Maya hieroglyphics

From Academic Kids

Maya hieroglyphics is the system of writing used by the pre-Columbian Maya people to record the Maya language. It consisted of a highly elaborate set of glyphs which were laboriously painted on ceramics, walls or bark-paper codices, carved in wood or stone, or molded in stucco.

An inscription in Maya heiroglyphics from the site of , relating to the reign of king Itzamnaaj K'awil, -.
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An inscription in Maya heiroglyphics from the site of Naranjo, relating to the reign of king Itzamnaaj K'awil, 784-810.

Knowledge of the Maya writing system continued into the early colonial era and reportedly a few of the early Spanish priests who went to Yucatan learned it. However, as part of his campaign to eradicate pagan rites, Bishop Diego de Landa ordered the destruction of all written Maya works, including a library full of bark-paper codices. Later, he realized his error and tried to atone for it by teaching Maya priests to write their language in Roman letters.

Only four Maya codices are known to survive to modern times. Most surviving texts in Maya hieroglyphics are from pottery or monuments in sites that were abandoned or buried before the arrival of the Spanish.

Knowledge of the writing system was lost. Renewed interest in it was sparked by published accounts of ruined Maya sites in the 19th century.

The decipherment of the writing was a long and laborious process. 19th century and early 20th century investigators managed to decode the Maya numbers and portions of the text related to astronomy and the Maya calendar, but understanding of most of the rest long eluded scholars. In the 1960s progress revealed the dynastic records of Maya rulers. Since the early 1980s it has been demonstrated that most of the previously unknown symbols form a syllabary, and progress in reading the Maya writing has advanced rapidly since.

Today experts agree that the Mayans inherited their ancient writing system from the Olmecs (Schele & Freidel, 1990; Soustelle, 1984).

The linguistic breakthroughs

What was only widely recognized as a major breakthrough in retrospect was made by Yuri Knorosov in the 1950s by arguing that the so-called alphabet contained in Bishop Diego de Landa's manuscript "Relacion de las Cosas de Yucatan" was actually made of syllabic symbols. As Knorosov's early essays contained few new readings, and the Soviet editors added propagandistic claims that Knorosov was using a peculiarly "Marxist-Leninist" approach to decipherment, many Western Mayanists simply dismissed Knorosov's work. However in the 1960s more came to see the syllabic approach as potentially fruitful, and possible phonetic readings for symbols whose general meaning was understood from context began to be developed. Prominent older epigrapher J. Eric S. Thompson was one of the last major opponants of Knorosov and the syllabic approach. Thompson's disagreements are sometimes said to have held back advances in decipherment.

Much of the classic era writings seem to be directly ancestral to the Chorti language. The same language appears to have been used throughout the Maya classical period and throughout the geographical reach of the Maya, even when the local language was different, although local influences of varying degrees have been detected.

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