About the codes of the Maya, the Royal monuments and the Mayan calendars

Maya is an independent language family, which now has about 30 languages divided into four branches. These branches came from the language protomaya, which was formed in the area of the Guatemalan highlands around the beginning of the I Millennium BC. Now the history of the Mayan language family has about 4 thousand years.
The first finds and the de Landa alphabet

Mayan writing entered into scientific turnover in the beginning of XIX century when in a number of publications devoted to the monuments of pre-Columbian America, there were images of monuments with hieroglyphic texts. In 1810, the German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt published a page of the Dresden Codex — manuscript, discovered in the Royal library in Dresden, which contained strange signs and characters. Initially, these signs are attributed to an abstract written language of the ancient Mexicans, without any clear territorial affiliation. In the mid-nineteenth century a huge number of enthusiasts rushed to the jungles of Central America for the purpose of exploration of Mayan monuments. As a result of these studies was published sketches of the monuments and inscriptions on them. They were compared with the Dresden Codex, and saw that all these signs are part of the same hieroglyphic writing of the ancient Maya.

A new stage in the study of Mayan writing was the discovery of the manuscript of Diego de Landa’s “account of the Affairs of Yucatan”. In 1862, the French abbé Charles-étienne Brasseur de Bourbourg, an Amateur historian, found in the archives of the Royal historical Academy of Madrid a copy of this manuscript made in 1661. The original was written by Diego de Landa in 1566. Fray Diego de Landa was the second Bishop of Yucatan, who was accused of misconduct and summoned to Spain to testify. And as grounds for his justification, he wrote the work, containing a detailed description of the life of the Maya who inhabited the Northern Yucatan. But, in addition to the description of everyday life of Indians, this manuscript included one more very important thing — the so-called alphabet of Landa.


Page from the manuscript of “reports of cases in the Yucatan” with the so-called alphabet of Landa

This “alphabet” is a record called bilingual — parallel text in two languages. Next to the Latin alphabet, the letters of the Spanish language were attributed to the Mayan hieroglyphs. The problem was to determine what written characters: the individual phonetic elements, words, some abstract concept or something else. On this issue researchers have struggled for decades, someone thought it was rigged, Diego de Landa, someone-an adaptation of the Latin alphabet under Mayan hieroglyphic writing. And some researchers have said that the characters have phonetic reading, which in this case tried to transfer the letters of the Spanish alphabet.

At the end of XIX century began the period of accumulation of the case of the hieroglyphic inscriptions of the Maya, and to secure the monuments began to use the photo. From the beginning of XX century began to appear a series of publications with photos and sketches of monuments. It was at this time formed the corpus of Maya hieroglyphic inscriptions, which later studied hieroglyphic writing. In addition to that found another two hieroglyphic code of Paris and Madrid, named after the site of detection. Codes — is a kind of hand-written books of the Maya in the form of long strips of paper, which contain the hieroglyphic texts, iconographic images, and calendar calculations. Strips of paper folded like an accordion, and on the two sides of the resulting code had been recorded.

The decipherment of the writing

In the late 30-ies — 40-ies of XX century in the scientific world was dominated by the point of view of the British ethnographer, linguist and archaeologist Eric Thompson, who thought that Maya writing has a picturesque character, and some letter signs, you need to understand depending on what they represent, without departing from the context. That is, the entire set of images of Maya needs to be interpreted based on our knowledge about this culture. In response to the view of Eric Thomson in 1952 in the magazine “Soviet Ethnography” published an article by Soviet expert Yuri Valentinovich Knorozov. The young scientist, then a graduate student at the Leningrad branch of the Institute of Ethnography of the Russian Academy of Sciences, offered his perspective on the problem of deciphering Mayan writing. Knorozov was a generalist, before the war, studying at the historical faculty of Moscow state University. M. V. Lomonosov, he was interested in the history of Egypt. After the war he decided to specialize in the Ethnography of the peoples of Central Asia. During his studies, he was quite aware of the writings of the Ancient world. Therefore, the study of the hieroglyphic texts of the Maya, he could compare them with the Egyptian writing system and other cultural traditions.

