Alphabet Soup, Maya-style:
A Historical Perspective of the Decipherment
Of the
Written Text of the Ancient Maya Language

Arthur I. Gould

Delivered to The Chicago Literary Club
April 27, 1998

In 1969, when visiting Chichén Itzá, the spectacular Maya ruin in the Yucatan peninsula, my wife and I were told by a government guide that the engraved symbols on the ancient monuments were either ornamental decorations or, if they constituted a written form of communication, their meaning did not extend beyond calculations of astronomical and calendrical events. Our guide explained that notwithstanding continuing attempts over the past 100 years or more to decipher the engravings in a broader light, all such efforts had failed. Accordingly, it was generally conceded by professionals involved in uncovering the history of the Maya civilization that the Maya did not have a written form of communication that reflected their spoken language.

Almost a quarter of a century later, when visiting the equally spectacular Maya ruin of Uxmal, also in the Yucatan, I was astonished to hear a local guide state that great progress had been made in deciphering the text of the ancient Maya language, that the engravings on the monuments represented a distinct form of a Maya language spoken centuries ago and that roughly 40 percent of the written language appearing on the monuments could be understood generally by those involved in the deciphering project. Based upon my prior understanding, I seriously questioned the accuracy of a claim suggesting that almost one-half of the of Maya symbols, known as glyphs, engraved perhaps as far back as 1,000 years ago, represented a spoken language which could be understood by present day scholars. Indeed, after further study on this subject matter, I was proven to be correct in my skepticism, but for the wrong reason. In 1993, the year of our visit to Uxmal, approximately 85 percent, not a mere 40 percent, of the symbols comprising the Maya language could be read in a meaningful manner by scholars involved in deciphering the text of the ancient Maya language.

It is a remarkable achievement that so much progress had been made in such a short time frame in unlocking the meaning of the written symbols of the language, the glyphs, spoken by the Maya 600 to 1900 years earlier. Viewed in another light, though, the history of the decipherment is a sad commentary on the incompetent level of academic scholarship, lack of intellectual curiosity and arrogance which had been displayed by so many individuals over the years in the process of uncovering the meaning of the mysterious symbols which appear on Maya monuments and bark paper manuscripts, known as the "codices". However, whether one concludes that uncovering the meaning of the ancient Maya writings constituted a remarkable achievement or a sad commentary, the story of the decipherment of the ancient written Maya language and of the persons involved in this undertaking is a fascinating tale.

The history of the decipherment of the written language of the Maya can be traced back to the conquistadors, the Spanish conquerors of Mexico, who first entered the Yucatan in 1519. It covers people from many geographic areas ranging from the jungles of "Mesoamerica" (i.e., Central America including Mexico) to the Baltic shores of Russia's second city now called St. Petersburg but known as Leningrad in 1952. It includes a wide variety of individuals such as Hernan Cortès, the leader of the conquistadors; a 16th Century Spanish bishop of the Yucatan who rigidly enforced the dictates of the inquisition by burning Maya manuscripts but provided the key to unraveling the meaning of the Maya glyphs; an American lawyer on a presidential mission in the early 1840's to gather intelligence on the newly independent states of Central America who also explored and wrote about the Maya ruins and thereby aroused the interests of scholars in the ancient Maya civilization; a French abbe who discovered the "Rosetta Stone" of the Maya written language only to misinterpret most of its meaning; a Russian who as a soldier in World War II rescued a copy of the Maya codices from destruction in Berlin during the closing days of the Third Reich and then as a scholar seven years later set the stage for the decipherment of the Maya writings; and, several brilliant young scholars, mainly Americans, who collectively carried out the decipherment in the late 1970s and 1980s. Finally, underlying the story of the decipherment of the written language are the Maya -- their civilization, culture and history. The society they created, which thrived for over 2,500 years and which we have only recently begun to understand, was remarkable.

