Modern Mayan

The ancient Maya meet the modern Internet
July 15, 2020 – 03:02 pm
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Researchers began decoding the glyphic language of the ancient Maya long ago, but the Internet is helping them finish the job and write the history of this enigmatic Mesoamerican civilization.

For centuries, scholars understood little about Maya script beyond its elegant astronomical calculations and calendar. The Maya had dominated much of Central America and southern Mexico for 1, 000 years before their civilization collapsed about 600 years before the Spaniards reached the New World.

The Maya script began to give up its secrets in the 1950s and 1960s, and progress accelerated in the 1970s. But much remains to be puzzled out from the immense body of carvings and inscriptions that has languished for centuries in jungle ruins and museum closets.

Enter University of Texas archaeologist David Stuart, one of the world’s leading experts in Maya script. “I had all these boxes of notes and papers in my office, and I was never going to publish every little observation. But I thought that if I had a blog, I could talk about new things and bring out some old stuff from my dusty files.”

So five years ago, Stuart started up Maya Decipherment, a blog for scholars and amateurs to post new inscriptions, refine translations and debate the subtleties of Maya language, all in an effort to fill out the history of the civilization. The work will take years, but with the help of the Internet, the pace is quicker than it has ever been.

“The Web log gets ideas out quickly, which is very appealing, ” said Brown University archaeologist Stephen Houston, a longtime Stuart collaborator. “You don’t have to wait two years for publication. You want to lay claim to a new idea and get it noticed by colleagues.”

Last month, for instance, Stuart posted a description of new excavations from Guatemala that suggest the Maya were not necessarily direct descendants of the earlier Olmec culture, as some archaeologists have maintained. In another post, he described how the sign for the phonetic syllable “yo, ” meaning “his” or “her, ” might be the word symbol “yop, ” meaning “leaf, ” in other texts.

A third post described a new translation of an inscription from Guatemala, recording the visit of King Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk’ of Calakmul on Jan. 29, 696, five months after his defeat by armies from the kingdom of Tikal. Scholars had long thought Yuknoom Yich’aak K’ahk’ died in battle, but the new text showed that he had not.

When the Spaniards arrived in Central America in the 1500s, they did their best to destroy the writings of “heathen” scribes still working in the language of the Maya. Three books of bark paper survived the Spanish purge and were rediscovered in the 18th and 19th centuries in Europe as the Dresden Codex, the Paris Codex and the Madrid Codex.

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