Cracking the Maya Code
Code of the Maya Kings

Cracking the Maya Code
Code of the Maya Kings

The ancient Maya civilization of Central America left behind a riddle: an intricate and mysterious hieroglyphic script carved on stone monuments and painted on pottery and bark books.

Because the invading Spanish suppressed nearly all knowledge of how the script worked, unlocking its meaning posed one of archaeology's fiercest challenges.

Until now.

The Maya script, also known as Maya glyphs or Maya hieroglyphs, was the writing system of the pre-Columbian Maya civilization of Mesoamerica, presently the only Mesoamerican writing system that has been substantially deciphered.

The earliest inscriptions found which are identifiably Maya date to the 3rd century BCE in San Bartolo, Guatemala, and writing was in continuous use until shortly after the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century CE (and even later in isolated areas such as Tayasal).

Maya writing used logograms complemented by a set of syllabic glyphs, somewhat similar in function to modern Japanese writing. Maya writing was called "hieroglyphics" or hieroglyphs by early European explorers of the 18th and 19th centuries who did not understand it but found its general appearance reminiscent of Egyptian hieroglyphs, to which the Maya writing system is not at all related.

The decipherment of the writing was a long and laborious process. 19th century and early 20th century investigators managed to decode the Maya numbers and portions of the texts related to astronomy and the Maya calendar, but understanding of most of the rest long eluded scholars.

Dramatic breakthroughs occurred in the 1970s – in particular, at the first Mesa Redonda de Palenque, a scholarly conference organized by Merle Greene Robertson at the Classic Maya site of Palenque held in December, 1973.

A working group was led by Linda Schele, an art historian and epigrapher at the University of Texas at Austin, which included Floyd Lounsbury, a linguist from Yale, and Peter Mathews, then an undergraduate student of David Kelley's at the University of Calgary (whom Kelley sent because he could not attend).

In one afternoon they managed to decipher the first dynastic list of Maya kings – the ancient kings of the city of Palenque.

By identifying a sign as an important royal title (now read as the recurring name K'inich), the group was able to identify and "read" the life histories (from birth, to accession to the throne, to death) of six kings of Palenque.

From that point, progress proceeded at an exponential pace, not only in the decipherment of the Maya glyphs, but also towards the construction of a new, historically-based understanding of Maya civilization.

Progress in decipherment continues at a rapid pace today, and it is generally agreed by scholars that over 90 percent of the Maya texts can now be read with reasonable accuracy.