There are no more than 5 million Maya living today. They reside in southeast Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras (i.e., the Maya territory). There are approximately 30 Maya languages which are spoken today, however, no Maya language is permitted to be taught in the Mexican school system. For at least the past 300 years until recently, no Maya (or for that matter anyone else) was able to read the written script which their ancestors developed almost two thousand years ago. Since the Spanish conquest, the Maya have suffered terribly at the hands of those who dominated them. The Spanish slaughtered many and probably annihilated the entire elite class. However, much more devastating to the Maya were the diseases the Spanish brought with them from Europe. It is estimated that 90 percent of the Maya population died from Spanish atrocities or diseases and those who survived were virtually enslaved by their conquerors. Military regimes in several countries, such as Guatemala, until quite recently, were intent on destroying the culture of the Maya people as well as decimating the population. Even today, in the Chiapas region of Mexico, many Maya have been brutalized, indeed murdered, by paramilitary groups.

It wasn't always like this. Twelve hundred years ago the Maya civilization was dominant in Mesoamerica. It occupied the same area as today, however, the population was at least twice as large as it is now. It is estimated that at the apex of the golden age of the Maya civilization, 800 A.D., the population of certain areas of the Maya territory was as dense as anywhere in the world today. About 1000 B.C. the Maya began to speak a language which is the forerunner of the many Maya languages spoken today, and toward the end of the Pre-Classic period, about 100 A.D., the Maya language was first expressed in written form as evidenced by engravings which appear on stone monuments.

The Classic Period of the Maya civilization, the golden age, carried on for at least 650 years, ending in 900 A.D. The great cities of the southern lowlands of the Maya territory were constructed of limestone masonry and included stone monuments, such as pyramids, to house the remains of the dynastic rulers. Politically the Maya society was organized into city-states consisting of as many as 25 at any one time. Among these were the great cities of Copàn, Tikal and Palenque.

By 900 A.D. all the great cities in the southern lowlands were deserted and the jungle, from which they had been carved, returned. It is unclear why the Classic Period ended. Theories suggest that it may have been due to a variety of factors: environmental problems such as the destruction of forests and the water supply, overpopulation, constant wars between the city-states, invasions from outsiders and incompetent leaders.

After the Classic Period ended, the cities in the Yucatan, such as Chichén Itzá, Uxmal and Mayapán, began to flourish. However, they were not purely Maya in that they were either strongly influenced or perhaps even largely controlled by the Toltecs and later by the Aztecs. The Post-Classic Period ended in 1521 A.D. when their empire was destroyed by the conquistadors.

The Maya excelled in agricultural achievements such as irrigation which was necessary to support the huge population clustered into small areas. They traded in large sophisticated local markets as well as regional ones throughout Mesoamerica. Corn was (and continues to be) the backbone of the Maya diet.

Almost all Maya lived in villages, towns or cities and most were farmers. Their rulers, the royal elite, exercised autocratic authority over the population and were considered immortal who after death would be resurrected as gods to be worshiped in perpetuity by their decendents. Members of the royal elite probably also served as artists and calligraphers as well as scribes for the writings which appeared on the monuments.

The Maya had a sacred calendar based on a 260 day cycle as well as a 365 day solar calendar. The Maya were extremely accurate in their calendric determinations. According to their calendar the world began on August 13, 3114 B.C. and will end a little over 14 years from now, on December 23, 2012, a rather disturbing thought. The Maya were also very intrigued by astronomical events and spent a great deal of time searching the heavens. Their constant involvement in astronomical and calendrical calculations, which set the dates for ceremonial events commemorating the major occurrence in the life of a ruler, reflected their exceptional abilities as mathematicians. They developed the concept of zero long before it was introduced to Greece or Rome.

The Maya were obsessed with blood. They believed that humans had to shed their own blood to replenish what they had taken from nature such as crops and game. This was particularly true with the ruling class. It has been speculated that the pain involved in bloodletting through self-mutilation coupled with their taking hallucinogenics enabled the rulers to enter into a trance-like state where they believed they could communicate with their ancestors. Royal bloodlines were considered essential to authenticating a claim to the throne; accordingly, if one could summon the earliest ancestor who ruled the kingdom, he or she could justify his or her title.