In his article of 1952 he proposed a method of deciphering the main idea of which was to determine reading individual hieroglyphic symbols Mayan writing that, in his opinion, had a clear phonetic value. That is, it is assumed that in the “Landa alphabet” laid the phonetic hieroglyphic characters, which are written using letters of the Spanish alphabet. Knorozov was determined that the Maya writing is a word-syllabic: some characters are ideograms, that is, separate words, and the other syllabic signs (syllabograms) — abstract phonetic elements. In the “Landa alphabet” was recorded exactly syllabic signs, i.e. syllogizes signs that conveyed the combination of a consonant and a vowel. In turn, the combination of syllabic signs were given to write the necessary words from the Mayan language.


Yuri Knorozov with Siamese cat Asya (ASP) in 1971

Knorozov method, used for determining the reading of characters, referred to by cross-reading: assuming that some combination of characters (a character block) is read in a certain way, then the other combination that contains the number of already read characters, gives the ability to determine the reading of the new sign and so on. As a result, Knorozov, he drew up a set of assumptions, which ultimately confirmed the assumption about reading the first combinations. So the researcher has a set of several dozen of the hieroglyphic signs, each of which corresponds to a certain phonetic value.

Thus, the main achievements of Yuri Valentinovich Knorozov began the definition of a method of reading the hieroglyphic symbols of the Maya, the selection of examples, on the basis of which he offers this method, the characteristics of the structure of hieroglyphic writing Mayan language. He also made a small catalog of characters allocated to them in the hieroglyphic inscriptions of the Maya. There is a misconception that desifrovat the Maya writing system, Knorozov, thus, read all the texts. It’s just physically impossible. For example, it is very little attention paid to the monumental texts. In his research, he primarily focused on hieroglyphic manuscripts, whose number is small. But, more importantly, he really suggested correct method of reading the hieroglyphic texts.

Of course, Eric Thompson, was extremely unhappy with the fact that some upstart from Soviet Russia was able to decipher hieroglyphic writing. While scientific discourse coincided with the beginning of the cold war, that is the time when were fighting two ideological systems — Communist and capitalist. Consequently, Knorozov in the eyes of Thomson was represented by the Marxist historiography. And from the perspective of Thompson, using the methods of Marxism, nothing is gained, and until the end of his life he never believed in the possibility of deciphering of hieroglyphic writing the same method, which suggested Knorozov.

In the late 70-ies of XX century, most Western experts agreed with the method Knorozov, and further study of the Mayan writing was the path of study of its phonetic component. At this time, it sillabari — table of syllabic signs and gradually filled up the catalogue of logographic signs are signs which denote separate words. Almost up until now, the researchers are not just reading and analyzing the content of texts, but also the determination of the readings of the new characters that couldn’t be read by Knorosov.

The structure of the writing

The Mayan writing refers to a type of word-syllabic writing systems, also referred to as logosyllabic. Of the signs refers to individual words or base words — logos. The other part of marks — syllabogram, which recorded the combination of consonant and vowel sounds, i.e. syllables. Syllabic signs of the Mayan writing about hundreds of them now read 85%. With logographic characters more difficult, all of them known more than a thousand, and reading the most common logograms are defined, but there are plenty of signs, the phonetic value of which is unknown as yet they have not found confirmation of syllabic signs.


