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Maya Writing
La Corona (Site Q), Panel with rich text.
La Corona Hieroglyphic Panel

    Modern scholars agree that the Mayan glyphs are one of only three writing systems in the ancient world -- the other two being Sumerian cuneiform in ancient Mesopotamia and Chinese -- to be invented independently. All others were probably modeled after or influenced by existing scripts. Mayan was the last of the three scripts to be deciphered, beginning in the 1950s. A few scholars contend that the Olmec, living along the Gulf of Mejico near Scribes in Monkey shape, Petén LowlandsVeracruz, developed a script even earlier. Some of the confusion stems from differing definitions ofPawatun, main Sribe god with young apprentice, Petén, Classic writing, whether a few symbols strung together suffice or fuller texts are required. Archaeologists reported on Jan 2006, that the script sample, discovered at San Bartolo, in northeastern Petén, Guatemala, is clear evidence that the Maya were writing more than 2,300 years ago. This is a few centuries earlier than previous well-dated Maya writing and 600 years before the civilization's classic period, when a decipherable writing system became widespread. ''This early Maya writing,, implies that a developed Maya writing system was in use centuries earlier than previously thought, approximating a time when we see the earliest scripts elsewhere in Mesoamerica.'' 

For a Mesoweb Dictionary of Classic Maya go to: http://www.mesoweb.com/resources/vocabulary/Vocabulary.pdf

 San Bartolo, the earliest known  Maya Glyph dated at 300 BC
San Bartolo Glyphs, 300 BC


     The Mayans evolved the only true written system native to the Americas, Although Only 4 Codices survive today (See the end of this page),  (Alonso de Zorita wrote that in 1540 he saw numerous such books in the Guatemalan highlands which “recorded their history for more than eight hundred years back, and which were interpreted for me by very ancient Indians” (Zorita 1963, 271-2). Fr. Bartolomé de las Casas lamented that when found, such Monument 1 El Portón, Baja Verapaz, 400 BC first text in a Stelabooks were destroyed: "These books were seen by our clergy, and even I saw part of those which were burned by the monks, apparently because they thought [they] might harm the Indians in matters concerning religion, since at that time they were at the beginning of their conversion"), .they left us their Art and script in Stelas, Wooden lintels, Murals, Petro-carvings  and ceramics to read about their warfare, lives, believes and culture.

                    Kaminal Juyú Stela 10, Preclassic There also very early texts found in the Pacific lowlands in  Cotzumalguapa Tak'alik Abaj, and in the Highlands at El Portón,  Kaminal Juyú (Stela 10 glyph bloc, Letft),  and the Petén Lowland Mayan scripts. The origin of the Maya script has been focus of attention by many scholars, and they Think that all the Mayan languages as well as the Olmec  had the same roots. (Coe 1957, 1976; Prem 1971; Marcus 1976, 1992; Justeson et al. 1985;  Justeson and Mathews 1990; Taube 2000). The Stela 10, in Kaminal Juyú (late Verbena phase, 400-200 B.C., late Preclassic),  has the earliest glyphs in Cho´lan Maya, the language used in the Classic Lowlands sites, suggesting that the origin of this language  was in the Highlands, and that the relationships between the Petén and the Highlands, was closer than previously thought


Variation in Glyphs, The  Founder of
Naranjo, Yax Wak-kab-nal Winik,
Altar 1,   and Stela 24

Stela 13 and a Ceramic Vase

San Bartolo 300 BC Earliest Lowland Maya Glyphs

The Maya writing system (often called hieroglyphics from a vague superficial resemblance to the Egyptian writing, to which it is not related) was a combination of phonetic symbols and ideograms. It is the only writing system of the Pre-Columbian New World that can completely represent spoken language to the same degree as the written language of the old world. Early sites such as Tak'alik Abaj in the Pacific Lowlands has inscriptions with the early Maya style. The San Bartolo Murals have 10 Glyph that can not be read and are the oldest known, dating to 300 BC. "The text is 1,000 years before the late Classic writing, which we are good at reading  up to 95 percent of it," Dr. Stuart said. "Any script is going to go through significant changes over that time. But these glyphs are very unusual, very different from later writing."  The single glyph he thought he could read was the seventh one down the column. It includes the sign for the word lord or noble. "But if it referred to a true king," Dr. Stuart said, "the sign would have a symbol with it to say divine lord.'".  This inability to read the text, Dr. Houston said, may be because the Maya system underwent a major change at the time the Preclassic culture collapsed, around A.D. 100 to 200, with widespread evidence of destroyed or abandoned cities. Archaeologists expressed hope that more of the text or similar ones would eventually be found and that new efforts would be made to search for writing at larger Preclassic sites, like  El Mirador (Stela 2). 