The Maya lived a brutal and warlike existence. There were constant wars between the city-states, although generally the defeated cities were not sacked nor were the non-combatants harmed. However, captive warriors, including the ruler, were tortured and then killed, sometimes many years later, by decapitation or by being thrown down the steps of the pyramids. Human sacrifices, including infants, were carried out to appease the gods. In addition, the sacrifants were often the losers in a game played with a hard rubber ball on a masonry-walled court. Thus, it can be said the Maya played "hard-ball" -- both literally and figuratively.

Although other ancient civilizations in the Western Hemisphere may have had a limited ability to express some of their spoken language in a written text, only the Maya had a complete script. The recent successes achieved in deciphering the Maya text has been an invaluable tool in understanding the Maya civilization since their writings addressed historical information such as the genealogies of their rulers, warfare and alliances between the city-states and conquests. Even though incredible progress has been made recently in deciphering the written language of the Maya, when we examine the skill carried out in the decipherment of another ancient language, Egyptian, which occurred 175 years ago, it becomes embarrassingly clear that the Maya written language should have been understood by scholars no later than the beginning of this century.

The Egyptians developed a written form of communication over 5,000 years ago, in 3100 B.C. The symbols used in the ancient Egyptian writing are known as hieroglyphics, which in Greek means "sacred carvings", perhaps because they were engraved on the walls of obelisks and religious monuments. Egyptian hieroglyphics continued as a form of written communication, although gradually in diminished use, until approximately 400 A.D. when their meaning was lost. The Greek and later the Roman conquest of Egypt caused the people to adopt the alphabetic writing styles of their conquerors.

Beginning in the Middle Ages and continuing through the early part of the 19th Century, most scholars considered hieroglyphics to represent ideographic symbols, i.e., the signs conveyed metaphysical ideas; they did not reflect phonetic sounds. In other words, they bore no resemblance whatsoever to a spoken language. This view lead to the conclusion that the hieroglyphic symbols were not a viable means of communication and slowed down considerably the decipherment of the writings. Unfortunately, it also prevailed as the conventional wisdom with respect to the written language of the Maya and caused the decipherment of it to suffer by reason of the same misconception as to the meaning of the symbols.

Napoleon's invasion of Egypt 200 years ago, in 1798, laid the groundwork for the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphics. His army was accompanied by a legion of scientists and scholars whose mission was to uncover all available knowledge about the ancient Egyptian civilization which had been lost over the ages, including Egyptian hieroglyphics.

One of the first finds of the scholars and scientists assigned to Napoleon's Egyptian project was the Rosetta Stone in 1798. It contained identical text in three different languages; Greek, Egyptian hieroglyphics, and another Egyptian form of writing known as demonic, a cursive script which differs in form from hieroglyphics, but in substance is the same. It was recognized immediately that the Rosetta Stone was an incredible find and copies of it were made and circulated throughout Europe among scholars interested in the subject matter.

Soon thereafter it became clear to a few scholars that the hieroglyphic and demonic scripts of the ancient Egyptian language were two forms of the same writing system. Moreover, it soon became apparent to an even smaller number of scholars that the Egyptian writing scripts were not ideographic but rather logagraphic, a writing system which consists of a mixture of phonetic symbols (i.e., speech sounds) and semantic symbols (i.e., visual signs that convey meaning without being linked to speech sounds).

Today we know that all written languages are phonetic to some extent. An alphabetic language is basically phonetic, whereas a logagraphic language has a mix of phonetic and semantic symbols. However, even in an alphabetic language, semantic symbols exist. For example, in the written text of the English language, the alphabet represents the phonetic symbols, however, there are semantic symbols, such as the ampersand and the dollar sign.

