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

By Bannatyne, Lesley | The Christian Science Monitor, May 24, 2005 | Go to article overview

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


Bannatyne, Lesley, The Christian Science Monitor


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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

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

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.