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Development of the most advanced hieroglyphic writing in Mesoamerica. Examines the scholarly efforts that led to the deciphering of Mayan hieroglyphics. Key figures and contributors. System of writing. Elaborate construction of the Maya calendar. Theories of what the glyphs represented. Maya writing as syllabic and phonetic. Maya syllabic chart.
Deciphering Mayan Hieroglyphics While Mayan culture has long been popular for its more violent aspects such as human sacrifice rituals performed atop pyramidal temples, the Maya are also respected for developing a sophisticated calendar and what is recognized as the most advanced hieroglyphic writing in Mesoamerica. It was not until the 1950s, nearly a millennium after the fall of Mayan civilization, that scholars were able to determine that these hieroglyphs represented historical rather than astronomical events and that they represented alphabetical forms (Ivinski, 1998). The purpose of this report is to examine the history of the scholarly effort which ultimately led to the deciphering of Mayan hieroglyphics, to identify the major players in this process, and to briefly describe how this system of writing works.
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The next major advance in Mayan hieroglyphic scholarship was providedby Tatiana Proskouriakoff, who pointed out in 196 , that within each set ofglyphs, all of the dates fit into a human life span and that the Mayaninscriptions were primarily historical (Coe, 1992). Anumber of texts have proven to be so spotty or incomplete that analysis isdifficult. (1996). Roberts (1991) states that Knorosov, pondering the alphabet producedby Landa, became convinced that the glyphs represented neither letters norwords as had previously been assumed by Mayan scholars. The Atlantic, 268(3), 87-97. It was not until the 195 s, nearly a millennium after thefall of Mayan civilization, that scholars were able to determine that thesehieroglyphs represented historical rather than astronomical events and thatthey represented alphabetical forms (Ivinski, 1998). It is likely that further research will advance the field evenfarther. Thisillustration demonstrates that the Maya writing system mixes logograms andsyllabic signs. Justeson and Kaufman (1997) reported that work continues using newlydiscovered materials, including the La Mojarra Stela 1, one of the longestknown preserved texts from ancient Mesoamerica. (1998). 274) states that "in one of the greatestintellectual achievements of our century, the Maya code has at last beenbroken." Broken, however, does not necessarily mean that Mayanhieroglyphics are completely understood. (1997). A leading German expert in epigraphy, PaulSchellhas, predicted that the Mayan glyphs were unlikely to be deciphered(Roberts, 1991). Proskouriakoff's identification of the constituent elements of Mayawriting, says Coe (1992), included the recognition of ideograms as words,syllabic and phonemic phonograms, and determinatives used to establishmeanings. He maintained thatthe glyphs represented specific syllables and then went on to make a numberof phonetic decipherments. (1992). Breaking the Maya Code. These and otherscholars (including Linda Schele and Coe himself, and the precociousStuart, whose work began when he was only 13 years-old) can share in thecredit. As the chartdemonstrates and as Coe (1992) affirms, not all of the various consonantand vowel signs or sounds for which there are symbols or glyphs have beencompletely identified. Astronomical clues crack Mayan calendars code. The purpose of thisreport is to examine the history of the scholarly effort which ultimatelyled to the deciphering of Mayan hieroglyphics, to identify the majorplayers in this process, and to briefly describe how this system of writingworks. The assumption byThompson that the hieroglyphs represented the Mayan "alphabet" misled manyepigraphers for some time, and the initial rejection of Knorosov's thesisfurther impeded analysis. The lengthy process by means of which scholars began to determine howthe Mayan hieroglyphic system works began in the mid-nineteenth century andcontinues through to the present time (Roberts, 1991). Homewood (1997) reported that Franz Joseph Hochleitner, anarcheologist at the Federal University of Juiz de Fora in Brazil, hasworked extensively with the Mayan calendar to decipher astrological signsthat can be linked with important events contained in the stelae and templeedifices in Central America. ReferencesCoe, M.D. These researchers statedthat topic continuity in lengthy texts leads to repetition of lexical itemsand larger grammatical units. New York: Thames and Hudson.Cracking the Maya's code: New light on dark history. New Scientist, 138(1867), 12-13.Ivinski, P.A. Roberts (1991) says that epigraphers are frequently asked whatportion of the Mayan glyphs have been deciphered - a question that isdifficult to answer, given the potential complexity of each sign alone andin combination or association with another. These great intuitiveleaps were augmented by work undertaken by Michael Coe (1992), who sees hisrole in breaking the Mayan code as that of a catalyst. The most significant contributor in the deciphering of the Mayanalphabet was David Stuart, who has added his efforts to that of others,including John S. Aided by work done by Stuart, scholars found thatMayan writing is read left to right and top to bottom with occasionalvariations. Signs can be rotated 6 or 9 degrees (which confused scholarsand which was an issue resolved by Proskourikoff and affirmed later byStuart), and Mayan contains many omissions or abbreviations of sounds,inversions of sign order, insertions of one sign into another, andadditions of phonetic complements (Coe, 1992). This information makes it possible to better placeinformation contained in Mayan writings in historical time (Homewood,1993). 