In 1822, a brilliant French scholar, Jean-François Champollian, began to unravel the meaning of Egyptian hieroglyphics. He was one of the few scholars who recognized that Egyptian hieroglyphics represented logagraphic symbols. He applied this knowledge to the vast findings of ancient hieroglyphics gathered during the Napoleonic campaign in Egypt. It finally led him to be able to read the names of many of the Roman emperors whose inscriptions were recorded on Egyptian obelisks and other monuments as well as rulers from the pharaonic era of Egypt. His vast knowledge of the Coptic language, the liturgical language of the Christian Coptic Church with roots in ancient Egyptian, was invaluable in his decipherment of the Egyptian language, particularly in working out the grammar of the texts of hieroglyphic writings. In 1824, he published a book on the meaning of Egyptian hieroglyphics and for all intents and purposes, the mystery surrounding the meaning of that writing system had been solved.

Thus, in barely a quarter of a century from the time of the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, the Egyptian writing system of hieroglyphics had been deciphered so that almost all ancient Egyptian script can now be read with understanding. The scholastic exercise which resulted in the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphics has led scholars to agree that five factors should be present for a successful uncovering of the meaning of a "lost" written language: (1) a large database of the written script must be available; (2) the language must be known, susceptible to being reconstructed, or at least identifiable by the linguistic family to which it belongs; (3) there should be a bilingual text containing the known and unknown languages; (4) the cultural context of a script, including the history, traditions, names of locations, royal names and titles, should be known; and (5) if the script is logagraphic, there should be pictorial references accompanying the text.

Ironically, all of the requisite factors were available to those who attempted to decipher the written language of the Maya in greater quantity, better quality and at an earlier date than those who struggled with uncovering the meaning of Egyptian hieroglyphics in the early 19th Century. However, it took almost five times as long to decipher the Maya glyphs as it did Egyptian hieroglyphics. The reasons for the extended period to decipher the Maya written script are regrettable, if not inexcusable.

Surprisingly, evidence of a Maya written script reached Europe two years prior to the time that the conquistadors conquered Mexico. In 1519, Cortés and his subordinates sent to the King of Spain several items acquired during their Yucatan expedition including several bark paper manuscripts, the codices. Although copies were made of the codices for review by various scholars throughout Europe, no particular significance was attached to these manuscripts for over 350 years.

Perhaps even more surprising is that in 1566 the "Rosetta Stone" of the Maya script had been set out in writing by a Spanish bishop who lead the Church's activities in the Yucatan. Bishop Diego de Landa was a very zealous follower of the proscriptions of the inquisition. He destroyed all the Maya manuscripts he could locate because, in his view, they dealt with idolatry. Ironically, he also prepared a manuscript, based upon extensive discussions he had with knowledgeable Maya scribes, which not only explained the Maya calendar and many of their astronomical observations but also set forth a passably accurate transliteration of Maya written symbols into Spanish. Here again, no use was made of Bishop Landa's manuscript for 300 years.

The lack of intellectual curiosity over this long period of time toward the codices and Bishop Landa's manuscript was also reflected in the indifference shown to the Maya monuments and ruins located in the southern lowlands and the Yucatan. Although a few expeditions at the end of the 18th Century and the beginning of the 19th Century were directed toward finding the monuments and ruins, the members of the expeditions were untrained adventurers, soldier of fortune types rather than archeological scholars, and little, if any, findings of consequence were developed by reason of their expeditions. However, in 1839 an American lawyer, John Lloyd Stevens, was commissioned by President Martin Van Buren to assess the power structure of Central America and to make contact with appropriate persons on behalf of the United States. Stevens, apparently concluded that he would have spare time to explore the ruins in Mesoamerica, because he requested a friend of his, an Englishman, Frederick Catherwood, an accomplished artist who had substantial archeological experience, to join him in this venture. The two made a very significant inroad in bringing the Maya civilization to the attention of interested scholars throughout the world. Together they explored, surveyed and described, in writing and pictorially, major buildings and monuments located on several Maya sites, including Copàn, Palenque and Uxmal. Stevens strongly suspected that there was a linguistic significance to the inscriptions on the monuments they uncovered.

