For a long time the Maya writing system was considered too complex to understand. After decades of deciphering, researchers are now able to read about 85% and readings are fine-tuned. So what can they tell us? Who were the Maya scribes? Where did they learn to write?
The recent decipherment of the ancient Maya texts gives us insight into the Maya society in their own words and their own voices, not by Spanish conquerors/observers. No value can be placed on that.
Writing was independently invented in five areas of the ancient world: Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, the Indus Valley, and Mesoamerica. This post is not about the script, but about its scribes. The decipherment of the Maya script was one of the great scientific achievements of the 20th century, but it's another story. Here's a very brief summary.
The story begins, as far as the West is concerned, with The Spanish bishop Diego de Landa, who first burnt all the Maya manuscripts he could lay his hands on (in 1562), but later recorded their culture in the book Relación de las Cosas de Yucatán, which included a description of their 'alphabet'. Well into the 20th century, this 'alphabet' was dismissed as a fiction, through a crazy combination of academic arrogance, Cold War rhetoric and sheer bloodymindedness. For decades, researchers believed that the Maya script just showed mathematical and astronomical concepts, and could tell us nothing about their language or their history. But then in a series of breakthroughs, it became clear that the glyphs recorded the history of real people with real voices. It's a great story (because it has a happy ending) but if you want to know more, I recommend Michael Coe's entertaining book 'Breaking the Maya Code'. I am not going into more detail on the actual script here as I am more interested in this post in the people who left us the written records.
Maya writing was recorded on a wide variety of media that include ceramics, stone, wood, shell, textiles, animal hides, and screen-fold codex books.
The books were folded and consisted of bark paper or leather leaves with an adhesive stucco layer on which to write (they used stucco layers for the correction of mistakes too).
The books were protected by jaguar skin covers or wooden boards. Since every diviner probably needed a book, large numbers must have existed. Today, four codices survive: the Dresden, Paris, Madrid and the Grolier Codex. Besides the codical glyphs, there existed a cursive script of an often dynamic character, found in wall-paintings and on ceramics, and imitated in stone.
So let's start from the beginning. Who invented writing in Mesoamerica? Many scientists now believe that writing did not exist among the Proto-Maya as writing did not exist among the Maya until 300 BC (some sources say 600 BC). This was 1500 years after the breakup of the Proto-Maya. They also seem to suggest that the Olmec people taught the Maya how to write (Schele, Freidel, Soustelle). If you have read any of my Mystery posts, you would know by now that we always have to start with the Olmecs, as they invented everything before the Maya: the calendar, the worship of gods, the human sacrifice and yes, also the writing (and the zero concept). So we need to start with Cascajal Block (from Veracruz) the oldest known writing system in the Western Hemisphere (first millennium BC). It has 62 glyphs that show insect, dart tip, corn, pineapple, throne, beetle, fish….
According to Alfred Tozzer, Diego de Landa noted that the Yucatec Maya said they learned writing from a group of foreigners called Tutul Xiu, from Nonoulco. The Tutul Xiu were probably Manding-speaking Olmecs: Tutul means 'Very good subjects of the Order' and Xiu, (the Shi) means the race. Thus, 'the Shis who are very good subjects of the cult-order'.
While Landa burnt 5,000 Mayan codices in his effort to eliminate the idol worship of the Maya, he also left behind his notes about the Mayan alphabet that he collected through his daily contact with the indigenous people. You can see the alphabet above from Landa's book Relación de las cosas de Yucatán.
The Maya writing glyph is today deciphered as 'tz'ib (it looks to me like a foot-print). A-tz'ib is the name for the scribe. Tz'ib could be from the Cholan and Yucatecan Maya. This glyph is scanned from Michael D. Coe's book Breaking the Maya Code.
