How the internet is fast unravelling mysteries of the Mayan script

Online collaborators are decoding ancient glyphs that for hundreds of years refused to give up their secrets

Guy Gugliotta

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Breaking the code ... The Dos Pilas archaeological site in Guatemala. Photograph: David S Stuart/University of Texas

Researchers began decoding the glyphic language of the ancient Maya long ago, but the internet is helping them finish the job and write the history of this enigmatic Meso-American civilisation.

For centuries, scholars understood little about Maya script beyond its elegant astronomical calculations and calendar.The Maya had dominated much of Central America and southern Mexico for 1,000 years before their civilisation collapsed about 600 years before the Spaniards reached the New World. The Maya script began to give up its secrets in the 1950s and 1960s, and progress accelerated in the 1970s. But much remains to be puzzled out from the immense body of carvings and inscriptions that has languished for centuries in jungle ruins and museum closets.

Enter University of Texas archaeologist David Stuart, one of the world's leading experts in Maya script. "I had all these boxes of notes and papers in my office, and I was never going to publish every little observation. But I thought that if I had a blog, I could talk about new things and bring out some old stuff from my dusty files."

So five years ago, Stuart started up Maya Decipherment, a blog for scholars and amateurs to post new inscriptions, refine translations and debate the subtleties of Mayan language, all in an effort to fill out the history of the civilisation. The work will take years, but with the help of the internet, the pace is quicker than it has ever been.

"The web log gets ideas out quickly, which is very appealing," said Brown University archaeologist Stephen Houston, a longtime Stuart collaborator. "You don't have to wait two years for publication. You want to lay claim to a new idea and get it noticed by colleagues."

Last month, for instance, Stuart posted a description of new excavations from Guatemala that suggest the Maya were not necessarily direct descendants of the earlier Olmec culture, as some archaeologists have maintained. In another post, he described how the sign for the phonetic syllable "yo", meaning "his" or "her", might be the word symbol "yop", meaning "leaf", in other texts.

A third post described a new translation of an inscription from Guatemala, recording the visit of King Yuknoom Yich'aak K'ahk' of Calakmul on 29 January 696, five months after his defeat by armies from the kingdom of Tikal. Scholars had long thought Yuknoom Yich'aak K'ahk' died in battle, but the new text showed that he had not.

When the Spaniards arrived in Central America in the 1500s, they did their best to destroy the writings of "heathen" scribes still working in the language of the Maya. Three books of bark paper survived the Spanish purge and were rediscovered in the 18th and 19th centuries in Europe as the Dresden Codex, the Paris Codex and the Madrid Codex.

Stuart describes the codices as "handbooks for priests", focusing on astronomical calculations that were quite elaborate and accurate. Colonial-era Spanish Bishop Diego de Landa also provided help for future scholars by getting scribes who were still able to write in the Maya language to transliterate the Spanish alphabet into Maya glyphs. With these tools, scholars figured out the "Long Count" dating system.

This early scholarship built the myth of the Maya as a peace-loving people preoccupied with science and ritual. It also helped give rise to the misconception that the Maya regarded the Long Count date - which correlates to 21 December 2012 – as the end of the world.

This analysis of the Maya was largely nonsense. They were just as venal and nasty as any other humans. They fought wars, conquered territory and treated their enemies badly. They did not believe in Doomsday: was just the beginning of another Long Count cycle.

Three crucial insights in the 1950s and 1960s helped erase the myth. In Mexico, amateur Mayanist Heinrich Berlin identified "emblem glyphs" that were used to symbolise personal and place names. Harvard's Tatiana Proskouriakoff used this insight to show that Maya inscriptions had dates and images that commemorated particular events and lives. The Maya wrote history.

And Soviet linguistics expert Yuri Knorozov discovered that De Landa's alphabet was actually a phonetic syllabary. De Landa had pronounced a letter and the Maya scribes reproduced what they heard. The letter "u" in Spanish is pronounced "ooooh", a sound that Stuart said can be written in Maya "maybe 20 different ways". Other letters, such as the Spanish "l", and "h" have two syllables, requiring two different symbols.

It was left to a half-dozen younger scholars, including Stuart and Houston, to build on these discoveries beginning in the 1980s. They immersed themselves in the culture and language of Mexican and Central American indigenous people – the descendants of the modern Maya – joining this knowledge with analytical insights and, in many cases, considerable artistic talent.

"It was just beginning, and you studied it until you got to the point where you simply understood how it worked," Houston recalled. "It seemed like someone was deciphering something almost every day. That was a golden time."

The Maya scribes during the peak centuries of the civilisation wrote about great events, kings and nobles in a language that did not change much through the years. "Modern-day Maya can recognise some words, but they can't understand the text," Stuart said. "It's as if the scribes wrote in classical Latin, while the modern Maya speak Romance languages."

But if the text was formal, the art was not. "The scribes [who carved and painted the glyphs] are trying to be creative, fancy and artistic," Stuart said. "Once you see the patterns, it becomes predictable." Doing this takes not only knowledge of modern Maya languages but also artistic sophistication, what Stuart describes almost as intuition for how a particular scribe expresses himself.

For example, he said, while there is a single word picture for "k'uh", meaning "god" or "deity", the word in some texts is written phonetically in syllables. "Take the syllable 'k'u' and the syllable 'hu' in the word 'k'uh'," Stuart said. "The first syllable is the representation of a bird's nest, because the word for 'bird's nest' is 'k'u'. The 'hu' sign is a picture of an iguana's head, because the word for 'iguana' is 'hu'. You don't look at the semantics, you look at the phonetics." A translator has to know in this case to ignore the meanings of each of those individual word pictures and instead use their sounds to get to "k'uh".

"Once we had the system more or less figured out, we were confronted with thousands of inscriptions," Stuart said. They all needed translation, and "that's what we've been doing ever since".

When Stuart began his career more than 30 years ago, he communicated in handwritten letters to the few people around the world who understood what he was doing. "The big technological advance then" was the Xerox machine, he said. "Epigraphers were always wanting copies of inscriptions."

Now Stuart posts drawings and photos of glyphs on his blog for anyone with internet access. Comments can be posted from anywhere in the world. Scholars in remote areas, often cut out of earlier research because of logistics, are eager partners today. Houston estimated that there are more than 30 colleagues currently at work studying and translating Maya script. Despite its success, Stuart's blog occasionally falls victim to aimless pettiness. Stuart's description of the discoveries about King Yuknoom Yich'aak K'ahk' drew 37 responses, including several provocative insights, but eventually the postings gave way to ceaseless arguments about Doomsday, prompting Stuart to shut them down after a week for "veering off topic" by focusing on "galaxies, astrologies, egos, etc".