Mayan writing for Kids

July 19, 2015 – 07:33 am
Woman Work by Maya Angelou

Now a day almost every boy and girl goes to school to learn how to read and write. It's a very useful tool to have for it allows us to better our communication skills through letters, information pamphlets with other people; we can also read books and news papers to learn more about what's going on in the world. Writing also helps us organize and express our thoughts and feelings. The wonderful thing about it is that it's so simple; all we need is a pencil and a piece of paper.

But it was never this easy. The ancient Mayas didn't have any paper or pencils or books, nor were children taught how to write. Individuals who belonged to the nobility, the elite of the Mayan empire were the ones allowed to write. In addition, when they were to commemorate special events, they requested specially appointed scribes. And that is how part of the Mayan history was preserved.

How did the Mayas write?

The Mayas did not use letters to write but used drawings. These drawings are known as hieroglyphs, or just glyphs. In some occasions, we also use drawings instead of written words. Check out these next examples:

$ this symbol represents money.
An arrow indicates direction.
A cross almost always represents the church or religion.
A skull with bones represents danger. We sometimes see it on poisonous contents and it is also a symbol that people who do not know how to read can understand.

If the Mayas wanted to write the word “"jaguar" they would draw the head of a jaguar. They also had glyphs that would represent sounds, similar to our letters, however each glyph represented a syllable, meaning a joining of letters not only a letter. To write the word "jaguar", we use the letters a, g, j , r and u. The Mayas would draw three glyphs and each one representing a syllable like so:
ja + gu + ar

Sometimes the Mayas used the drawing and the symbol of a sound in a single glyph. It is quite difficult for us to read the Mayan glyphs. Some drawings, such as the head of the jaguar, are easily understood, but others are still in search for meaning.

What did the Mayas write with?

The ancient Mayas didn't have a pencil or ink, nor workbooks. All that they would use to write is what they would find in their natural surrounding. They would make ink out of natural pigments and would write with paintbrushes. They would use a certain type of paper that was bleached with lime stone to smoothen it out. They also didn't have books such as the ones we are familiar with, they used to fold long pieces of their home-made paper like a note book and they would use both sides of the page to write on.

These Mayan books are known as codices. They contain drawings and texts written in glyphs of the history of the Mayas, their beliefs and their way of life. Unfortunately only four codices survived the colonial conquest and are the sole survive on our planet. Since they are made out of a fragile type of paper, many were ruined by the humidity in the weather. In addition, the Spanish conquistadores burned many of these texts on the premise that they believed these texts to be diabolic, they limited the Mayan people form reading these texts as it went against their methods of converting them to Catholicism.

Is it possible to read a ladder???

One of the most beautiful constructions of the classical Mayan world is the Hieroglyphic staircase which is found in the Archaeological Park of Copan Ruinas. It s a giant pyramid measuring 21 meters high, with more than 2000 glyphs carved into the stairs. In the middle of the path way you can see five kings made out of stone. And at the very bottom you can see a giant head that represents the opening to the underworld.

This staircase was discovered in a terrible state. Half of the stairs had been eroded and it was near impossible to figure out the order of their original placement. The first archaeologists began to re-organize the carved stones but didn t know where exactly to place them since they were not able to interpret the glyphs, they simply put the stones in random places. It s a very complicated and long process for archaeologists, their noble attempts to re-construct the staircase was futile as it made a nice mess of things.

How to decipher Mayan hieroglyphs?

Deconstructing hieroglyphs is far from easy. Sometimes we could recognize an image for example the head of the jaguar, but in most cases what seem to be familiar images that are seen in most glyphs do not have the meaning that we may think. Nevertheless, in recent years with the discovery of newer glyphs and meanings archaeologists have been able to decipher 85% of all the Mayan hieroglyphs!

One of the most important individuals on the understanding of Mayan glyphs is the Spanish Bishop Diego de Landa who arrived in the Yucatan of Mexico in 1562; he took a strong interest in understanding and deciphering the sounds that are represented by each glyph. The problem with this what that he believed that each glyph represented a letter, similar to today's language, and so he needed to wait a little longer until the Russian linguist Yuri Knorosov discovered that these glyphs did not represent letters but syllables, a conjunction of letters. Unravelling Mayan hieroglyphs revolves around the comparison of many glyphs to one another. In some occasions it's a guessing game what they could possibly mean, by analysing the context or by using other information. For example, if you were to read the sentence: Today was a hot day because the XXX was very strong you could imagine which word would be used to replaces the XXX.
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