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Decoding Mayan Glyphs

Linguists Finally Unravelling the Mysteries Trapped Within Mayan Hieroglyphs

For hundreds of years, linguists have been trying to decode the ancient hieroglyphic script of the Mayans, left behind on monument carvings, painted pottery, and drawn in handmade bark-paper books. Now, thanks to the world wide web, decipherment is advancing at a rapid rate and almost reaching completion.  This will be a huge step forward for deepening our understanding of the social, political, and historical aspects of Mayan civilization.

For a long time many scholars believed that the script did not represent a language at all, or that it wasn't a complete writing system, and it is easy to see why this belief prevailed - the writing is arguably one of the most visually striking writing systems of the world. It is very complex, with hundreds of unique signs or glyphs in the form of humans, animals, supernatural objects, and abstract designs.

The first major breakthrough in decipherment came during the 1950s when a Russian ethnologist proposed that the Mayan script was at least partly phonetic. His ideas were not welcomed, but he was eventually proved correct.  Progress accelerated during the 1970s and 1980s when more linguistics began to take an interest in the script, and scholars came to understand that it was in fact a fully functioning writing system in which it was possible to express unambiguously any sentence of the spoken language. 

Despite the progress, much has remained to be decoded from the immense body of carvings and inscriptions that has languished for centuries in jungle ruins and museum closets.  A website launched last year titled ‘Maya Decipherment’, a blog for scholars and amateurs run by University of Texas archaeologist David Stuart, is offering hope for completing the decipherment of this complex writing system. 

"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” said Stuart, who hopes the blog will act as a vehicle to post new inscriptions, refine translations and debate the subtleties of Mayan language.

The work may take years, but with the help of the internet, the pace is quicker than ever before.  There are more than 30 scholars currently working on the translation of the Mayan script, all in the hope of bringing new insights into the Mayas' turbulent past.

By April Holloway

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