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
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. …