The Maya writing system is considered by archaeologists to be the most sophisticated system ever developed in Mesoamerica.
The Maya wrote using 800 individual signs or glyphs, paired in columns that read together from left to right and top to bottom. Maya glyphs represented words or syllables that could be combined to form any word or concept in the Mayan language, including numbers, time periods, royal names, titles, dynastic events, and the names of gods, scribes, sculptors, objects, buildings, places, and food. Hieroglyphic inscriptions were either carved in stone and wood on Maya monuments and architecture, or painted on paper, plaster walls and pottery.
The unit of the Maya writing system is the glyphic cartouche, which is equivalent to the words and sentences of a modern language. Maya cartouches included at least three or four glyphs and as many as fifty. Each cartouche contained various glyphs, as well as prefixes and suffixes. There is no Maya alphabet.
Maya writing is difficult to interpret for a number of reasons. First,
glyphs do not represent just sounds or ideas, they can represent both,
making it difficult to know how each glyph or cartouche should be read.
In addition, many Maya glyphs can have more than one meaning, and many
Maya concepts can be written in more than one way. Numbers, for example,
can be written with Maya numerical symbols or with the picture of a god
associated with that number, or a combination of the two. Some glyphs
represent more than one phonetic sound, while also representing an idea.
This means that a single idea can be written in many different ways. For
example, the name of the Palenque ruler,
Pacal, whose name literally means
"Hand-shield", appears sometimes as a picture of a hand-shield,
sometimes phonetically as pa-cal-la, and at other times as a combination
of picture symbols and phonetics.
Deciphering Maya texts has become easier with the aid of computers, drawings and the knowledge accumulated over a century of scientific investigation. The hieroglyphic writing of the Maya has not been completely deciphered, however, and can still only be interpreted, rather than read. To date nearly 85 percent of known Maya hieroglyphics have been decoded.
The Maya considered writing to be a sacred gift from the gods. Most
ancient Maya could not read, because the knowledge of reading and writing
was jealously guarded by a small elite class, who believed that they alone
could interact directly with the gods and mediate between the gods and the
Detail from the Tablet of the 96 Glyphs, in the tower of the "Palace" at Palenque. This is considered one of the most beautiful inscriptions ever carved by the Maya.
From the very beginning, the Maya used writing as a propaganda tool, rather than as a means of recording accurate details of history. In a hierarchical society where the elite competed for prestige and leadership positions, writing was used to reinforce a ruler's military power and to legitimize his descent from noble ancestors and the gods. Writings on stone monuments were designed to place rulers in the most favourable light possible, and ancient sculptural inscriptions deal primarily with historical events, marriages, births, military campaigns and victories, rulers and other dynastic affairs.
Maya glyphs were also painted on codices made of either deer hide or bleached fig-tree paper that was then covered with a thin layer of plaster and folded accordion-style. The inscriptions in the codices were painted by highly trained scribes, and record rituals, chronologies and important events.
Most of the Maya codices were burned by the Spanish during the sixteenth century when they tried to convert the Maya to Christianity. The few codices which have survived, however, are a valuable source of information about the religious beliefs of the Maya and their ritual cycle, and record information about the gods associated with each day in the Maya calendar as well as astronomical tables outlining the cycles of Venus and other celestial bodies.
Following the arrival of the Spanish in the sixteenth century, many Maya dictionaries, glossaries and prayer books appeared. These are an important resource in the interpretation of Maya hieroglyphics. The Maya also learned in the sixteenth century to record their own languages using Roman letters, and later Maya works do not feature hieroglyphic writing, but a phonetic rendering of Maya languages in Roman script. The four known prehispanic codices discovered to date deal exclusively with religious and astronomical matters. They are mostly written in archaic Yucatec, one of the 31 Maya languages.
There are also 93 miscellaneous historic and geographic accounts written by the Maya. They discuss aspects of the flora, fauna, inhabitants and ruins, and include customs, traditions and history.
In 1962, the Maya hieroglyphs were first catalogued. Since 1980,
a great deal of progress has been made in deciphering new glyphs
found at Palenque,
Tikal and other sites. Because the writing
was often intended as propaganda, care must be taken in its
interpretation. However, the
work of decoding the glyphs holds promise that many of the mysteries
surrounding the Maya may one day be solved.