Cracking the Maya code

The consensus among scholars used to be that the Maya had no script. The images that decorate their artifacts are wonderfully creative but they are works of art, not ways to communicate information.

In the 1940s, a linguist called Yuri Knorozov began to question this conclusion. The only problem was that he lived in the Soviet Union, had little access to books and no chance to travel to Mexico. During the Second World War, Knorozov was among the soldiers in the Soviet Army who captured Berlin, and here he managed to get his hands on copies of Maya manuscripts as well as a book, Relación de las cosas de Yucatán, written by a Spanish conquistador, Diego de Landa, in 1566. There are 27 letters in their alphabet, de Landa insisted, and although it was easy to prove that he was wrong, Knorozov was now able to pursue his research. He published an article on the subject in 1952. The writing system of the Maya, he explained, is not an alphabet; it has characters for sounds but also for entire words.

The only problem was that Knorozov’s article was published in the Soviet Union and in Russian. It took a long time for scholars elsewhere in the world to find out about it, and even once they did, it was easy to dismiss the argument. It was only in 1973, at a conference in the old Maya city of Palenque, that the consensus shifted. “That evening,” a scholar who were present recalled, “we were able to decipher the names of seven Maya rulers.”

The writing system of the Maya, it turns out, has around 800 characters and today we can read some 75 percent of their texts. They wrote about history, astronomy, mathematics, but also about the histories of their rulers. And since the Maya people themselves have not gone away, it is possible for researchers to ask them about the meaning of many myths.

Unfortunately many Mayan texts were destroyed by the Spanish. Since the books, as Diego de Landa put it, only contained “lies of the devil,” we burned them all. The Maya people, he added, “regretted this to an amazing degree.”

External links:

In Our Time, “Maya civilization”