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Reading signs: Breaking the Maya code

When Martha Macri was growing up in Vinita, Okla., her father liked to teach her words in Cherokee. On Sundays they would visit a full-blood uncle who had a copy of the famous syllabary invented by Sequoyah. That's where she began learning some of the 85 signs that transfigured Cherokee life.

"I was aware of 'funny' writing systems from an early age," Macri recalled by telephone from her home in northern California. An enrolled Cherokee, she teaches in the Native American Studies department at the University of California/Davis. Her current project, cataloguing a Native language preserved in an intricate and complex script, would likely have impressed Sequoyah himself.

Macri is the founder of the Maya Hieroglyphic Database Project (MHDP), based at UC Davis. The goal of MHDP is to make available a comprehensive database of glyphs (signs) to scholars and serious students. With each entry labeled in numeric code, English, Maya, and other indices, said Macri, it is the only current Maya database to use visual images.

So far the project has amassed over 40,000 glyph "blocks," distinct images found in ancient stone carvings, stucco modeling, ceramics, shell, and jade from the Classic period (300-900 AD). The glyphs reveal calendrical information, religious knowledge, historic chronicles, and mythological stories.

Identifiable as Maya as early as 200 AD, explained Macri, the script continued in southern Mexico and Guatemala for almost 1,500 years until suppressed by the Spanish after the Conquest. Sooner or later, knowledge of how to read the glyphs was lost - and wouldn't be recovered for centuries.

"In ancient Mesoamerica there are lists of rulers with their birth dates, their accession dates, their death dates, their mothers' names, their fathers' names, dating from 300 AD - that's way ahead of northern Europe at that time," said Macri. "Native people in the Americas really did have written history from an early time."

Book (or codex) glyphs form a smaller database at Davis of about 8,000 images. The books, of which only a handful remains, were likely written within a couple hundred years of the Conquest, Macri noted, although they contain older texts as well.

Macri revealed the project's latest discovery: the script for the books and the script for the Classic period glyphs developed separately. Of common origin, the two probably diverged about 400 AD, but the Classic script added new signs never found in the codices. It is as if English had developed separate alphabets over time for use in books and visual media.

Macri started the database while a graduate student in 1983. The National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Science Foundation funded computers and graduate assistants. The funding, said Macri, who has a Ph.D. in Linguistics from UC/Berkeley, "demonstrates that Native Americans Studies is a discipline that national funding agencies are interested in working with and capable of doing serious research that's recognized by peer review."

The MHDP uses low resolution images and line drawings. Since scanning glyphs is easier than redrawing them, Macri said, gathering permissions is an important part of the work she shares with colleagues Matthew Looper, Choctaw and Gabrielle Vail. In 2003, Macri and Looper published "The New Catalog of Maya Hieroglyphs" (University of Oklahoma Press), which makes public a large part of their work.

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For years, Maya glyphs were an elegant puzzle. Though the calendar information was cracked in the 19th century, it wasn't until the 1950s that a Russian, Yuri Knorosov, unlocked the phonetic nature of the script. It took a couple decades for his theory to be accepted, and decipherment began in earnest in the 1980s.

Today, there are few Maya texts we can't read, even if some signs remain cryptic. But knowing a text and grasping its nuance are two different things. "There's lots of work to be done still, work in understanding," Macri admitted. "It's sort of like Shakespeare - Shakespeare will never be finished as long as people are trying to figure out what he meant here and there."

Before Knorosov, ancient Maya script, like Egyptian hieroglyphs, was thought to be pictographic or logographic (based on pictures or whole words). Scientists didn't grasp that "primitive" cultures were also capable of developing phonetic (sound-based) scripts, even if some of their glyphs, as in Maya, were pictorial.

Diego de Landa, the 16th century Spanish father who saved a few Maya books (though he burned dozens more), even developed a rudimentary alphabet. What he failed to realize was that Maya script was unlike any he'd ever seen before.

That's because the phonetics of Maya script are syllabic, not alphabetic. Rather than give the sign for a consonant or a vowel the way an alphabet would, Macri explained, the glyph gives the sign for both a consonant and a vowel - a whole syllable. It's the same principle Sequoyah later used in developing a written script for Cherokee.

In spite of the breakthroughs, misconceptions about Maya script abound. Many people still think the glyphs are not a fully developed writing system. They confuse Maya script with books from central Mexico, pictorial histories not fully developed in the phonetic sense.

Since the glyphs use repetitions and parallel constructions found in oral literature, our very notion of how they were "read" should be flexible. At Palenque (Mexico), Macri mused, whose inscriptions form the basis of her dissertation, one can well imagine tablets at the top of temple stairs being recited to a spellbound crowd below.

Contrary to common belief, many ancient Maya would have been literate, even if literacy had different levels. "To have the motor skill to produce these glyphs" was one thing, Macri said, "and another to have the really detailed knowledge of the calendar that's required to bring dates forward from the past and to predict dates into the future that are quite accurate."

Just as it is now believed the elite were not the only Maya who could read, it is no longer assumed that another elite, archaeologists who descend on Mayaland from the north, are the only ones fit to interpret their culture. That "recolonization," Macri noted, is cause for growing concern in the scientific world.

(Continued in Part Two)