The writing system that survived fire and confusion

Breaking the Maya Code
July 21, 2000

This highly readable work, written with verve and richness of detail, first published in 1992 and now in a revised edition, has became the authoritative story of the decipherment of the writing system of the ancient Maya. Its author, Michael Coe, an eminent Mayanist at Yale University, succeeds in awakening interest in a wide readership in this fascinating script, while at the same time feeding the curiosity of those who are already hooked on the Maya.

Maya society was the target of a deliberate campaign of cultural obliteration by the Spanish clergy and military during the conquest of Central America in the 16th and 17th centuries. The invaders tried to reshape the identity of a proud people by wiping out their intellectual achievements, including their writing. Diego de Landa, a contemporary Franciscan friar, wrote in his Relación de las Cosas de Yucatán of his wholesale destruction of hundreds of books that contained "nothing in which there were not to be seen superstition and lies of the devilI we burned them all, which they [the local Maya] regretted to an amazing degree and which caused them much affliction". Ironically, it is to Landa that we owe the first attempts at understanding Maya glyphs. Accompanying this passage was Landa's invaluable eyewitness description of the mysterious writing system. Known as the Landa "alphabet", it is actually a partial list of Maya syllables and has little to do with an alphabet. Four centuries later, it provided the key to unlocking the glyphs.

From the beginning, the decipherment was plagued by flawed methods and misguided efforts. Coe himself, in his book The Maya (written in the 1960s), recognised that "Few studies have advanced so little with so much effort as the decipherment of the Maya script." Breaking the Maya Code describes the great progress that has been made since then, particularly in the past 25 years.

Coe introduces us to the key players in the decipherment, as well as to the scholars who, unintentionally or otherwise, hindered its development. He does not hesitate to point fingers, especially at Sir Eric Thompson, for "single-handedly blocking the progress of decipherment for 40 years". Thompson's words were regarded as dogma. Most Mayanists could not have dreamt of contradicting him if they wanted to advance their careers. Coe dedicates many pages to explaining Thompson's gift for ignoring the obvious, regardless of the evidence, and his almost fanatical belief that the Maya were peace-loving astronomers and priests uninterested in war and mundane matters.

The first breakthrough came in the 1950s from an unknown Soviet linguist, Yuri Knorozov. To the derision of Thompson, Knorozov proved the value of Landa's "alphabet" interpreted as a syllabary and discovered that Mayan script was logosyllabic in nature, ie it contains signs for both syllables and whole words (logograms). Then, another Russian (this time living in the US), Tatiana Proskouriakoff, proved that there was historical content in the inscriptions and that the dates in them referred to rulers and the major events of their lives. These findings unleashed a wave of talented epigraphers who have revolutionised the study of Mayan inscriptions, such as Peter Mathews, Linda Schele, David Stuart, Stephen Houston and Simon Martin.

Some of the most stimulating parts of the book involve the fearless criticism of those academics who failed to grasp the importance of epigraphic research. Among those who get a piece of Coe's mind are the "trowel wielders" (archaeologists). Epigraphy has in the past been the victim of a cold-shoulder approach from archaeologists. The reasons vary. For example, many archaeologists argue that writing was the domain of the elite and thus can hardly be representative of the culture of the masses. Coe argues that this is of no consequence, for in most non-democratic states the elite creates most aspects of the culture. Furthermore, he disagrees with the commonly held view that literacy was the privilege of the few. He cannot imagine the average Maya staring blankly at the scripts carved on the stelae or the lintels, unable to recognise at least the gist of the message. He may have a point. After all, from the 1970s, Schele taught thousands of enthusiastic amateurs to scan Mayan texts in a single weekend at her hugely popular University of Texas workshops.

Regardless of the reservations of some archaeologists, it cannot be denied that epigraphic research has significantly enhanced our knowledge of Maya dynastic and political history. Epigraphy cannot replace archaeology, but Maya archaeology will dig its own grave with a particularly large trowel if it chooses to ignore the potential of the epigraphic line of research.

This revised edition benefits from a postscript that pays homage to three Maya epigraphists who have died since it was first written: Knorozov, Schele and Floyd Lounsbury.

Alan G. Robinson is an archaeologist specialising in the Maya.

Breaking the Maya Code

Author - Michael D. Coe
ISBN - 0 500 28133 5
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Price - $18.95
Pages - 304

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