Authors, experts, and scholars have devoted their lives to deciphering texts of ancient cultures. Although, there are no codemakers involved in the Mayan glyphs, as Singh points out that "the principles of archaeological decipherment are essentially the same as those of conventional military cryptanalysis" (Singh, 199, p. 202).
Diego de Landa’s Relación de las Cosas de Yucatan and his “alphabet”
The greatest single discovery for future decipherment of the hieroglyphs was by Brasseur de Bourbourg. In 1862, Brasseur (an abbé from northern France) discovered in the Royal Academy of History, Diego de Landa’s Relacion de las Cosas de Yucatan (“An Account of All Things of Yucatan”). Landa provided the first “real” crib (although not entirely correct) for deciphering the Mayan script. Diego’s Spanish manuscript included such sections as the provinces of Yucatan, the food and drink, the clothing and other important details. The most important part of the manuscript to decipherment and epigraphers was Landa’s “a,b,c” of the Maya or an “alphabet” consisting of 27 sounds.
In 1880, Valentini (as cited in Thompson, 1950, p. 46) supposed that Landa “pronounced the letters of the alphabet to an educated Maya, and the latter drew a glyphic elements which resembled the sound” this resulted in errors in the alphabet. For example, Landa asked Juan Nachi Cocom (the informant) how they wrote le. Landa would have pronounced the “complete word again: ‘ele, e: le’” (Robinson, 2002, p. 120); Juan then proceeded to write four glyphs instead of two to represent the sounds . In addition to this error, scholars quickly realized that there were more than 700 additional signs not included in Landa’s “alphabet”. Scholars knew from then that the Maya script could not be alphabetic (there were far too many signs) or logographic (there were far too few signs (signs that denote whole words, such as for sun) and what is known is that Mayan writings were “syllabic with an admixture of pure vowels” (Robinson, 2002, p. 121).
the sound” this resulted in errors in the alphabet. For example, Landa asked Juan Nachi Cocom (the informant) how they wrote le. Landa would have pronounced the “complete word again: ‘ele, e: le’” (Robinson, 2002, p. 120); Juan then proceeded to write four glyphs instead of two to represent the sounds . In addition to this error, scholars quickly realized that there were more than 700 additional signs not included in Landa’s “alphabet”. Scholars knew from then that the Maya script could not be alphabetic (there were far too many signs) or logographic (there were far too few signs (signs that denote whole words, such as for sun) and what is known is that Mayan writings were “syllabic with an admixture of pure vowels” (Robinson, 2002, p. 121).
Landa describes that he found a great number of books about the Maya antiquities and sciences but since “they contained nothing but superstitions and falsehoods of the devil we [Landa and the missionaries] burned them all” (Landa, 1937, p. 82). What was ironic was that Landa’s manuscript Relacion de las Cosas de Yucatan was in appeal to charges brought by the Spanish authorities for his illegal Inquisition of the Maya. Landa who burned codices would also note “the essential clue to the decipherment of the glyphs four centuries later” (Robinson, 2002, p. 119).
Brasseur de Bourbourg was the first to attempt to apply Landa’s alphabet to the Madrid codex which resulted in only nonsense. In 1876, Léon de Rosny (with Landa’s idea that the hieroglyphs were phonetic) realized that glyphs for certain animals (dog, turkey, parrot and jaguar) could “be identified by examining the glyphs above the pictures of these creatures” (Robinson, 2002, p. 121). Using Landa’s alphabet, the turkey glyph had the first sign of cu and Rosny guessed the second glyph to be tz(u). The Yucatec Mayan word for turkey is ‘cutz’. Conclusions to Rosny’s work show that the Mayan writing is a phonetic system that is based on syllables.
After about 1905, the phonetic approach and Landa’s “alphabet” was discredited for almost half a century by J. Eric S. Thompson, the lead Mayan scholar on Mayan hieroglyphs at the time. Thompson favoured a “logographic (and slightly mystical) explanation for the glyph for ‘dog’, in which one sign represented ‘ribs’ and the other represented ‘death’; and he came to regard the whole system of glyphs as essentially non-phonetic, perhaps not a full writing system at all” (Robinson, 2002, p. 122). Pinzon and Auxillou believed that anyone who challenged Thompson’s theory was met with his “forceful personality and academic prestige” (The Twentieth Century section, para. 7) which resulted in the Age of Thompson and which retarded growth in deciphering the hieroglyphs. Only after Thompson’s death in 1976 would real deciphering begin and Yuri Knorozov’s correct phonetic approach to deciphering to be recognized.
