Symbolic victory

March 17, 1995

Andrew Robinson reveals how the secrets of the ancient Maya are being uncovered as Linda Schele and her colleagues learn to decipher the first American writing system. "The American chronicle does not begin with the landing of Columbus or the arrival of the Pilgrims, but with the lives of Maya kings in the second century bc. We who live in this part of the world inherit a written history two millennia old and as important to us as the history of the ancient Egyptians or the Chinese, a history equal in longevity to that of Europe or Asia."

The words come from a fascinating book published in the United States in 1991, A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya. The book describes the way in which, since the early 1970s, scholars of many nationalities working mainly in America have deciphered much of the esoteric writing of the ancient Maya rulers of Central America, and thus brought into history one of the world's great civilisations that reached its zenith between 250 and 800 ad, more than a millennium before Columbus reached the New World.

This is an intellectual achievement on a par with the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs from the 1820s, in which grand Maya buildings with elaborate inscriptions, and exquisitely carved and painted art objects, are yielding up their secrets after centuries of silence. What is more, it is a genuine example of that much-vaunted but seldom-practised virtue, collaboration between disciplines. Linguists and epigraphers have joined forces with "dirt" archaeologists, art historians, anthropologists, astronomers and others, including gifted amateurs simply in love with the ancient Maya and, not least, individuals from the modern Maya peoples, six million of whom still live in the area of their ancestors and still speak similar languages.

There are several key figures in this decipherment story, one of whom is unquestionably Linda Schele, the chief author of three essential books on the Maya including A Forest of Kings. Officially Schele is a professor of art at the University of Texas in Austin; actually she can fairly lay claim to expertise in each of the disciplines just mentioned, as well as being a one-time amateur of things Mayan and, in many ways, an honorary Maya. "First of all,'' she says in her rumbustious southern drawl, her work on the Maya "is just fun as hell. I can't believe that people pay me to do this.'' She describes herself as "a palaeontologist of the human mind'', explaining that "the archaeological remains of the Maya - the writing, the pictures, the architecture - all of these are like the bones of dinosaurs. We don't have informants we can go out and ask - what were you thinking when you did this? We've got to reconstruct all that the way a palaeontologist has to reconstruct the animal that went on the bones of T. Rex. We are trying to reconstruct the mental world of the ancient Maya, understand the mental world they inhabited in order to create these fossils of the mind."

The ancient Maya world is weirder and sometimes more wonderful than even that of ancient Egypt (though it largely lacks gold). The convoluted glyphs of the Mayan writing system were for a long time dismissed by western scholars as being something like cabalistic symbols, designed for the rituals of a cult, rather than as a system for public communication. They bore no resemblance to Egyptian hieroglyphs, let alone the cuneiform of Mesopotamia (deciphered in the mid-19th century) or the Linear B script of Knossos/Crete (deciphered in 1952).

Until as recently as the 1950s and 1960s, almost all scholars assumed that the Maya had no true writing, and certainly no phonetic writing system. Sir Eric Thompson, the dominant Mayanist for two decades, asserted (quite wrongly) in 1972: "Maya writing is not syllabic or alphabetic in part or in whole.'' The ancient Maya themselves were thought of as a theocracy, time worshippers with an immensely sophisticated calendar (this was quite correct) and a deeply spiritual outlook. Their ideal was said to be "moderation in all things'', their motto "live and let live'', and their character to have "an emphasis on discipline, co-operation, patience, and consideration for others''. Theirs was a civilisation unlike any other, according to Thompson, who looked to the Maya as a source of spiritual values in a modern world that placed far more importance on material prosperity.

As Sir Arthur Evans worshipped the noble Minoans of Knossos and sought to distance them from the vulgar Greeks, so Thompson revered the ancient Maya and abstracted them from the brutal, human-sacrificing Aztecs who followed them. Only after Evans's death in 1941 was the myth fully exposed, and the mundane subject matter of the Linear B tablets revealed. Something similar has happened to Maya civilisation in the years following Thompson's death in 1975. The revolution began in the 1950s and 1960s, in the shadow of Thompson, with two Russians, one working in Leningrad, Yuri Knorosov, the other in the US, Tatiana Proskouriakoff. Knorosov daringly advocated phoneticism in the Mayan glyphs and was scorned by Thompson. Today, thanks to the phonetic decipherment, we know that the Maya were obsessed with war and ritual blood-letting from their own bodies (using stingray spines through the tongue and other unmentionable parts) and that both the rulers and the gods liked to take hallucinogenic or inebriating enemas using special syringes. "The highest goal of these lineage-proud dynasts was to capture the ruler of a rival city-state in battle, to torture and humiliate him (sometimes for years), and then to subject him to decapitation following a ball game which the prisoner was always destined to lose,'' says Michael Coe, an early patron of Linda Schele and a senior Mayanist at Yale University who has witnessed a sea change in our picture of Maya civilisation since he began work in the field in the mid-1950s.

Cultural comparisons between Maya civilisation and Old World civilisations (and their modern descendants such as the United States) are particularly fruitful, Schele believes, because the historical isolation of the New World from the Old precludes explanations based on cultural diffusion. "Be it questions of governance, of languages or any of the thousands of other questions that we ask about ourselves as a species - you can really, truly, understand that you're dealing with some sort of structural comparison. And the things that are shared you can begin talking about as being species-wide; and the things that are different you can begin talking about as culture."

Schele uses a surprising analogy to illustrate her approach. Ever since Star Trek, the US television series, began in 1966, she has been a fan. If you look at the world of the Starship Enterprise - back off and consider it - Schele says, "what you have is a kind of bubble of reality that people go into and come out of. They write novels about it, they go to movies about it, they debate over the Internet about it, they use it metaphorically to try and cope with their own lives. And when they go into that bubble they accept the rules of the reality, both positive and negative. A lot of people say it's not real but that's not the question, because when you go into that universe you accept its rules. Part of the joy is being able to go into that world, accept its rules, play its game and then come out again. That's what I do with the Maya. I accept everything I find in their world as real."