Interestingly, the next major exploration to the Maya territory which resulted in uncovering Maya ruins had no relationship whatsoever to any scholarly goal; rather, it was strictly business. In the 1890's, chewing gum became widely accepted by Americans. Chicle, the base for chewing gum, is located in the jungle areas where Maya ruins exist. Inadvertently, those searching for chicle to be made into chewing gum discovered several Maya monuments and ruins which otherwise may not have been uncovered.

On the scholarly front, a French abbe, Charles Brosseur de Bourboury made a series of discoveries in the 1860's which should have led to the decipherment of the Maya text soon thereafter. Abbe Brosseur, unlike virtually all of his predecessor and most of his successor Mayanists, studied and became conversant in several Maya languages during his assignment in Guatemala. In 1862, while researching material about the Americas in the Royal Academy of History in Madrid, he came across the manuscript of Bishop Landa containing the transliteration of the Maya glyphs. From that he was able to understand the Maya calendar, including the names of the days of the 260 day sacred calendar and the months in the 365 day solar calendar, by noting the appropriate glyphs; he also mastered the numerical system used by the Maya. Applying his knowledge to copies of the codices which were located in various cities in Europe, Brosseur was able to identify the day and month signs in the codices as well as the numerical system set forth in those manuscripts. He also correctly concluded that the inscriptions on the codices were substantially the same as those on the Maya monuments in Central America. However, he misunderstood Bishop Landa's explanation on how the Maya writing system worked. Abbe Brosseur assumed that all glyphs were phonetic rather than logagraphic, a mix of both phonetic and semantic symbols. Also he read the writings backwards from right to left. Finally he was fixated with a view that the Maya were descended from the inhabitants of the lost continent of Atlantis and, in attempting to prove this point, he twisted the meaning of the Maya text to comport with his theory.

Brosseur's romantic misconception regarding the origin of the Maya people was a common failing of many who were attempting to understand the mysteries of the ancient Maya civilization. Most of these people were not professional scholars, and even several professionals approached the subject matter with a lack of objectivity. More often than not, they could not accept the fact that an indigenous people from the New World created the monuments and structures which evidenced a highly developed civilization that once existed in the land occupied by the Maya. Therefore, it was often claimed that those who built the monuments and other structures in the Maya territory were descendants of such disparate groups as the lost tribes of Israel, pharaonic period Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Phoenicians and numerous others from ancient civilizations.

Toward the end of the 19th Century two schools of view had developed with respect to the meaning of the Maya glyphs. One school, the anti-phoneticists, asserted that the glyphs were merely symbols denoting numbers, days, months and astronomical events. They did not refer to history or reflect a written language. The other school, the phoneticists, maintained that the glyphs represented a phonetic link to a spoken language. The clash between the two schools was quite intense as demonstrated by an incident involving an American scholar, Cyrus Thomas, who in the late 19th Century maintained that the Maya script was both phonetic and semantic and, accordingly, represented a spoken language. Thomas, however, appeared to be somewhat embarrassed by his meager scholastic credentials compared to the anti-phoneticists whose academic accomplishments were most impressive. After his pronouncement on the phonetic nature of the Maya script, he was repeatedly attacked by the anti-phoneticists, more on the grounds of his modest academic accomplishments than on the merits of his position. A few years later, in the early 1900's, Thomas completely recanted his view and subscribed to the position of the anti-phonetic school, perhaps because he was overwhelmed by the imposing academic credentials of members of that group.

The blatant display of intellectual arrogance which caused poor Cyrus Thomas to recant his theory concerning the phonetic nature of the ancient Maya text at the beginning of this century continued to be directed toward other proponents of the phonetic school until the struggle between the two ended in the mid 1970's. Ironically, the most flagrant intimidator of the phoneticists was the foremost Maya scholar of his day, Sir Eric Thompson.