Fragment “Panel 96 characters” from Palenque (Mexico) Sample of Maya hieroglyphic text, VIII., Mexico

In the early classic period (III–VI century) in texts contained more logographic characters, but in the later classics, to the VIII century, the volume of texts increased and used more syllabic signs. That is, the letter was on the path of development from logographical to syllabicate, from complex to simple, because the use of a purely syllabic writing system is much easier than verbal-syllabic. Because logographic characters known more than a thousand, the entire amount of the signs of hieroglyphic writing Mayan is estimated somewhere in the area of 1100-1200 characters. But not all used simultaneously, but in different periods and in different areas. Thus, while in written language could be used about 800 characters. This is the normal rate for word-syllabic writing systems.
The origin of Mayan writing

Maya writing was borrowed, and was not exclusively Mayan development. Writing in Mesoamerica appears somewhere in the middle of I Millennium BC. She appears primarily in Oaxaca, in the framework of the culture of the Zapotec. Around 500 BC the Zapotecs create the first state in Mesoamerica centered in Monte Albán. It was the first city in Mesoamerica, which became the capital of a large state, which occupied the Central valley of Oaxaca. And one of the elements complicating the socio-political structure is the appearance of the letters, not just the appearance of the letters, and also the development of the calendar system, because one of the first signs that are recorded in Zapotec texts were the signs of the calendar of nature.

The first texts that were inscribed on stone monuments, as a rule, contained the names, titles and possibly the place of origin of the prisoners, many captured by local rulers, which is a normal tradition for the early States. Then, in the last centuries of the first Millennium BC, a more advanced system of writing appears in the culture of the so-called epiolmec. Epiolmec are representatives of a language family mixe-juice, which settled the isthmus of Tehuantepec — the narrowest point between the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific ocean, and further South the mountainous areas of Chiapas and southern Guatemala. Epiolmec create the writing system, which is known for a few monuments from the I century BC to II century ad. It was there that the kings first began to erect monuments with lengthy texts. For example, such well-known monument, Stela 1 of La Mojarra is a settlement on the Gulf coast, which in the II century ad, is a monument containing the so-called long count — a special type of calendar entries and text with more than 500 hieroglyphic signs. Unfortunately, this script is still not deciphered, but many of the signs resemble those that were used in Mayan hieroglyphic writing, especially in the early period.

Knowing that the Maya were very closely connected with their neighbors, we assume that somewhere at the turn of the eras epilessia writing system was borrowed from them through the mountain region of Guatemala, that is, in the southern area of Maya settlement. Approximately in the first century of our era there appear the first signs that made the Mayan hieroglyphs, although they are very similar to the hieroglyphic signs epilessia letters. In the Mayan inscriptions, there are the first dates in the long run, that shows that the borrowing calendar system. After that, writing from the South migrates to the North, in the area of the lowlands. There Maya writing appears already sufficiently developed, with an established set of characters. It is believed that at the initial stage of the development of word-syllabic writing system, the writing needs to be more logographic and verbal character, that is, the label should consist of logos. But the first written monuments of the Maya, of I century of our era, showing the existence of syllabic characters. This indicates that the writing system of the Maya, apparently, was simultaneously created on the basis of apollobravo letters.


Panel 1 of Lastovica (783) — sample late classical Royal monument depicting the king, the captain and the captives. Comes from the region Yaxchilan (Mexico), stored in the Museum of art Kimbell (USA)

Thus, the Maya used writing from the mixe-juice — and is a completely different language family, speaking a completely different language — adopted primarily in the form of signs and the principle of recording of the texts, but adapted the letter under his oral speech. There is an assumption that the language of the Maya inscriptions, the so-called hieroglyphic Maya was the language, not quite like the spoken language, and was used solely for the purpose of fixing any information — describe specific events from the history of the kings of calendar calculations, of the religious and mythological conceptions, that is, for the needs of the elite Maya. Thus, hieroglyphic texts were usually created by a certain specific Canon, far from speaking in a pure form. Although the individual records, for example, on ceramic vessels, which contain the texts of a different Canon from the Royal monuments, demonstrating the transfer of the forms of words or phrases that could be contained only in oral speech.

The first monuments and types of texts

The first written monuments of the ancient Maya belong to the I–II centuries of our era, the end of the preclassic period, the earliest stage of formation of statehood. Unfortunately, these monuments can not be precisely dated because they do not contain dates, only possessory labels. The first dated monuments appear with the beginning of the classical period in the end of III century of our era. Classic hieroglyphic texts are divided into two types: monumental monuments with Royal inscriptions and objects of small plastics with owner’s inscriptions. First record the history of the kings, and the second category of texts is the type of object on which the inscription is made, and ownership of the subject to anyone- king or noble person.