There is more than a touch of Star Trek magic - "Beam me up, Scottie'' - in Schele's own translation from the boondocks of Tennessee to the groves of the Maya academy. Her father was from a Missouri farm family, descended, she says with some pride, from a black sheep son of an English aristocratic family who was exiled to America in the 1640s. Her mother was "from a rather rough and strange hillbilly family'' from east Tennessee - "one generation earlier than her they were making moonshine''. Neither parent had a college degree, but both were determined that their two children should. Linda agreed but could not find her niche. She studied commercial art as a BA, tried literature, worked as a piping draughtsman on a nuclear submarine for a year - "the worst year of my life'' - and then as an architectural draughtsman, and eventually, in 1968, qualified from the University of Cincinnati in the fine art programme. That year, aged 25, she also married. "I decided I did not want the pressure of being single - it was too distracting. So I looked at all the males near me and decided that there was one that I might be able to stay with long-term,'' she says, adding with a forthright smile: "So I proceeded to seduce him. That was 26 years ago and we're still married.'' (They have no children.) The immediate problem was employment, especially as her husband was expecting call-up in the Vietnam War. She had sworn never to go back to the South because she was "very, very embarrassed to be a southerner'', but now she accepted the first job offer that came. It was from the University of Southern Alabama, teaching fine art at Mobile. "You go any further south and you're swimming."

The work was frustrating, because contemporary art seemed so irrelevant to society. But a college course Schele taught on world art history was stimulating: it "built an image in my head of what art could be like if it were critical to the society that produced it.'' Unconsciously, she was being prepared for her encounter with Maya art.

It happened at the end of 1970, on a tourist visit to Yucatan. The guidebook said that Palenque, a city of the ancient Maya close to the main highway into Yucatan, was worth a detour of at least a couple of hours. Schele ended up staying some 12 days.

Over the next three years Schele began to spend vacations in Palenque, aided by grants from her university. Another American, Merle Greene Robertson, who had long been in love with Palenque, began a definitive photographic survey of the ruined city, and Schele became her "slave''. The work of photography, and Schele's skills as an artist, gave her a unique intimacy with Mayan inscriptions that would soon prove invaluable. In late 1973, at Robertson's invitation, some 35 Mayanists assembled at Palenque for an informal conference. In the beginning, no one knew the history of Palenque; by the end, most of it was known, including details of the great ruler Pacal (603-683 ad), a sort of Maya Tutankhamun, who had been secretly buried in a sarcophagus under the Temple of the Inscriptions (discovered by chance in 1952). Michael Coe, a moderator at the conference, comments: "There is some mystic chemistry that produces those rare conferences that generate true intellectual excitement, that prove to be turning points in the understanding of a major body of knowledge.'' Most of the credit belonged to three people: Schele, Peter Matthews, a novice, hippified Australian, and Floyd Lounsbury, a senior Yale professor of extraordinary linguistic gifts who has been a mentor to two generations of distinguished scholars.

Following the conference, the maverick Schele was taken up by Coe, Lounsbury and others and given the chance to become a specialist in the Maya. In 1978 she became a visiting professor at the University of Texas, and in 1980 she joined the faculty permanently, having gained her PhD from the university in 15 months flat. In the meantime, she had been invited by a fellow-enthusiast to start Maya hieroglyphic workshops at Texas. They quickly became an annual event, in 1994 attracting more than 500 participants, who come from all over the US and from further afield and hail from a diverse range of backgrounds and professions. The workshops are something of a phenomenon in American academic life, the antithesis of individual ivory-tower scholarship. Booklets containing drawings of undeciphered glyphs are circulated in advance of the workshop; then Schele and other specialists help the participants towards a plausible reading of the glyphs. Sometimes there are significant successes during the workshop itself.

Among those taking part have been modern Maya from Mexico and Guatemala. The glyphs are as opaque to these Maya as they are to Anglo-Saxon gringos. But the spoken language behind the glyphs is often immediately accessible to the modern Maya; it may closely resemble the various Mayan languages spoken in Central America today, despite its being a millennium and more older than these languages. This means that if Schele can come up with a plausible reading of some glyph, a Maya participant may be able to recognise the word from his own language. For example, in a workshop held in Guatemala in 1989, Schele found herself translating a personal name glyph of a king, often found to accompany ball-game scenes, as Ah Pitzlawal. A Maya participant "sat with a beatific grin on his face, his hand palm-up, moving as if he were bouncing an imaginary ball.'' Pitzlawom was the word for ballplayer in his particular Mayan language, he told a delighted Schele in Spanish.

Thus Schele and one or two other Mayanists have become responsible for initiating a strange situation. A living people, deprived of its ancestral writing system by European colonialism, is learning to use it once more from the descendants of those colonists. In due course Schele expects that the ancient glyphs will spring up on buildings all over the Maya area alongside their equivalents in Roman letters - though it is not clear how the Ladino governments in these countries will react to such an assertion of Maya identity. "But I do not expect the glyphs ever to become a living language again, like Hebrew,'' Schele convincingly maintains, "because they are too cumbersome - they would operate to separate the Maya from the mainstream of the world instead of to integrate them. And the Maya do not want to be isolated, they want to be able to participate; they just want to be able to do it as Maya, who happen to be Guatemalan or Mexican - but are Maya."

Andrew Robinson is literary editor of The THES. His book, The Story of Writing, will be published by Thames and Hudson in the autumn.

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