Ancient Maya writing ... What is known and unknown

Over the years scholars have debated the question of what exactly the hallmarks of civilization are. Many consider the development of writing, mathematics, astronomy, stratified society, trade systems, etc. as a measurement of progression towards high culture. ( A foolish argument, in my judgement. By now everyone should know that true civilization is earmarked by hot showers and ice in your drink.) Nevertheless the use of writing traditionally been considered a gauge for determining how far a civilization has evolved from more modest beginnings.

In the case of the ancient Maya it is certainly true that their system of writing is hailed as one of the most remarkable achievements of the Pre-Columbian New World. The ability to record information in relatively permanent records which could be passed on from generation to generation insured continuity in the transmission of seasonal and astronomical data. This led to the refinement of mathematic systems and, as it turned out, development of a calendar far more accurate than that used in Europe well into the sixteenth century.

While it is certainly true that the Maya writing system was the most refined in all of Mesoamerica, other cultures eventually caught on to the idea. The Aztec and Mixtec cultures adopted a somewhat less sophisticated form of record keeping, with strong emphasis on picture-writing as opposed to the Maya system that was language oriented. In South America, the Inca developed a complicated system of record keeping using knotted strings which suited their needs in keeping track of herds of animals, but they never got around to writing things down.

The Maya, on the other hand, manufactured paper from the inner bark of certain kinds of trees, mainly the amate and ficus. Stone bark-beaters, oblong, flat grooved tools about hand-size were used to pound out the bark which was then bleached with lime, cut into strips and folded like a Japanese screen. A variety of paints were employed to illustrate these "books", which were painted on both sides and bound between elaborately decorated boards.

Nearly all of the Maya books did not survive the Spanish conquest because the Maya writing was deemed to have been inspired by the Devil, and the church and government officials went to extreme lengths to destroy these examples of "paganism". No telling how many hundreds or thousands of volumes were burned in the name of Christianity, but three books have survived. All are presently reposing in European museums having been sent to patrons and friends of Spanish conquistadors in the sixteenth century. Given the determination of Bishop Diego de Landa, the second bishop of Yucatan in the mid-sixteenth century, it is a wonder that anything Maya survived. Landa was something of a double-edged sword. As a scholar he was very interested in all aspects of Maya culture and went so far as to interview informants and record a great deal of data concerning the day-to-day life of the Yucatec Maya while systematically destroying the very culture he recorded. In a passage that accompanies Landa's description of Maya writing, he ironically discusses his role in the destruction of the Maya libraries: "We found a large number of books in these characters, and as they contained nothing in which there were not to be seen superstition and lies of the devil, we burned them all, which they regretted to an amazing degree, and which caused them much affliction."

No Maya books (called a codex, or plural codices) have been found in an archeological context. The climate of the Maya world is so moist and the mildew so pervasive it is highly unlikely any have survived. Fragments have been found in tombs in several Maya sites, including Altun Ha in Belize. It has been said the remnants of the codex had the consistency of a cigar ash. The so-called Mirador Codex, found at the early Classic site of El Mirador in Mexico remains unopened at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico. The paper portion of the book has long since rotted away, leaving only the lime coating and the painted characters which have melded into a solid block. Present technology does not permit further study, but it is hoped that some day a way will be found to extract the information contained is this rare treasure trove of Maya writing. Archeologists and epigraphers (students of ancient writing) alike are biting their nails over this one because nearly everything known about the ancient Maya mathematics, calendrics, astronomy and the religious pantheon has been recovered by scholars from the three existing codices. Imagine what could be learned from, let's say, ten books- or a hundred. It is a disquieting thought. We would have such a complete understanding of the ancient Maya I would certainly be out of a job.

With the Maya books, paintings, decorated pottery, carved stone monuments all containing examples of the Maya writing, why is it that scholars have thus far been unable to decipher most of the hieroglyphic symbols? Next- breaking the Maya code.

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