds of Zapotec glyphs, and comparing the day and year signs to words in the Zapotec language. Through a tedious process of comparison and elimination he reconstructed an entire day sign list as well as the four year bearers. Click on Image for more detail.
Image - Figure 3 - Imprint of a cylindrical stamp found at San Andrés, Tabasco. Imprint of a cylindrical stamp found at San Andrés, Tabasco. The bird is “speaking” glyphs that include the name 3 Ahau, possibly the name of a chief. Click on Image for more detail.

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