The Olmec writing was found on the monuments of the Epi-Olmec culture in the state of Veracruz (300 BC to 250 AD). Epi-Olmec was a successor culture to the Olmec, hence the prefix 'epi' (post). While the depiction on the Olmec monuments in La Venta Stela were preoccupied with the portraits of rulers (such as colossal heads), Epi-Olmec monuments show an increasing concern with historicity, culminating in the eventual appearance of dated transcriptions.
Stela 1 of La Mojarra on the left (famsi.org) is one of the examples of this writing system. It was found under the waters of the Acula River near the village of La Mojarra. 465 glyphs arranged in 21 columns, and the image of a ruler. The writing on it is nothing like any other writing system in Mesoamerica. Epi-Olmec is known to have been a popular script in the region as late as 150 BC.
Linguists John Justeson and Terrence Kaufman determined that the language on the stela is an early form of Zoquean, a member of the Mixe-Zoquean family of languages, derivatives of which are still used in parts of Mexico. The work on Epi-Olmec writing still continues, as does the decipherment of Maya writing. I absolutely admire people who are able to read such complicated glyphs.
Archaeologist Neil Steede found over 4,000 inscribed bricks at the Comalcalco site in Tabasco (a site of 360 pyramids built of fired bricks by the Chontal Maya). One of the bricks, T1-452 R16, is particularly fascinating as it has a bilingual Olmec-Maya inscription. The translation of this bilingual brick, and other inscribed bricks from the site, indicates that it was probably a Maya college where Maya initiates entering the priesthood took scribal classes and possibly pyramid-construction classes. The bilingual text indicates that the Maya scribes had to learn how to write Olmec inscriptions and translate them into the Maya language. The Olmec inscriptions were defaced, which suggests that the scribes first wrote a piece in Olmec and then the same inscription in the Maya language(s).
If we look at the images of the ancient scribes, they appear to be monkeys. The monkey as scribe was often displayed on Maya pottery with a deer-like extra ear (and sometimes with a cluster of three spots on a cheek). Why Monkey-Man Scribes? In Maya mythology, as described in the book Popol Vuh, they are the elder sons of Hun Hunahpu (the Maize God, the creator of mankind). Their names were Hun Batz and Hun Chuen, and they were gifted artists and musicians. Chuen is the word for a spider monkey, Batz is a howler monkey. Hun Batz and Hun Chuen tormented and abused their younger brothers, the hero twins Hunahpu and Xbalanque (who defeated the Lords of the Underworld). But one day the younger twins outsmarted their brothers, luring them into a tree from which they were unable to descend. That is how they became monkeys. The hero twins also persuaded their brothers to let their loincloths trail behind them, and they became their tails. The monkey twins are gifted and industrious. They are the patron gods of writing, dance, the visual arts, and calculating.
The vessels from the heartland of Maya civilisation in Northern Guatemala are devoted to a scribal theme. The roll-out of the second vase (below) shows two figures. The first figure is a Maya scribe. He holds a carved conch shell, which is his paint container or inkpot. In his headdress, the scribe wears two signs of his profession: a small bundle of bark paper pages and two brushes. The net on the headdress is the traditional symbol of the old priestly god Itzam, the patron god of scribes, who is sitting behind the scribe in the image from the Nakbe vase. The old god’s body is marked with symbols of brightness, indicating his glowing supernatural nature, and he also wears his signature net headdress. He holds a brush daintily in his right hand and steadies a conch shell paint palette in his left. Above the god, a series of hieroglyphs reads sage (learned man and artisan).
Another anthropomorphic figure is the Rabbit Scribe, painted on the Maya ceramic vase known as The Princeton Vase (K511) and described by Professor Michael Coe as the finest example of Maya pictorial ceramics yet known. It comes from Guatemala from the Late Classic Period (600-900 AD), and is in the collection of the Princeton Art Museum (USA). It was a drinking vessel for chocolate, and the glyphs tell us that its owner was a lord named Muwaan K'uk'. The main scene on the vase shows the Maya deity known as ‘God L’, Lord of the Underworld (his name is not known, hence the title God L). He is sitting on a throne covered with jaguar skin, tying a bracelet of jade beads around the wrist of a young woman, as a gift (God L was known to be a bit of a womanizer, and he is also associated with tobacco and often portrayed as smoking).