Thompson was exceptionally well versed in many disciplines, including classical literature and Greek mythology. He became interested in Maya studies and in the 1930's associated with the Carnegie Institution of Washington, the leader in Maya research at that time. Although he was a superb archeologist and made many contributions as a Mayanist, he never was able to speak, or even bothered to learn, a Maya language.

Thompson advanced many theories, some of which had been articulated by his predecessors, concerning the Maya people. He asserted that they were a very peaceful nation, concerned with the supernatural and absorbed with a metaphysical life. As to the Maya text, Thompson, being an ardent anti-phoneticist, contended that the inscriptions on the monuments, the Maya glyphs, did not reflect a spoken language but rather were idiographs which related to mystical and mythological occurrences and astronomical and calendrical events. He also asserted rather forcefully that the text in no way related to the history of the people.

By reason of his intellectual prowess and keen mind, which his colleagues both respected and feared, Eric Thompson was a very formidable opponent to those who asserted that the Maya written text reflected the spoken language of the people. He attacked all phoneticists vociferously, generally by seizing on certain details of their thesis rather than challenging the central point of their position. He overwhelmed the phoneticists with his incredible command of facts and his erudition. However, in 1952, a Russian phoneticist appeared on the scene who could not be silenced by him.

Yuri Knorossov served in the Red Army as an artillery spotter during World War II. In early May 1945, he entered Berlin with his army unit and noted that the national library was being consumed in a fire. He rescued a book from the flames and, amazingly, it was a one volume edition of copies of the then three known existing Maya codices. After the war, Knorossov studied ancient languages, specializing in comparative linguistic analysis. During the course of his studies he was challenged by a professor to attempt to decipher Bishop Landa's work and to seek to unlock the meaning, if there was one, of the Maya script. As a consequence, he wrote his dissertation on Landa's work.

In 1952, Knorossov, then a resident of Leningrad, published the seminal paper on the key to deciphering the ancient Maya written language. By employing his speciality, comparative linguistic analysis, to ancient languages, Knorossov asserted that all early scripts, whether Egyptian, Chinese or Mesapotamian, follow the same pattern; they are all logographic and therefore use a mix of phonetic and semantic symbols. He stated that a particular symbol can be both phonetic as well as semantic. Finally, he stated that Bishop Landa's transliteration of the Maya text reflected the verbal meaning of the language that was spoken at that time. In short, Knorosov was suggesting, although never stating it as such, that Landa's work represented the "Rosetta Stone" for uncovering the meaning of the ancient written language of the Maya.

Knorosov's work was immediately attacked by Thompson and other members of the anti-phonetic school. Gradually, however, in the early 1960's other scholars took notice of Knorossov's premise, and some were able to apply his approach in translating an occasional Maya word inscribed on a monument by using Bishop Landa's work. Moreover, and unlike the phoneticists who preceded him, Thompson's attacks never caused Knorosov to waiver in asserting the merits of his hypothesis.

Following the attacks on Knorossov's approach by Thompson and his fellow anti-phoneticists, two significant events occurred which caused the anti-phoneticists' position to collapse. In 1960, another Russian born Maya scholar, but one who became a naturalized American citizen, Tatiana Proshouriakoff, reached a conclusion which was in direct conflict with one of Thompson's most cherished theories. After endless studies of Maya monuments and other physical structures, she published findings that the figures on the monuments did not represent gods, spirits or any other religious characters but instead represented the rulers and their families. She further asserted that the dates on the monuments represented births, deaths and other records of the lifetime of the rulers. They had nothing to do with metaphysics or mysticism. In short, Proshouriakoff established that the engravings related to history. Thus, it followed that the Maya recorded their history. Thompson, although initially rejecting Proshouriakoff's work, eventually, but reluctantly, accepted her thesis and in doing so indirectly acknowledged the error of one of his basic, deep-seated theories regarding the Maya, i.e., his claim that they were oblivious to their history.

