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Excavating Archaeology II: Reading the Cylindrical Book

This is the second post in a new monthly series called Excavating Archaeology, which will feature selections and research from the Jay I. Kislak Collection of the Archaeology & History of the Early Americas, housed in the Geography and Map Division at the Library of Congress.

Time and money are spent in collecting the remains in wood and stone, in pottery and in tissue and bone, in laboriously collating isolated words, and in measuring ancient constructions….but closer to the very self, to thought and being, are the connected expressions of persons in their own tongues.                                                                                                                  —Daniel Brinton (1883)

Fleur-de-lis style classic period Maya vase showing hieroglyphic writing along the rim, known as the primary standard sequence. The vase comes from the Guatemalan Lowlands and dates from 600-900 CE. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Library of Congress.

In the history of the world only five original writing systems have been invented, which allow the more-or-less permanent recording of whatever can be thought or spoken in a language. Of these five, the only one to originate in the Americas is the writing found in the books, carved on the monuments, and most numerously, painted on the ceramics of the ancient Maya. During the first years of the Spanish colonization of the Americas in the early sixteenth century, the ability to write and understand this script was lost and its decipherment remained, from that time on, a puzzle, well into the twentieth century.

One of the first mentions of Maya writing by Europeans is found in The Decades of the New World (1511–30) by the Italian humanist Peter Martyr d’Anghiera (1457–1526). Martyr examined, in late 1519, a shipment of artifacts being displayed in the Spanish city of Valladolid, sent from Mexico to the newly crowned Holy Roman Emperor and king of Spain, Charles V (1500–1558). Martyr writes that the books he looked at were made of the inner bark of an unknown tree, had wooden covers, and could be folded while being read. He further explains that the script was “very different from ours: dice, hooks, loops, strips and other figures, written in a line as we do, they greatly resemble Egyptian forms. Between the lines are marked out figures of men and animals, principally kings and magnates, by which one can believe that there are there written the deeds of each king’s ancestors.”

Even though Martyr speculated that these strange forms were writing like any other, the proof that the hieroglyphs provided historical information would not be understood by historians until the middle of the twentieth century, when the Maya writing system was re-deciphered through the efforts of linguists and archaeologists.

The decipherment of any unknown writing system is a difficult process, and, to be successful, some vital parts of the language have to survive the ravages of time. The first requirement is that a large body of texts remain in a form extensive enough to accurately represent the spoken language. The second is that the spoken language being written down must be known. In this case the language was spoken Mayan, which has never disappeared, with more than thirty varieties still in use today. The third, is there needs to survive some kind of bilingual inscription, or cheat sheet that provides a bridge from the unknown writing system to one that is known by the decipherer–a kind of Rosetta Stone.

When it come to texts found on Maya ceramics many of them contain a formulaic sequence of hieroglyphs wrapping around their rims, which has come to be known as the Primary Standard Sequence. Unlike the more historical information found in carvings on monuments, these short texts are mostly dedicatory, and speak to us from across the centuries about their owners and the function of each of various kinds ceramic objects made by artisan Maya potters.

Roll-out photograph of the Maya Fleur-de-lis vase that shows the Primary Standard Sequence, starting with the mirror glyph and proceeding in the order it is to be read. Photograph by Justin Kerr, Kislak Collection, Library of Congress

Deciphering the Primary Standard Sequence was a complicated affair, and took many years, as scholars like Micheal Coe, David Stuart, and Barbara MacLeod struggled with the strange and formulaic forms painted on plates, vases, and other portable objects.

The Primary Standard Sequence, on the vase pictured here, has several main parts. The first, begins with what is known as a mirror glyph and can be easily recognized, once pointed out, even by a beginner. This part of the sequence, often called the ‘presentation section’ consists of the mirror glyph and a sign representing God N. It tells us that vase was created and blessed as it came into being.

Decipherment of the Primary Standard Sequence on the Kislak Fleur-de-lis Vase. Drawing and decipherment by the author.

The second part of the text lets us know that the writing or painting, ts’ib, in Mayan, was done by a scribe, with the third describing its function, in this case a drinking vessel. The last few glyphs are more historical, implying that whomever owned and commissioned this vase was of a noble lineage. Unfortunately, the last glyph has yet to be deciphered and represents the name of the owner.

Another example of a Maya Polychrome Vase with the Primary Standard Sequence, 600-900 CE, found in the Kislak Collection, Library of Congress

Although these dedications appear formulaic, differences in how the scribes and painters form the hieroglyphs and how they use different parts of speech, like pronouns, have been very important for linguists trying to trace the evolution of Maya languages. The decipherment of the Primary Standard Sequence has allowed scholars to conclude that this formula was developed by speakers of the Cholan group of Maya languages and then taken over by Yucatecan speakers.

Whatever the linguistic details of the hieroglyphs, each of the surviving examples of Maya polychrome pottery speaks to us from across the centuries about the aesthetics, habits and mythology, not only of a culture, but also of an individual, whose decorated drinking cup for cacao (chocolate), just so happened to have survived the ravages of time.

2 Comments

  1. Patti Smith
    March 22, 2021 at 10:09 am

    Truly fascinating! Thank you for sharing this.

  2. Blanche Wallace
    March 28, 2021 at 9:57 pm

    It would be helpful if a link was provided to the first post in the series — for folks who missed it. Thanks

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