There are other characters on the vase, including the Hero Twins from the Popol Vuh. Two men wearing elaborate masks and wielding axes decapitate a bound, stripped figure. A girl tries to attract attention by tapping her foot, but the young woman is watching the magic trick being performed by the Hero Twins, who are masked to hide their true identities from the court of Xibalbá (Underworld). At the foot of his throne, the rabbit scribe is recording the scene in an open codex (also made of jaguar skin). So why a rabbit? In Maya mythology the Moon Goddess gave birth to the rabbit, and there may be a connection between this rabbit and the young woman, who perhaps is an image of the Moon Goddess.
David Stuart and Michael Coe described the 'lu-bat' glyph (on the left, scanned from Michael D. Coe's book Breaking the Maya Code) as the artist's signature on elite monuments related to warfare or ritual activities. Lu-bat literally means 'he that knows the engraving' so this relates to a different range of scribes, the carvers.
Michael Coe states that on Stela 12 in Piedras Negras eight artists claimed credit for the carving, each signing his name in a different handwriting. See the image on the left, scanned from Michael D. Coe's book Breaking the Maya Code. One of these artists, K'in Chan, also put his signature on other monuments in Piedras Negras. The signatures make the carvers 'real' people! Such signatures are restricted to the western part of the Maya lowlands during the Late Classic period. On stela 31 in El Perú there are eight 'Lu-Bat' glyphs for 'engraver' followed by the engraver’s name (Coe 2012, 249).
The question of the social status of scribes was answered by David Stuart. Throughout the 1970s and early 80s, the stimulus for the study of art and writing on Maya ceramics was Justin Kerr, who was steadily compiling his now famous photographic archive (www.mayavase.com) from which it was detected that the Maya scribes often marked the ownership of valued objects. For this they developed at some unknown early date a highly rigid and repetitious text formula that included a date, a verb, and mention of how the object was decorated (carved or painted). The formula for tagging objects was widespread; the elite owner's name was often stated on important objects (even on textiles). However, the names of the scribes or artists were also sometimes encrypted on the objects. David Stuart detected on a cylinder vase from the Grolier catalogue of Michael Coe the glyph itz'aat, meaning 'artist, learned one', together with the artist's home town, the names of his father and mother and his own name (which has not yet been deciphered as proper names are often tricky to unravel). His mother was a lady from the city of Yaxhá and his father an ajaw, a king of the city of Naranjo. I think of the artist's signature as a self-portrait. This particular artist, who was allowed to depict his genealogy, not only signed his vase but he was a prince, of royal descent on both sides!
Patrick Carroll disagrees with Coe's interpretation of several artists' signatures on one monument. In his view, the artist or carver held a position of power in their own right. His esteemed position was expressed in the bat head glyph; the messenger bat is a deity of the underworld and resides within caves, which in Maya cosmology are considered a portal to the underworld. It represents the liminal being as a messenger for the elite and their interactions with the underworld. In anthropology, liminality (from the Latin word līmen, meaning 'a threshold') is the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of rituals, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the ritual is complete. These liminal beings could be the patron of the monument, the artist responsible for the work, or even captives. If I understand Carroll's interpretation right, multiple lu-bat signatures on a monument would represent the multiple number of liminal beings represented on the monument, and that could include the noble owners and their captives (who were destined to be killed and transcend to the underworld through a ritual). This connection between the underworld and a deity that is related to blood and sacrifice is crucial to the interpretation of the role of the artist as the conduit and supernatural medium responsible for conveying specific messages related to sacrifice, warfare, and royal activities during the Late Classic Lowland Maya.