Maya scribe kneeled after Ruler. Note the
ink pots. and Maiden with Chocolate jar. Petén Middle Classic

  The decipherment of the Classic Maya writings has been a long laborious process. Bits of it were first deciphered in the late 19th and early 20th century (mostly the parts having to do with numbers, the calendar, and astronomy), but major breakthroughs came starting in the 1960s and 1970s and accelerated rapidly San Diego Cliff, Drawing

thereafter, so that now the majority of Maya texts can be read nearly completely in their original languages. Recently it was suggested that Classic texts were written not in Ch'olan Mayan, as long assumed, but in a "prestige" or "high" language called Classic Ch'olti'an, related to the now extinct Ch'olti' language of the Eastern Ch'olan Maya language family (Houston, Robertson, and Stuart 2000). This language, is thought to have originated in western and south-central Petén, and would have been used in the inscriptions and perhaps also spoken by elites and priests (Houston 2000:162).

San Diego Cliff

San Diego Cliff (Central Petén) Early Classic Carving

    With the decipherment of the Maya script it was discovered that the Maya were one of the few civilizations where artists attached  their name to their work. The calligraphic style and pictorial complexity of Maya glyphs are like no other writing system.  While the decipherment of Maya hieroglyphs has been advancing rapidly in the past few decades, differing opinions of whether or not Maya writing was either a number of simple word-pictures or a sophisticated phonetic system stifled decipherment for years. Indeed, it was only in the mid-twentieth century following a breakthrough by Mayanist Tatiana Proskouriakoff, (right) studying the Piedras Negras Stela 14 in Petén (down left), She suggested that these "niche" scenes represented rulers newly seated on their thrones.

Antwerp Stela (Belgium) Petén Lowlands 200 BC, Showing Glyphs, The Face is almost Identical to one in San Bartolo Murals

Piedras Negras stela 14, the one that Tatiana Proskuriakoff used to broke the Maya writting.She pointed out that the "niche" Stela always carried the earliest dates of their series and that a certain set of "inaugural" hieroglyphs followed those dates whenever they appeared in later texts. This breakthrough led to the recognition of birth and death glyphs, the name-glyphs of the rulers, parentage information, the capture of enemies, and other biographical items from the lives of the Maya rulers. Since then, epigraphers (or glyphic experts) could finally agree that Maya Hieroglyphic Writing was a fully functional system based on phonetic signs.  In 1958 by Heinrich Berlin,  discovered the "Emblem glyph." After surveying a wide range of Maya inscriptions, Berlin noticed the presence of a specialized type of hieroglyph that always consisted of a standard set of affixes combined with variable main signs. Each main sign had a limited distribution, occurring, with a few exceptions, at one site and no other. Today it is recognized as the Lineage of the Rulers. The First Emblem Glyph documentes is from the Preclassic Mirador Basin sites, all bearing the same Kan Ahau Gliph (left).

Landa's Maya Alphabet (Click to enlarge)


   While our system is also based on phonetic signs, in comparison to Maya writing our system seems much simpler. All of our words are formed from various combinations of only 26 signs, that list of letters we call an Alphabet. By contrast, all Maya words are formed from various combinations of nearly 800 signs, and each sign represents a full syllable, so that list of signs is called a Syllabary, not an Alphabet.

   Twenty-six signs versus hundreds of signs?, Sounds impossible?, Not really, while one sign of our alphabet can represent only one sound, Maya writers could select from many different signs to represent one sound. For example, there are at least five different signs that could be chosen to represent the Maya syllable ba.

    In the syllabary, sounds are formed by combining a particular consonant with one of the five vowels; a, e, i, o, or, u.  If a Maya writer wanted to describe the act of "writing" (or tz’ib’ in Maya) the scribe ( ah tz’ib’ or "he who writes"), could select from several different signs to convey the sounds. For example, this combination might be chosen:


    There are only about 30
phonetic sounds in the Maya language so a purely phonetic alphabet could in theory be written with 30 signs. It was originally thought that Maya writing was purely logographic because of the many hundreds of different glyphs. After a long period of attempts to decipher the Maya glyphs, it was discovered that the system was logosyllabic and became increasingly phonetic over time. Maya writing uses a syllabary made up of glyphs rather than a pure alphabet and is a mixed system. Many of the glyphs are polyvalent and have two or more meanings. Glyphs have been identified that correspond to verbs, nouns, adjectives, and particles. Maya writing is structured around glyphs and glyph groups. The glyphs are pictures. Main signs u multunob are larger and more central in a group. Affixes u ceilob are joined to the main sign and may be prefixes u sak ceilob, (left), superfixes u kaan ceilob, (above), subfixes u ek ceilob, (below), and postfixes  u kan ceilob (right) depending upon their position. Affixes can also be fused within the main glyph and are called infixes. Main signs can be compounded of two or more signs. Although there are exceptions the usual order of reading the glyphs is prefix, superfix, main sign, subfix, and postfix. Note that the last Vowel is not pronounced The Cacao example will illustrate this:

Cacao Glyph

    There are about 800 glyphs that are known at this time and each has a catalogue number starting with "T" (in J. Eric Thompson’s system), and many have nicknames. If there are only two columns of glyphs, text is normally read from left to right. For even numbers of columns the first two columns are read left to right and the next two columns are read left to right, etc. For odd numbers of columns the order is down the first column and then left to right for the next two columns or left to right for the first two columns and then down the rightmost column. In the Paris Codex where recognizable faces appear the reading order on a few pages is right to left. Maya codices are often ordered verb-object-subject as in the language. Like English the final syllable may be silent.

Sea Shell used as Ink Pot, the Glyph is read as: ku'ch sab'ak, meaning "
It is an ink-carrier "

   There are other elements of the Maya's syntaxis that must be necessarily comprehended in order to be able to correctly interpret the movement and concept of time in the Maya's writings. These are named Hel Glyphs, which are accompanied by corresponding distance numbers. A Hel Glyph projects onto historical events whether they be in the past or in the future, these require the reader to read a short independent clause, which refers to ascensions, relating the central character to a family line, but usually referring to a specific time frame within the text. The central character, telling the story, may use a Hel Glyph, and say "In the year 3,114 B.C. my forefathers were present, during the Creation of the World," such as Lord Kan Boar says in legitimating his lineage on Stela 10 in Tikal.

Early Classic
Petén, Jade Statuette
*(32 cm )

Text Glyphs, with PSS
Text Interpretation:
The soul (Way) of Ab’ B’ahlam.will rise. It is the
carrying-stone of the ?bat head? of Lady. ?[TREE.IN.HAND-BIRD]?

In Ceremonial pottery, or objects such as Jade earrings or bone art, The Primary Standard Sequence or PSS is a string of about 35 glyphic signs--in effect a formula--laid out in an invariable sequence.  This originated in the Late Preclassic period and was standardized in its graphic format by the middle Early Classic period. No one ceramic text contains them all: there may be as few as 3 or 4 PSS glyphs on a vessel, or as many as 22, but they are always in the same order.  The epigraphers have concluded that the PSS is one more case of name-tagging, and demonstrated that ownership statements were an intrinsic part of inscriptions on portable objects, in this case for the object itself, with the owner or patron being named, along with his or her titles, at the end of the PSS string. (Coe 60).  Stuart (1989) suggested the most basic PSS is made up of a possessed noun (the object’s name) followed by a possessor (the object’s owner), and optionally a verb which may precede the possessed noun. MacLeod (1990) agreed with this basic structure and proposed an additional sentence type not considered by Stuart (1989), consisting of a glyph called the Initial Sign followed by the sequence glyphs


Dresden Codice page

    The Maya culture in and around what is now the Petén, Guatemala,  produced codices, around the same time that the Romans did. The factors leading to the development of the codex in European culture have been well documented, and the close identity between the Roman and Maya solutions to the problems of codex design, manufacture, purpose, and usage suggests that the codex form of the transmission of information is not merely an accident of geography or history. The Maya developed paper quite early in the first millennium, archaeological evidence of manufacture, trade and use of bark paper by Maya dates from the early 5th century AD . The Maya named their paper Hu'un, and saw it as a writing surface when they appropriated their bark-cloth tunics as a possible means of transmitting information: “early in their history the Mayas produced a kind of tapa clothKapo', Ficus Guatemalana The Maya used its bark to make Paper from the inner bark of certain trees, the main being the wild fig tree *Ficus guatemalana* or Amate, named Kopo' by the Maya, (Left), and the "Killer tree" another Ficus, for the Ah T'z'íb'ob to write in them. Bark-cloth manufacture apparently evolved into papermaking, although when this occurred is not known”. This paper, superior in texture, durability, and plasticity to Egyptian papyrus, was thus perfected anonymously and communally by the Maya. (Sandstrom and Sandstrom, Traditional Papermaking 13). The Maya developed paper screen-fold codices as a direct step beyond carving information into stone buildings and stelas, unlike Western papermaking, which took a more circuitous route to reach its final form (single sheets, papyrus rolls, and then leafed codices).   

