Secrets of the Maya ... Unlocked! ; Thanks to a Spanish Bishop and a Russian Linguist, among Others, Scientists Are Finally Reading These Ancient Texts

Article excerpt

It's 1959. A young Ian Graham packs supplies on a few mules - food, mosquito nets, a camera, a machete - and hires a group of Guatemalans to lead him along the ragged jungle paths they've cut to gather chicle for chewing gum. The team treks through the humid overgrowth until they reach a site his guides had spotted earlier. There, beaten by weather and overrun with vines, lie ruins of the ancient Maya, a civilization that collapsed a thousand years ago.

Graham's passion is searching for treasures like these: crumbling buildings, statues, and tall stone monuments called stelae (STEEL- uh), carved with hieroglyphic writings. Graham works quickly to record his finds with photos, maps, and drawings.

That was the beginning of what became Dr. Graham's life work. He has been documenting all the inscribed monuments of the Mayas and publishing them in books so they won't be lost. He's recorded 400 monuments for the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphics, which he directs for the Peabody Museum in Cambridge, Mass. The work is not finished.

"New monuments do appear quite often," Graham says in an interview in his museum office. It's stuffed with books, wide tables, and a darkroom.

Maya hieroglyphics make up the only writing system native to the New World. They are also the last great language mystery on the planet. Some 85 percent of the writing has been deciphered, but the rest is still a puzzle many are working to solve.

Maya dates and numbers were decoded in the 1800s. But the key to Maya writing did not begin to unfold until the 1950s.

The Maya lived in what is now Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and Belize since at least 2600 BC. (See map.) Their hieroglyphic texts were inscribed mostly from AD 250 to 900. This is called the "Classic Period" of the Maya. After that, the Maya mysteriously abandoned many of their major cities, and their civilization collapsed.

In the 1500s, Spanish conquistadors defeated the indigenous peoples of the region and destroyed much of their culture. Maya books were burned - only a handful survived. Roman Catholic missionaries followed. The story of cracking the Maya code begins with one of them, Bishop Diego de Landa, who asked an educated Maya about his language.

"Well, the wretched fellow did the best he could," Graham recounts. The bishop assumed the Mayas had an alphabet, like Spanish. "The bishop asked, 'How do you write 'bay' - the letter 'B' in Spanish - and the man drew a picture of a pair of feet." People in Europe thought the man was making a joke. What alphabet includes feet? It wasn't until 1952 that Russian linguist Yuri Knorosov realized that the symbols stood for sounds, not letters. The sound "bay," in spoken Maya, means "road." The glyph for "road" is a little path with footprints!

Thanks to the work of many other epigraphers (eh-PIG-ruh-fers, people who decipher and classify ancient inscriptions), we now know that Maya writing has two kinds of symbols. Some represent whole words. For example, a picture of a spotted animal with long teeth means "jaguar." Other symbols represent sounds, such as "la," "ka," or "ma." When put together - la-ka-ma - they form "lakam," which means "banner." We know that from a 16th-century Spanish/Maya dictionary. The Maya used around 500 glyphs. They are inscribed in columns that are read in pairs from left to right, top to bottom.

Another breakthrough happened in 1960. Russian-American architect Tatiana Proskouriakoff noticed that when the ancient Maya drew a picture of a man being dragged by his hair, they often drew similar glyphs nearby, like a caption for the picture. She identified the symbols for "was captured" - chu-ka-ja, or "chukaj. …