Mayan Hieroglyphics- Translating The Writing of the Past

By: The Scribe on Monday, February 7, 2011

Archaeologists had been trying to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics without success until the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799 CE. The stone contained the same writing in three different scripts: Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, Egyptian demotic script and, finally, Ancient Greek. The fact that the same message appeared in all three languages allowed archaeologists to work at translating the hieroglyphs.

A map showing the extent of Mayan influenceThe Mayan civilization as a whole was extremely advanced. It was initially established in the time period that lasted from 2000BCE to 250CE and did not fully decline until the Spanish arrived in the area. Their cultural influence was felt throughout Central America and has been felt in areas such as Guatemala, Northern El Salvador and Honduras. Even Mexico, which is located at some distance from the center of the Mayan empire, has felt their influence to a certain extent.

Although there were other cultures in the area, the Mayans are the only ones to have a written language that was fully developed as well as advanced architectural, astrological and mathematical systems as well. The Mayan calendar is known throughout the world and many people have spent years trying to decipher its meanings. Their written language was extremely advanced and was closer to the modern Japanese written language than it was to the Egyptian system of hieroglyphs.

Mayan hieroglyphs have proved to be much more challenging than the Egyptian system of hieroglyphs. There is no Rosetta Stone and, while the two writing systems do appear somewhat similar, they are actually completely unrelated. Being able to translate the language has been an ongoing process that has taken several centuries to accomplish and there are still large portions of writing that are still not fully translated.

Part of what has made Mayan hieroglyphs so difficult to translate is the fact that there are nearly 800 basic signs that make up the language and which can be combined in many different ways. Each of the signs represents a syllable rather than an individual letter. The modern English language, for example, uses a written alphabet that is made up of only 26 individual sounds. In the Mayan written language, there was often more than one symbol that would represent a single sound and scribes could choose from any one of these when writing out a particular word. An example of Mayan glyphs

There was also a specific way of recording numbers as well. There were no fractions or partial numbers in the Mayan numerical system. They used a combination of bars and dots in order to represent various numbers and the entire system followed a positional base-twenty numerical system. In the Mayan numerical system, a dot would represent 1 and a bar would represent 5. The Mayans did have a way to represent the number 0 and used a shell symbol to do so. Numbers could be written either vertically or horizontally although more complex numbers tended to be written vertically.

Although the Spanish did have contact with the Mayans and had a number of codices that contained their language, they were destroyed by Bishop Diego de Landa in an attempt to eradicate what he termed “pagan rites”. We have been struggling to translate the language ever since.


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