Unravelling the Mysteries Trapped Within Mayan Hieroglyphs

For hundreds of years, linguists have been trying to decode the ancient hieroglyphic script of the Mayans, left behind on monument carvings, painted pottery, and drawn in handmade bark-paper books. Now, thanks to ongoing work by expert linguists, decipherment is advancing at a rapid rate and almost reaching completion – to date, 85 – 90% of the symbols have now been decoded.  Completing the decipherment will be a huge step forward for deepening our understanding of the social, political, and historical aspects of Maya civilization.

For a long time, many scholars believed that the script did not represent a language at all, or that it wasn’t a complete writing system, and it is easy to see why this belief prevailed – the writing is arguably one of the most visually striking writing systems of the world. It is very complex, with hundreds of unique signs or glyphs in the form of humans, animals, supernatural objects, and abstract designs. “Maya texts are often written in the form of blocks,” reports Phys.org in an article about latest studies on the script. “A block could contain one or multiple glyphs, representing a sound, a word or even an entire sentence.”

Mayan script is typically in the form of blocks, which can represent a sound, word, or sentence.

Mayan script is typically in the form of blocks, which can represent a sound, word, or sentence. (public domain)

The first major breakthrough in decipherment came during the 1950s when a Russian ethnologist proposed that the Mayan script was at least partly phonetic. His ideas were not welcomed, but he was eventually proved correct.  Progress accelerated during the 1970s and 1980s when more linguistics began to take an interest in the script, and scholars came to understand that it was in fact a fully functioning writing system in which it was possible to express unambiguously any sentence of the spoken language.

“While some five million people still speak a language that evolved out of Maya civilization, in South America, the written language has suffered a different fate,” writes Phys.org. “The secrets of the classical Maya were lost with the destruction of most works during the Spanish conquest in the 16th century.” Today, only three Mayan codices remain, though hieroglyphs are also preserved across hundreds of ancient sites.

Maya codex

Maya codex (Travis / Flickr)

Expert linguists are now working furiously on decipherment of the remaining 10 – 15% of hieroglyphic symbols that are unknown, and progress is being steadily made. Phys.org says that researchers with the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne in Switzerland have now come up with an algorithm to analyze Mayan writing. “The researchers will then be able to use this tool to quickly identify a given hieroglyph and its meaning, and to see, for example, what the most common combinations of symbols observed in the same ‘block’ of text are,” they report.

It is hoped that the new tool will eventually result in an online database that can be used by the scientific community in the analysis of Mayan texts and inscriptions. The project has the potential to open a new window into this powerful yet mysterious civilization.

Featured image: Madrid Codex. Maya Codex also known as Tro-Cortesianus. Origin unknown. Epoch: Late Postclassic. (Wikimedia Commons).

By: April Holloway

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