Cracking the Code

How do we know all this?

Our current knowledge of Maya glyphs comes from the following sources:

1. Maya inscriptions:

There are hundreds of stone inscriptions carved on monuments, staircases and wall panels, thousands of pottery vessels with painted scenes and glyphs, and also a few surviving stucco murals which also include written information. And every year, more are discovered. These texts provide a huge insight into Maya, and record what was important to the Maya elite. Many talk about specific events, the names and titles of the people involved, and where they come from. They also often provide very detailed calendar information, so the events can be precisely set in time.

2. The four surviving Maya codices:

Only four Maya books have so far been discovered, but they reveal an astonishing glimpse into Maya culture. Hand-painted on bark paper and accordion-folded, they are like astrological and religious almanacs, full of planetary calculations (including the cycles of Venus and the moon), pictures of Maya gods, calendrical information, practical instructions on planting a variety of crops, as well as prognostications on future events. Sadly, these four books are a fraction of the Maya libraries that must once have existed, but hopes of finding more are low. In one of history’s most shocking acts of cultural destruction, Friar Diego de Landa collected and burned hundreds of Maya books at the time of the conquest.

3. Relación de las Cosas de Yucatan:

The Relación de las Cosas de Yucatán (The Story of What Happened in the Yucatan) is the infamous Friar Diego de Landa's book about the Maya at the time of the Spanish conquest. As mentioned above, this book provided the essential bi-script that was the key to deciphering the glyphs. It also included valuable information on the Maya calendar and number glyphs.

Want to know more?

To read the full story of how the glyphs were deciphered, or how the Maya writing system works, the following books are highly recommended:

-  Breaking the Maya Code: Michael Coe, Thames & Hudson; 2012

-  Reading the Maya Glyphs, Michael Coe & Mark Van Stone, Thames &

   Hudson, 2003

-  Reading Maya Art, Andrea Stone & Marc Zender, Thames & Hudson, 2011

"Who shall read them?"

In 1840 two explorers - John Stephens & Frederick Catherwood - travelled through Central America searching in the dense jungle for the lost remains of a mysterious unknown civilization. When they arrived at the ruins of the ancient Maya city of Copan they were astonished by the extraordinary buildings and monuments, the captivating art and intriguing, but impenetrable hieroglyphic writing. In his account of their travels Stephens wrote. “One thing I believe, that its history is graven on its monuments. Who shall read them? (Stephens [1841].

Reading the glyphs wouldn't be easy. Fortunately for Maya scholars, the key elements necessary for a decipherment were in place: Maya languages were still spoken by Maya people, there was a large body of inscriptions to pour over and cross reference, and crucially, there was a bi-script (a text in both Maya and Spanish). Friar Diego De Landa had asked one of his Maya informants - Gaspar Chi to write down the Maya “alphabet” as well as a sentence in Mayan. This tantalizing but frustrating bit of information was published in

De Landa’s book on the Yucatan and the page puzzled scholars ever after. It was the Russian linguist Yuri Koronosov who finally realized that De Landa’s “alphabet” was actually a limited selection of Maya hieroglyphic syllables. With this breakthrough, scholars slowly began unravelled the secrets of the writing system. One of the final pieces of the puzzle was actually solved by 15 year old David Stuart - the son of an archaeologist working on the Maya. (David Stuart is now one of the leading Maya epigraphers.)

De Landa's "alphabet"

During the years where the glyphs couldn’t be read, there was a huge amount of wild speculation, half-baked theories and downright crazy ideas published

about the Maya. This included stories of aliens, the Lost Tribes of Israel and even the survivors of Atlantis.  Much of  rubbish still persists on the internet and is often seen portrayed in popular films.

Archaeologists can now read over 80% of the Maya signs. The glyphs that can’t be read are often names, or signs that are rarely used. So most Maya texts can be largely understood and this has completely transformed our understanding of the Maya. It has shown how so much of the early thinking and speculation about the Maya was completely wrong.

Two pages from the Dresden Codex

Catherwood's illustration of a stela from Copan.

Full figure glyphs from a stela in Quirigua