Tuesday, December 14, 2010


I’ve been meaning to get to this, and given the time-sensitive nature of the exhibit, I better do it now. I recently visited the Kimbell Art Museum in Ft. Worth, TX and spent almost all my time in their special exhibit, Fiery Pool: The Maya and the Mythic Sea (until January 2, 2011). Not only were the pieces of Pre-Columbian art amazing, but the recorded Mayan language was an archaeological and linguistic puzzle for hundreds of years.

We all know about hieroglyphics, the Egyptian writing form. But the Mayan was much more complex, including both stylized pictorial and phonics elements within a glyph. The language researchers had to figure that out and then break the glyphs into their components.

And just what is a glyph, you might be asking. It is a relatively new word (18th century) from Greek to French to English. The Greek word meant “carving.” A glyph is a sculptured character or symbol, a form of pictograph.

The Mayans carved these symbols into stone and painted them on pottery and walls. A few hundred years before the Spanish arrived, the Mayan culture was in decline. The people spread away from their cultural centers, so there were fewer who could read the old glyphs. The invading Spanish and their accompanying priests did a pretty good job of finishing the dispersal and trying to wipe the Mayan culture out. Those factors made translating more than a few of the enormous trove of glyphs an impossible task until late in the last century. Yes, the 1980’s!

An early-arriving priest had left a kind of Rosetta Stone that recorded some glyphs the Mayans of the time told him, but archaeologists still couldn’t “read” the panels of glyphs. There is a history of the small insights and understandings linguists had over the years you can read on Wikipedia. For example, they figured the numbers out pretty early.

The big breakthrough came with figuring out the word “water” and in realizing there were phonetic elements. Once linguists had decoded the glyph for “water”, they began to identify glyphs for sea creatures and others who lived by the sea. Somehow, amazingly they were able to go from those early glyphs to being able to read whole selections. Not all Mayan writing has been translated; it is on-going. But the major breakthroughs and the amount that can be read bodes well for the completion of the task.

I just love archaeology stuff in general, and being a language person, the idea that a written language has only been created a few times in history is intriguing. What motivated some cultures to figure out a way to document and pass along their stories and information? Who conceptualized the glyph system? How did he (or she) convince others to use it? Who taught the thousands of Mayans to read the glyphs? How universal was literacy? Well, youth wants to know (and so does old age, by the way).

There is still so much to learn about the glyphs and the Mayans. But think what a great historical novel you could do with chapters on translating the tale on panel glyphs alternating with the ‘real’ story behind the writing. I would have a woman creating the glyphs, of course! Why not? Maybe she has to pretend to be a male in order to be a priest. That could be a good story! Does she have a happy ending? Not in my tale. I’d have her unmasked and killed as a warning to other women not to try to enter the world of men. But her secret daughter carries on her mother’s work until the value is recognized and her mother’s contributions are acknowledged. Great story, eh?

I tried to paste in the glyph that means “scribe”. It didn't work, unfortunately. But check it out on a search for Mayan glyphs. Look at it and tell me you could have figured that out! And what about the syntax? However did they know that part of the glyph is a syllabary? Doesn’t this just sound like the most exciting job ever (except for author, of course)?

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