The Flower on the Stone - The Mayan Writing

The Mayan writing system is the only deciphered Mesoamerican writing system so far. Mayans wrote painting over ceramics, stucco and tree-bark, however most of the few writings that have survived up to now are carved in stone and wood.

When the Spaniards arrived in the Yucatan peninsula by the 16th century, they found Mayan people that had long lost their cultural splendor. There were only almost-primitive villages scattered mainly by the shore. It wasn’t until the 18th and 19th centuries when the ancient Mayan cities were discovered inland, under the thick jungle canopy, giving a powerful proof of the brightness that this culture had in the past.

Along with the magnificent architecture, the European explorers also discovered a writing system that they couldn’t help comparing to that of ancient Egypt. Thus, they called it “Mayan hieroglyphs”, but by the middle of the 20th century the Mayan writing system was found to have little if nothing to do with the Egyptian one, and this is one of the reasons why many attempts to decipher it simply failed before.

We know now that it was father Diego de Landa who undertook the task of getting rid of most codex and books, because he considered the symbols to be sacrilegious. At the same time he was the first one to try to give Mayan language a writing system through a syllabary, by matching the Spanish alphabet with Mayan phonetics. Such system, although inaccurate, was of great help when deciphering the symbols centuries after.

Between 1952 and 1963 Russian archaeologist Yuri Knorozov took great interest in studying father Landa’s legacy and reached the conclusion that he tried to complete a syllabary rather than an alphabet strictly speaking. Such discovery brought researchers to a better understanding of the symbols in the ancient temples and buildings, known in grammar as logograms, that is to say, closer in structure to Japanese or Korean. By the 1980’s decade most of them were already deciphered.

In grammar, a logogram is the smallest written unit with own meaning. It could represent a sentence, a word or a syllable depending on its position. In the Mayan case, the system consisted of placing logograms in pairs, from left to right and from top to bottom. Within each logogram the main figure represents the meaning and the smaller ones provide inflexions, prepositions and other grammar cases.

In the beginning they thought that the Mayan writing system evolved from the Olmec one, recent discoveries led to the conclusion that it was actually the other way around, making the Mayan writing system the oldest and most complex in Mesoamerica.

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