28 -281). Print, 52(2), 8-9.Justeson, J.S., & Kaufman, T. Syllabic signs made it possible for the Maya to writewords that were purely phonetic in their composition. The end result of this concerted if dispersed effort - much ofwhich involved finding and then copying the Mayan writings in their nativeenvironment - is that a new understanding of the Classic Maya has beenachieved (Roberts, 1991). Justeson, Terrence Kaufman, and Michael Coe (Cracking theMaya's code..., 1996). Hecalled these signposts emblem glyphs and provided the first hint that theinscriptions were not limited to an endless progression of time, butreflected information regarding the births, entombments, and deaths ofkings and their heirs (Roberts, 1991). The positioning of signs in specific contexts was also revealedas influencing meaning. He makes reference to the case of theEgyptian glyph system and notes that there was no comparable Rosetta Stonethat could be used by Mayanists to decipher the symbols. Morley wasobsessed with the Maya calendar, an extraordinarily elaborate constructionof concentric cycles of hundreds of thousands of years wheeling in a 26 -day period (Cracking the Maya's code..., 1996). It was not, says Coe (1992), untilProskouriakoff finally convinced Thompson (the most prominent and respectedMayanist of the 195 s) that his theory was wrong and the writing wassyllabic and phonetic that progress was made in deciphering the symbols. The Maya were the only pre-Colombian Americans to have developed asophisticated writing system with which they covered their buildings. The Economist, 341(7997), 55-59.Homewood, B. Other key figures in the early discovery of these hieroglyphs wereJohn Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood, who produced engravings ofvarious stone slabs or stelae whose surfaces were crowded with columns ofstrange but suggestive symbols. Hochleitner determined that a "cheun figure" or the head of a raingod, represented a particular period of time; the cheun figure represents"katuns," periods of 2 years of 36 days, and dots and dashes representyears, months and days. There are newstudies being undertaken to examine various stelae both at their naturallocations and in university or laboratory settings. Science, 277(5323), 2 7-21 .Roberts, D. The decipherment of ancient Maya. Coe (1992) alsocredits David Stuart with having played what is perhaps the most importantsingle role in deciphering the meaning of the Maya hieroglyphs. Theearly scholars who decided that the limestone structures found in thejungles of Mexico and Central America were not the ruins of cities but ofvacant temples, including the American Sylvanus Morley. (1991). Deciphering Mayan Hieroglyphics While Mayan culture has long been popular for its more violentaspects such as human sacrifice rituals performed atop pyramidal temples,the Maya are also respected for developing a sophisticated calendar andwhat is recognized as the most advanced hieroglyphic writing inMesoamerica. A newly discovered column in the hieroglyphic text on La Mojarra Stella 1: A test of the epi-Olmec decipherment. Coe (1992, p. Another early scholar wasSir Eric Thompson, a British expert who dominated Maya studies until hisdeath in 1975, and who concluded that the hieroglyphs found on jungletemples and pyramids was not about kings, but gods (Cracking the Maya'scode..., 1996). Coe (1992) addressed the question of why it took so long after the1849 discovery of the Mayan stelae for scholars to gain any in-depthunderstanding of the hieroglyphs. (1993). Coe (1992) contendsthat it was not until Knorosov arrived at what may have been an almostintuitive understanding of the conflation of signs in Maya writing thatreal progress began to occur in deciphering this language. Coe (1992) also gives credit for "breaking the Mayan code" to DavidKelley and Floyd Lounsbury, who helped to determine that the Maya scriptwas logographic - a combination of logograms expressing the morphemes ormeaning units of words and phonetic-syllabic signs. Knorosov examineda book written in 1566 by a Spanish friar named Diego de Landa, whodescribed the Spanish conquest of the Maya and also obtained a Mayan"alphabet" or glyph system from a literate Maya. Many Mayanists continue towork in the field to expand knowledge regarding the meaning of thehieroglyphs. Working from 1839 to 1842, these twoscholars argued that the symbols they saw represented a complex andsophisticated writing system. Another problem identified by Justeson and Kaufman (1997) isthat many of the structures on which the Mayan writing is found have beensubject to significant damage linked to climatic conditions and erosion. Puzzler. Most Western Mayanists rejected this notion.In 1958, a Mexican scholar, Heinrich Berlin, announced that a certain kindof glyph must refer either to a Mayan city or to its ruling dynasty. Coe (1992) credits others with having made enormouscontributions to the field, including an obscure Soviet linguist named YuriKnorosov, with playing an important role in the process. Because this is the case, many of theepigraphers who have worked on various Maya writings have been inhibited intheir ability to make firm decisions regarding grammatical models andmeanings. Attached to this report is a copy of the Maya Syllabic Chart developedby various epigraphers and presented by Coe (1992, pp.
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