Maya Writing

The classic Mayan civilization flourished from around 250-900AD in the Yucatan region of Mexico, Guatemala & Belize, during which great strides were made in the fields of astronomy, pyramid building, and more importantly hieroglyphs or Mayan writing.  Sadly many of their books were burnt during the Spanish conquest, but a select few survived and are preserved in various museums throughout the world.   Their grasp of huge numbers and cosmology was realized much later sometime in the 19th century, when these books called Codices were studied by people from varying backgrounds.

Maya stucco glyphs diplayed in the museum at P...

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However Mayan writing which is a combination of several signs, also termed logosyllabic, eluded scholars for many years and only in the latter part of the 20th century it was eventually deciphered, as narrated beautifully in Michael Coe’s book, Breaking the Maya Code.   While there have been numerous stalwarts involved in the decipherment over the decades, a couple of names that stand out include Yuri Knorosov and Tatiana Proskouriakoff, whose independent efforts resulted in major breakthroughs.  Much of Mayan writing, commonly referred to as hieroglyphs, has been discovered on stone monuments and pottery at various sites and have been dated to around 200 AD, when the Classic civilization flowered.  The beauty and grandeur of the Mayan pyramids are simply awe-inspiring to say the least, as I have alluded to earlier in Adventures in the Yucatan.

Recent excavations in San Bartolo, Guatemala have revealed hieroglyphs that have been dated to 300BC which suggests that Mayan writing is much older, pushing it several centuries earlier into the Pre-Classic era.  A detailed report including accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) radiocarbon dates on charcoal samples from sealed deposits appeared in Science (see footnote).  I recently posted similar findings on The Indus Script, which have pushed back the age of deciphered writing in India to 490 BC.

Sacrificial scarification of the penis. Fragme...

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Serendipity played a role in the San Bartolo findings when Bill Saturno, an archaeologist stumbled into a cave after several days of exhaustion in the dense forests of Guatemala, and discovered these fantastic murals that were hidden from civilization for over two millenia.  Major strides have been taken in the decipherement of the Mayan script in the last few decades, especially by scholars like David Stuart, whose fluency in reading the script has unravelled many hitherto hidden stories about the Maya! Interestingly while there are similarities in the San Bartolo scripts with the Classic Maya writing, much of it is yet to be deciphered.   With advances in technology and scholars in various fields collaborating together, these are exciting times in the decipherment of ancient scripts worldwide, which suggests highly literate civilizations older than previously believed.

References:  Saturno et al, Scienceexpress/ January 2006,/Page/10.1126/science.1121745


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