AUSTIN, Tex. — The morning class for beginners in reading Maya writing started at 9 o'clock. By 9:15 I had already learned why it took scholars so long — until the latter years of the 20th century — to decipher the script of this enigmatic pre-Columbian civilization.
Young and old archaeologists who dig Maya ruins, even some amateurs enthralled by all things Maya, were taking the two-day workshop at the annual Maya meeting at the University of Texas. So it seemed a good idea, if I was to write about Maya explorations, to try my hand as well.
The teacher, Peter Mathews, a Mayanist at La Trobe University in Australia and a pioneer decipherer, handed me papers bearing examples of common Maya hieroglyphs out of a lexicon numbering at least 800 signs. Nothing about them is as simple as ABC. Don't even look for an alphabet.
The glyphs are combinations of symbols enclosed in rounded squares or oblong blocks. Little circles and bars and curlicues are squeezed in each block alongside the drawing of a man in profile or a fearsome animal or a strange hybrid creature.
Don't count on the clear drawing of a bird to represent the word for bird. With flourishes and added signs, the bird glyph is made to represent a deity or some other aspect of Maya metaphysics. Variants of the glyph for the word "sky" feature an avian beak or a snake's head with menacing fangs.
Dr. Mathews pointed out the sign for the word "ajaw" (pronounced ah-how). It means lord or noble. But in a context of auxiliary signs, it can have the more elevated meaning of ruler or divine ruler. I nodded to let the teacher think I could see the difference. Not deceived, Dr. Mathews offered sympathy, "A lot to take on board in the beginning, isn't it?"
David Stuart, a University of Texas master of Maya writing, stopped by and tried to be helpful. He showed how to read the ajaw sign, when it is attached to a jaguar head and a few abstract elements, as the name and title of a prominent Maya king.
"There's a playfulness to the script," Dr. Stuart said. "It was not a writing system that was necessarily there to be as clear as it could be. It was communicating language, but it was doing it as art."
Indeed, Maya scribes were known by the title itz'aat, meaning "artist, wise man."
The scribes outdid themselves with at least seven variations of glyphs for the verbal root "to happen," a common usage in monumental inscriptions celebrating victory in battle and other achievements of rulers. I took Dr. Stuart at his word when he said that close analysis "reveals that a true system is indeed at work."
In despair, I gazed on the modern international glyph on the wall at the front of the classroom. It was the ubiquitous no-smoking symbol, a red circle with a red slash through a cigarette, and wished the Maya scribes could have been so obvious.
For more than four centuries after the Spanish encountered remnants of the Maya culture and destroyed many of its books as pagan, the writing system defied the efforts of archaeologists and scholars to break its code. They followed one blind research alley after another, often on the incorrect assumption that the writing was entirely nonphonetic. They supposed that each glyph block depicted a single word, making it a logogram, and was not a combination of syllables, or sounds, as is frequently the case.
Fifty years ago, a young Russian scholar, Yuri Knorosov, seized on a pivotal insight. He contended that many of the signs represented syllables, and the syllables were combined as words, as in ku-tzu, for kutz, "turkey." Though many of his specific readings of the signs proved incorrect, Dr. Stuart said, "Knorosov's insight stands as perhaps the most important methodological breakthrough in Maya decipherment."
Then Heinrich Berlin, a scholar in Mexico, determined that certain distinctive glyphs were emblems of place names. And in 1960, Tatiana Proskouriakoff, an illustrator of Maya archaeology at Harvard, recognized that the writing was not just dates, astronomical records and a few ritual commemorations: it was historical. She argued that certain texts contained the names and significant events of Maya rulers and places.
Decipherment was at last in sight. A handful of scholars — among them Dr. Stuart, Dr. Mathews, Linda Schele, Floyd Lounsbury, Michael Coe and Stephen Houston — began collecting inscriptions and decoding the script. They came to understand the nature of the glyphs. Maya writing is a mixed logosyllabic system with some symbols signifying whole words or word stems but other signs serving as syllables joined in a block to represent a word or words.
As such, Maya writing is similar to other ancient scripts, notably Chinese, Egyptian and the cuneiform of Mesopotamia.
At the workshop, the class lesson was to translate 11 glyph blocks from an inscription in front of the throne at Palenque, a premier Maya site in Mexico. For my part, I reverted to type: the reporter reporting what others were doing and learning.
The first four glyphs fixed time in relation to the mythic Maya past. The fifth glyph was one variation of "And then it happened." The following glyphs established the day and month when a king ascended the throne, in the eighth century A.D. His name was K'inich Akul. A final glyph referred to the ruler's deified ancestor.
"It's the divine-right-of-king stuff, establishing the basis for his rule and his ability to intercede with the spirit world," Dr. Mathews explained.
By the end of class, my thoughts went to the time I piloted a simulator of the Apollo lunar module to one crash landing after another. Reading Maya writing, I realized, was high on the list of things I would never do in life, up there with flying to the moon.
My editors suggested that at least I might come away from the class with a translation in Maya glyphs of the opening sentence of the most prominent news story I ever wrote, "Men have landed and walked on the moon."
Not likely, but an expert offered an approximation. Glyph sentences usually read in reverse object-verb-noun order.
Literally, descended/to the moon/(and) walked/the men. If this had appeared
in a Maya text, it would have carried my byline, as told to David
Copyright 2006 The New York Times