The lintel 48 from Yaxchilan (Mexico). The panel contains a record of the calendar text for a “long account”, Dating from 526 a year. The inscription made in the great paleographic style, which presents profigure versions of the characters in the image of gods and mythical creatures.

Corpus of Maya hieroglyphic inscriptions is now about 15 thousand texts, and among them is dominated by the monumental works. It can be various according to the type of monuments: stelae, wall panels, lintels, circular stone altars, which were installed in front of the steles, part of the decoration of buildings — reliefs made in stucco, or polychrome wall paintings. And small plastic objects include ceramic vessels used for drinking different beverages, such as cocoa, jewelry, high-status objects that belonged to those or other people. On such things was done recording that, for example, a vessel for drinking cocoa belongs to the king of any Kingdom.

Other genres of hieroglyphic texts is not represented. But the Royal monuments very often contain information of a ritual-mythological character, because the kings not only did political history, fought, entered into a dynastic marriage, but another important function was the administration of rituals. A significant part of the monument was installed in honor of the end of calendar cycles, especially anniversaries that from the point of view of the mythological concepts of the ancient Maya were considered very important events. Very often, the texts contain mentions of the gods, their functions and rituals that were sent in honor of these gods, the description of the picture of the universe. But the special mythological texts we have virtually none.

The exception was again the inscriptions on ceramic vessels, where we include not only owners ‘ inscriptions. Very often the principal surface of the vessel is painted with images of any themes — for example, it could be the Palace scenes, scenes of an audience, or bringing tribute. And the mural fit the text that described or explained the depicted scene. Also often on the vessels depicting scenes of mythological character, any story of myth, which was made necessary, but a brief explanation. From these references we can get an idea of a well-developed mythology of the ancient Maya, as these separate mythological stories were parts of a very complex mythological system.


Polychrome vessel ávila parish K-Chan-K of inica. Sample painted ceremonial pottery of the ancient Maya. The vessel is dated to 722 by year and depicts the Prince of DOS Pilas, who was crowned in 741 under the name of ávila parish K-Chan-K inich. Vessel found in Tikal.

The calendar system of the ancient Maya was explored before the others. In the late nineteenth century was a scheme of the functioning of the calendar and developed a method of correlation between the modern calendar and the ancient Mayan calendar. During the 1st half of the XX century the correlation coefficient is several times specified, as a result, today we can accurately calculate the dates of the Mayan calendar, written in the hieroglyphic texts on the modern calendar. Every Royal inscription contains, as a rule, dates, telling when something happened or a particular event. Thus, it is possible to build a common chronology of events in the lives of different kings of the Maya. While in the classical period, III to the IX century, we know of the history of the Board of several dozens of dynasties ruled in many kingdoms of the Maya, but due to an advanced calendar system and traditions of Dating events we can build them to clear the timeline up to the day.

The codes of the Maya

Unfortunately, the tradition of using dates in hieroglyphic texts and most of the monuments ends at the beginning of the X century. After the X century, in the post-classical period of Mayan kings in the Northern Yucatan, where at the time shifted the center of political activity from a region of lowlands, such number of monuments was not set. The whole story is written in the paper codes. The nature of Mayan writing indicates that, apparently, it was originally designed for writing on paper. Mesoamerican paper is a special material, which is made from the bast of ficus, was invented, probably somewhere at the turn of II–I Millennium BC in Mesoamerica and then, perhaps at the turn of the eras entered the Mayan region.