 During the 1940s, two scholars, Victor von Hagen and Hans Lenz, conducted independently of each other ethnological and anthropological studies into the modern-day descendants of the Maya, many of whom at that time still spoke Ki´che´ in Quiché, Guatemala, a descended  from the Maya language. Both von Hagen and Lenz were able to observe the  Indians making handmade huun paper. From the accounts given by these two scholars, we get a description of the nature and function of paper up to the arrival of the Spanish. Von Hagen links the development of paper among the Maya to similar development around the world at nearly the same time.  The Maya accumulated books, as man had done elsewhere--in China, in Egypt, in Rome, in Greece. These books, and there were actually books, were housed and protected down through the centuries. (von Hagen, “Paper and Civilization” 302)

   The contents of the codices (singular: Codex) must have varied, but some of them were evidently similar to astronomic almanacs. We have examples of a Venus table, eclipse tables in a codex in Dresden. The Dresden is now 20.5 cm. (86 in.) high and 3.56 m. (3 ft. 8.4 in.) long; since both sides of each leaf had been prepared, the scribe, or scribal team, was faced with 74 pages totaling at least 2,268 inches of unpainted, white surface, 8 different authors can be identified due to the distinct calligraphic and drawing styles. The only exact Replica, even made from Amate bark paper, and using the same colors that the Maya (Charcoal Black, Iron oxide Red and Blue Maya) is displayed in the National Museum of Archaeology of Guatemala, since October 22, 2007. (A Donation from the Dresden Museum).

   There is a codex in Paris that seems to contain some kind of Maya Zodiac, but if it is and how it must have worked is still unknown.

   Another major example of Maya almanacs is present in the Madrid Códice, it  measures 23 cm. (9.6 in.) high, it measures no less than 6.82 m. (22 ft. 6 in.) in length, offering its scribe 112 pages covering slightly under 5,000 inches of available surface, this códice come from Tayasal. It has not only Calendrical and astronomic charts, but also has several pages dedicated to the daily life, use of medicinal plants, art and is considered a text on Apiculture.

The fourth codex is called the Grolier and was authenticated as late as 1983. These codices probably contained much of the information used by priests or the noble class to determine dates of importance or seasonal interest. We can only speculate as to whether or not the Maya developed poetry or drama that was committed to paper. The codices probably kept track of dynastic information as well.  Dresden Codex probably most closely resembles the books of the Classic period; its pages are only 9 cm. wide, in contrast to the 12.2 cm. of the Madrid, and the 12.5 cm of the Paris and Grolier. The small, calligraphically elegant writing of the Dresden is in perfect harmony with the comparatively small size of its pages. (Coe 171).

Mayans had a voluminous literature, covering the whole range of native interests either written, in their own peculiar "calculiform" hieroglyphic characters, in books of Amate paper or parchment which were bound in word, or carved upon the walls of their public buildings.  The oldest Maya codices known have been found by archaeologists as mortuary offerings with burials in excavations in Uaxactún, Guaytán, and Nebaj in Guatemala, at Altun Ha in Belize and at Copán in Honduras. The six examples of Maya books discovered in excavations date to the Early Classic (Uaxactún and Altun Ha), Late Classic (Nebaj, Copán), and Early Postclassic (Guaytán) periods and, unfortunately, all have been changed by the pressure and humidity in the ground during their many years in the ground, eliminating the organic backing and reducing all into inoperable masses or collections of very small flakes and bits of the original lime sizing and multicolor painting. The result being, unfortunately, more old books which will probably never be read. (Whiting 207-208)

Unfortunately zealous Spanish priests shortly after the conquest ordered the burning of all the Maya books, and then also destroyed numerous books at Tayasal the Capitol of the Itzáes, (in the modern City of Flores, Petén) that was conquered in 1697. While many stone inscriptions survive, mostly from cities already abandoned when the Spanish arrived;  only 3 books and a few pages of a fourth  from the ancient libraries remain today:

 The Grolier Codex

The Paris Codex

The Dresden Codex

The Madrid Codex


 Download Codex at:





For more information, Syllabary and complete dictionaries of Maya Glyphs go to:


A beautiful done Hieroglyphic Explanation Text can be downloaded at:




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Last updated 28/01/2011 17:07:35 -0500
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