Barry Kidder has a similar view in his PhD thesis. In his view, elite Maya scribes acted to achieve a supernatural identity and by extension, imbued their artistic products with a divine essence. To achieve this, they developed their distinctive painting styles, named the patron and/or artist, and immersed themselves into Maya religion and cosmology that served as a portal to the Otherworld. They took part in shamanic rituals, they embarked on cave pilgrimages to enhance their claims of divine status and ensure their prestigious social and political rank. The elite scribe portrayed himself acting in various dramatic rituals (craft production, rites of passage, or shamanic transformation) in order to validate his supernatural claims and establish his product‘s sociopolitical and economic value. The literate secondary elite participated in shamanic rituals in order to integrate the sacred with the profane. This artistic propaganda is very similar to the methods used by the king to control his subjects.
By immortalising a king's victory in battle, a scribe played an important role in maintaining the king's power. Stephen D. Houston has suggested that some of the texts were designed to be read aloud to assembled crowds. The artists were, in modern parlance, propagandists. One of the icons that illustrates the status of a scribe is a device worn behind the ear or tucked into the headdress. This device is seen on a number of Codex style vessels, and also on the famous sculpture of the scribe from Copán. All of the scribes, carvers, and artists that wear the symbol are supernaturals. The device is often oval in shape with an elongated section at one end, like the one in Linda Schele's drawing (famsi.org).
I have already mentioned the 'deer's ear' on the monkey scribes. Justin Kerr feels that this icon is not a deer's ear but a tool of a scribe: a feather, a quill pen or reed pen or a carved conch paint pot, tucked into the headband.
The objects that the scribes wore echo the shape of the Olmec 'spoon'. E. Willys Andrews described the Olmec conch object as a 'knuckle duster' (the Olmec prepared their paint containers and palettes from the sections of a conch). The Olmec wearing of the 'spoon' (usually drilled to wear as a pendant) may have been an indicator that its wearer was literate. This labelling act, to me, seems to suggest that literacy was not widespread and belonged only to the elite.
As writing was a political tool of persuasion and authority, it is believed that scribes were deliberately targeted in warfare to compromise the ruler's power and reveal his vulnerability. Kevin Johnston, an anthropologist at Ohio State University, points out an example of scribes being captured in Stela 12 in Piedras Negras (on the left), which shows the local victorious ruler accompanied by two of his lieutenants exhibiting nine elite members captured in Pomona. They are all tied up and half naked – a sign of submission and humiliation (Linda Schele). Several hieroglyphs in the thighs of the prisoner in the right lower side identify him as a high rank scribe ba cheb or 'principal pen person' (Nikolai Grube). He has a pen bundle of reed or codex in his left hand. The prisoner at the centre is also holding a bundle of pens in his right hand. These details suggest that all or almost all prisoners were scribes at the service of their captor’s enemy. If the captives were common folk, they were simply used as slaves. But captive scribes were important for the victor of the battle and they were used for the sacrifice ritual.
Here King Yahaw Chan Muwaan stands above the captives. A number of captives are sitting or kneeling on the stairs, in deep agony.
Some of them are in the process of having their fingernails ripped out, or have already undergone this torture and bleed from their wounds. After photo enhancement of the painting, Kevin Johnston realised that the captives on the stairs were holding quills. Their fingers were broken and their fingernails ripped out. Then they were executed.
Mary Ellen Miller believes that the scribes' fingernails are not being ripped out, but the fatty pads on their fingers are being cut away from the bone. Destroying a conquered king's ability to communicate was a powerful act of symbolism. Johnston thinks a king may have had additional motives for executing an enemy's scribes. The conquering king already had numerous scribes of his own, for example his own sons from second wives or concubines who would not rule but have this special status in his court, and would therefore not need the enemy's captive services (their loyalty was questionable anyway).
In the younger and well-structured Aztec society (1300-1521) they had scribes for each branch of knowledge. Some dealt with the annals, recording what happened each year, giving the day, month, and hour. Others had charge of the genealogies, recording the lineage of rulers, lords and noblemen, registering the newborn and deleting those who had died. Some painted the frontiers, limits, and boundary markers of the cities, provinces and also the distribution of fields. Other scribes kept the law books. In the law courts the disputants supported their claims with genealogies and maps, showing the king's land in purple, the lords' in red, and the clan fields in yellow. Literacy was not widespread. The priests recorded all matters to do with the temples and their idolatrous doctrines.