Then in 1973, three scholars involved in Maya studies, an American linguist well-versed in Maya languages and two knowledgeable epigraphers (scholars who study ancient writing systems), one an American and the other an Australian, gathered at a Maya ruin in Palenque and successfully carried out a project which clearly established that the glyphs reflected the spoken language of the Maya. In two and a half hours they were able to decipher the engravings on the monuments which told the life history of the last six successive rulers of Palenque , a time frame which spanned 200 years. Their approach was to rely on Knorossov's method of linguistic analysis together with Bishop Landa's transliteration. They also followed Proshouriakoff's thesis that the engravings represented historical events in the life of the ruler. Finally, and to a considerable extent, they relied upon their intuition and instinct. Approximately one year later, in a three and half hour period, they were able to decipher the balance of the history of Palenque, the 200 years preceding the period they uncovered a year earlier. Thus, the entire life history of the kings of Palenque as written in the Maya text on the monuments had been deciphered. Ironically, the following year, 1975, Eric Thompson was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II; a few months thereafter he passed away. With his passing, or perhaps because of it, the decipherment of the Maya written text began to proceed at a rapid pace.

After many years, indeed centuries, of neglect, in the late 1970's the study of Maya civilization, including the written language, became a fashionable subject of inquiry. Accordingly, many brilliant young scholars have been attracted to this field. Most of the scholars are Americans, however, regardless of their national origin, all are well versed in at least one or more Maya languages.

Because of the work of the present day Mayanists, 800 symbols in the Maya language have now been identified; however, less than one-third appear more than once in Maya writings. Of the 800 glyphs, over 150 are known to be phonetic, and most of them have been deciphered. It was predicted a few years ago that all phonetic symbols in the Maya language will be deciphered in the near future.

It had been assumed for the past 100 or more years that there were only two sources for the Maya glyphs: the codices and the monuments. As to the codices, until recently there were only three known to be in existence, all located in Europe as a result of Cortes' expedition into the Yucatan. Recently, a fourth codex was located in Mexico. However, the codices do not provide a wealth of information since the subject matter covered is largely limited to astronomical and calendrical events. Moreover, the monuments on which the Maya inscriptions are engraved, stone walls, stelae and masonry structures, are sometimes in a state of disrepair, but even when in good condition the wording, as with all inscriptions on monuments, is rather sparse. Fortunately, a new source, ceramic pottery produced during the Classic Period, is now being read by Mayanist. It is anticipated that the writings on the ceramics may be a fertile source of knowledge reflecting the written records of the Maya during their golden age and may cover subjects or events which have not as yet come to our attention.

Perhaps someday deciphered Maya writings will reveal why their civilization collapsed at the end of the Classic Period. This may be very instructive for those inhabiting our planet when this mystery is solved. The apparent reasons suggested for the collapse environmental problems relating to the destruction of forests and the water supply, overpopulation, constant wars between national states and incompetent leaders do not seem to be far removed from our problems of today and those we foresee for the future.


Coe, Michael, Breaking the Maya Code, 1992
Freidel, Schele and Parker, Maya Cosmos, 1993
Gillette, Douglas, The Shaman's Secret, The Lost Resurrection Teachings of the Ancient Maya, 1997
Schele and Freidel, A Forest of Kings, The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya, 1990
Stevens, John, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan, 1841
Stuart, George and Gene, The Mysterious Maya, 1983
Thompson, Eric, Maya Archaeologist, 1963
Age of the Scribe; Deciphering the Secrets of the Maya, International Herald Tribune, December 27, 1997
Breaking the Maya Code, New York Academy of Sciences, (March - April 1994)
Cracking the Maya's Code: A New Light of Dark History, Economist, December 21, 1996
Decipherment of Ancient Maya, The Atlantic, September 1991
Secrets of the Maya, Time, August 9, 1993

Return to PAPERS
Return to Main Menu