We know four of the code: the Dresden, Madrid, Paris and the code of the Continent. All belong to the postclassic or early colonial period, that is, were created in the period between the XI and XVI centuries. The Dresden and Madrid codices are books of a ritualistic nature where the descriptions of some events, mythological character, mentions of deities, rituals that must be performed on certain dates, and the calculation of the ritual calendar and the chronology of astronomical phenomena. Unfortunately, even now we still don’t really understand much of the content of these codes, although it is clear that there is much based on mathematical calculations of calendar and astronomical events. The third Codex, the Paris, not as extensive in contents as the first two, but the records in it are likely to contain information of a historical nature, and not the ritual-mythological. Unfortunately, the safety pages of the code does not allow for in-depth analysis. Apparently, this kind of texts was widely recorded in the classical period, and in the capitals of the Maya, there was a special archives, which contained such codes. Perhaps there were even some literary works, for example, a mythological character, but unfortunately, none of this has been preserved.

The last code, are relatively small in volume — the so-called manuscript of the Continent — has long been considered a modern forgery because it is not written hieroglyphic texts and iconographic images are placed and the combination of the calendar signs. However, a recent comprehensive analysis showed that the time of manufacture of the paper sheet, iconographic style and paleography calendar signs point to ancient origins of the code of the Continent. This is probably the oldest of the four surviving codices, the time of its creation may refer to the X–XI centuries.

Current research

Maya writing and is being investigated very actively, a group of scientists in dozens of people from different countries engaged in rigorous study of the hieroglyphic texts. Point of view to understand the structure of sentences, reading of individual characters, the rules of grammar of the language of hieroglyphic texts is constantly changing, and this explains the fact that so far there is no published grammar of hieroglyphic Mayan — simply because at the time of the publication of such a grammar, it is already obsolete. Therefore, none of the big experts are still not decided either to write a complete tutorial on Maya hieroglyphic nor to compile a complete dictionary of the hieroglyphic Mayan language. Of course, there are individual working vocabularies, which matched the most well-established translations of the words, but to write a complete dictionary of the Maya hieroglyphic and publish it still does not work.

Every year archaeological excavations brings new monuments, which need to be understood. In addition, now the time has come when you must revise the texts published in the first half and the middle of the twentieth century. For example, the project “Corpus of Maya hieroglyphic inscriptions”, which operates on the basis of the Peabody Museum of Harvard University, since the 1970s, gradually publishes monuments from different Mayan sites. The publication “Housing” includes photo and line drawing of the monuments, and much research in recent decades has been based on these and similar made in the framework of other projects the drawing. But now the level of understanding of the context of the whole hieroglyphic inscriptions and palaeography of individual characters is much deeper than 30-40 years ago when these drawing were created. Therefore there is a need for significant revision of existing building inscriptions, the creation of other types of images, new photos with modern digital methods, or the implementation of the three-dimensional scanning, when using a special device creates a virtual 3D model of the monument, which, for example, you can print on a 3D printer, so to get a perfect copy of the monument. That is now being implemented and actively uses new methods of fixation of the monuments. On the basis of a better understanding of hieroglyphic writing new drawings of the inscriptions can be made much more accurate and easier for analysis.


Stela 4 of Uaxactun. Dated 396. Example of hieroglyphic inscriptions ranneklassovye period. Photograph and line drawing of A. V. Safronov, made in the framework of the project on the study of monuments Uaxactun

For example, I now study the case of inscriptions Uaxactun — one of the most important archaeological sites in the North of Guatemala, in the framework of the archaeological project of the Slovak Institute of history and archaeology. This settlement was found in 1916 by the American archaeologist Sylvanus Morley, who first published the monuments of this city, and from excavations in Uaxactun in the 1920-ies began a full archaeological study of the Maya. Case label includes Uaxactun 35 monuments are not very good preservation, and the current draw is far from ideal. When in modern conditions proceed to the study of inscriptions from travelers themselves monuments to the analysis of new digital photos, one gets a completely different picture. On the basis of new data more fully rekonstruiruet dynastic history in Uaxactun, and not just specified the already known details, and new information, such as names and dates of reign unknown kings. My main goal is to completely repaint all of the monuments Uaxactun, and believe me, it is very hard work. At least, before the completion of this project, that the results of this work are very different from the well-established pattern that has developed by the end of the twentieth century. And such work needs to be done with many archaeological sites of the Maya.