So could some Aztecs read their scripts? The plebeian children attended the tepochcalli schools from the age of 14 (until then the parents taught them at home) where they learned history, myths, religion and Aztec ceremonial songs. Boys received intensive military training and also learned about agriculture and the trades. Girls were educated to form a family. The children of the nobles and priests went to the calmecac schools where they were taught in addition literacy, architecture, and perhaps astrology. Codex Mendoza (folio 61f below right) depicts a father giving sons to school at the age of 15.
The most distinguishable feature of all Mesoamerican scripts is the pictorial form of signs. The glyphs bear resemblance to real objects such as animals, people, and natural features. Mesoamerican glyphs are more like paintings than Western alphabetic scripts. In fact, often the line between writing and visual art blurs. Other times glyphs appear as complex geometrical shapes like circles, rectangles, cross-hatches, etc. There was also a phonetic element in Aztec writing; glyphs were sometimes used to indicate the phonetic value, as in Maya writing. Personal names were of the descriptive type, which could usually be written in glyphs. The name of the Emperor Acamapichtli in the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs means 'Handful of Reeds' and his glyph is a forearm with the hand grasping a bundle of stalks.
The name of Pakal the Great, the Maya king of Palenque, was written in three different ways (image on the left: ushistory.org), depending how the scribe decided to record it (they were a playful bunch with a lot of imagination). I would think that logograms (pictorial glyphs) were used for greater impact. Perhaps they were easily recognised by the common folk, so they could read the names of their rulers. The phonetic elements before or behind the logogram were used to help in the reading. In fact, I would like to believe that the general population was literate at least in reading because literacy has to do with the culture you live in, not with the writing itself. After all, the highest literacy in the world today is in Japan and they use a logosyllabic script! The ability to read has nothing to do with the fact that for centuries scholars understood little about Maya script (beyond its astronomical calculations and calendar). That had its own reasons. No attention was paid to the phonetic or syllabic signs for a long time and it also took a while to agree that the ancient noble Maya used a lingua franca in writing over the entire Maya-speaking area: the Ch’olti’ language (now extinct).
There are other unresolved questions that I have about the job of the ancient Maya scribe. For example, did they produce their own paper for the codices? And their own paint and tools? Or did they have slaves to do that job? Or specially trained nobles/artisans? According to Thomas J. Tobin, who tried to reproduce the Maya book-making, the paper recipe would require collecting the bark (or animal skin), boiling the fibres in lime water, beating to felt the fibres, bending the paper into screenfold sheets, burnishing (polishing the gesso ground in order to obtain a smooth and impermeable surface), assembling the codices, binding, making brushes and pens, making ink. The painters had to collect and mix a lot of minerals and plants from the forest for the paint (and then mix and boil or burn them etc). For example the famous Maya turquoise blue required real chemistry: indigo dyes were derived from the leaves of añil (Indigofera suffruticosa) plants combined with a natural clay palygorskite and other mineral additives to make it resistant. This skill is now lost in Mexico, I believe.
The carvers had to find and transport suitable stones. It seems to me a complex manufacturing process and I am inclined to think that the scribes and carvers did not do this physical work themselves (certainly not moving stones; and for transport of minerals they would have used traders), nor that they possessed all the special skills for producing the materials and tools.
If you are interested in learning more about the Maya decipherment and writing, there is now a blog run by David Stuart for scholars and amateurs to post new inscriptions and debate the subtleties of Maya language: Maya Decipherment. I also recommend Michael Coe's 'Breaking the Maya Code'. Next time you go to an ancient site in Mexico, you will be able to read the glyphs on the stelae and other monuments for yourself (just kidding!).