Like Champollion was to Linear B, Yuri Knorozov was Mayan script’s main decipherer. And like Ventris, Knorozov was an “independent thinker in a position, off-center, to look at the glyphs with a fresh eye” (Robinson, 2002, p. 123). With this insight, Yuri proposed phonetic development by pointing out words in which the same signs were used in different combinations (Pope, 1999, p. 199). He discovered that the first sign in the dog glyph was the same as the second sign in the turkey glyph as deciphered by Rosny. So...the first sign in the dog glyph had the phonetic value tzu and the second sign was labelled l(u) from Landa’s symbol (Robinson, 2002, p. 123) which stood for tzul which is Yucatec for dog . One process used by epigraphers is called “‘syntactic auditioning’—the trial or testing of suggested values to see if they generate other readings and hold up to possible uses... [this] allowed decipherers to identify the vast majority of syllables in the hieroglyphic script (roughly eighty percent), and to create a ‘syllabary’ or syllabic grid” (Montgomery, 2004, p. 124, see below for grid). The other major contribution of Knorozov to decipherment was the idea of synharmony. This idea argued that the “vowel inherent in a final consonant should match the vowel in the previous syllable” (Robinson, 2002, p. 123) which was true most of the time (if not Knorozov called these vowels disharmonious). Using his processes of phonology, Knorozov found the 3-sign glyph for the numeral 11 (buluc) as well as 20 other glyphs.
Unfortunately, at this time Knorozov`s decipherments were discredited because of Thompson`s hostility towards phonetic thesis’s.
Heinrich Berlin and Tatiana Proskouriakoff—Historic Decipherment Theory
A western scholar by the name of Heinrich Berlin who lived in Mexico City discovered that each Maya city state had an ‘emblem glyph’. Each emblem glyph contained a pair of phonetic signs (Robinson, 2002, p. 126-127) which we now know stand for ‘ahaw’ or lord.
Dates off Mayan codices and stone monuments were now easily read, but no one knew what significance these dates had to the Maya. Tatiana Proskouriakoff was a scholar and archaeologist who began a new train of thought -- historical decipherment. Proskouriakoff noticed at Piedras Negras (a Maya site in Guatemala) that stelae (carved stone shafts) that “never exceeded a reasonable length for a human life span” (Montgomery, 2004, p. 162). Proskouriakoff also observed that there were always two glyphs on each stelae. The initial glyph (), she deduced referred to the ruler’s birth date and the second glyph () referred to the date of accession. These findings “shook the orthodox view” (Pope, 1999, p. 200) which previously thought these inscribed stones were merely temple dedications.
Next, Proskouriakoff traveled to Yaxchilán from Piedras Negras to test her ideas. She correctly identified “a series of rulers she called, based on components of their name glyphs, Shield Jaguar and Bird Jaguar. In addition, she identified glyphs for the rulers’ age and death” (Montgomery, 2004, p. 30). In 1964, Tatiana published her findings and even Thompson could agree that her conclusions were correct.
These stones of historical monuments discovered by Proskouriakoff also confirmed Knorozov’s interlocking word chu-ca-h(a) meaning ‘captured’ (Pope, 1999, p. 201).
In 1973, epigraphers would meet at Palenque to uncover the secrets of Ruz’s discovery of a funerary crypt and the sarcophagus of an ancient Maya king. These epigraphers were able to decipher the king’s name (Pacal), Pacal’s age of death, date of accession to the throne, Pacal’s father’s name and the name of his second son. Two important scholars present at this meeting were Linda Schele and Peter Mathews who pushed the decipherment forward, especially after the death of Thompson, when deciphering became rapid and frantic (Robinson, 2002, p. 131). Linda Schele, until her death in 1998, held annual Maya Meetings at the University of Texas at Austin which is the world’s largest meeting on the Maya script.
The complexities of the hieroglyphs are most prominently shown above in the syllabic grid that took 50+ years to create. For example, there are 13 variants for the pure vowel u and 6 for the syllable na. There are many hurdles in Mayan writings that create problems to those trying to decipher the script. These problems include laxity (there are five different ways to write balam (=’jaguar’); some entirely logographic and some entirely phonetic) where different looking glyphs representing the same word, the lack of writing sources of the Mayans, unpredictable mixtures of phonography and logography, individual glyphs could be soldered together and the fact that this language did not spread even to the Aztecs (Robinson, 2007, p. 132, 134; Pope, 1999, p. 203).
According to Jones, the Mayan writing system is one of only five times in the history of the world history where civilizations have “invented original, fully functional systems of writing. Evidence suggests that all other major written forms of language evolved from or were inspired by these five scripts[:]”(as cited in Montgomery, 2004, p. 1) the cuneiform script of Mesopotamia, the Egyptian hieroglyphs, the Chinese script, the script of the Haraappan civilization and the Mayan hieroglyphs.