What We Learn from Maya Hieroglyphics

The Maya developed a complex and flexible writing system composed of numbers, dates, logograms, and syllabograms (or phonemes). They wrote on paper, stone monuments, ceramics, wood and textiles. Although today many sources (especially paper, wood and textiles) have disappeared due to aging or erosion, we still have many inscriptions on stone and ceramic vessels to read from that provide important insights into Maya culture.

What do the Maya hieroglyphs say?

Most of the surviving texts on stone monuments have to do with the happenings of the royal court. A stone monument such as a stela (a vertical stone with images and text carved into it) will traditionally start with a detailed explanation of the date of whatever event is being described. Once the date has been established, the event is given. Sometimes the inscriptions deal with a birth or the coronation of a ruler, but they also describe dedications of buildings and significant periods of time, such as a k’atun ending. These inscriptions also frequently explain familial relationships and the dynamics that existed between different sites– whether one was dominant over the other, or the result of a battle.

Another frequent place where texts appear is on ceramic vessels. Although we do have examples of incised (or carved) hieroglyphs on ceramics, they were mostly painted. Ceramic vessels tell a different story. They are largely self-descriptive, naming their owner and the kind of foodstuff or drink that the vessel would have been used for. Some of the most famous of these are the cacao pots that led to the decipherment of the word kakaw.

The Princeton Vase

Ceramic vessels are also a great indicator of the relationships between Maya cities. They tell of being given as a gift from one ruler to another during royal visits, and they were frequently buried with their owners or the descendants of their owners, helping archaeologists to identify the inhabitants of royal tombs.

Next week’s post will deal with another form of Maya writing: the codices or written manuscripts. These dealt with other topics, such as the movement of the stars, the passing of seasons and the deities and rituals associated with them. Although we have fewer examples of written manuscripts, they contribute valuable information to our knowledge of Maya culture.

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