Deciphering Maya glyphs

by on August 12, 2017

As I stood atop the Acropolis in Ek’ Balam, an archeological site in Yucatán Mexico, I was overwhelmed by the vast expanse of lush forestry that engulfed the Maya ruins. “Only a small percentage of the actual site has been unearthed,” I overheard a local guide explain, as he pointed toward a nearby hill that was covered in trees.

The Acropolis at Ek’ Balam

Ek’ Balam (which means “black jaguar” in Yucatec Maya) is one of many Maya sites in the regions of Quintana Roo, Yucatán, Campeche, Chiapas en Tabasco in Mexico; Guatemala; Belize; El Savador; and parts of Honduras. I had the chance to visit the Yucatán peninsula in Mexico in January 2017, but I only managed to visit Ek’ Balam and Chichén Itza while I was there. Nevertheless, I was fascinated and amazed by the sophisticated pyramids, monuments, and carvings that had weathered the test of time.

Chichén Itza, like other famous cities such as Palanque, Uxmal, Copan, and Tikal, flourished while Europe was trudging through the Dark Ages. The ancient Maya civilization existed from around 2000 BC to 1600 AD, and left behind a plethora of cultural artifacts. Particularly mesmerized by the detailed inscriptions on the stelae (stone monuments) and building walls, I was intrigued: Are these simply pictures? Logograms? Was there a systematic way to interpret these symbols?

Serpent Head and Maya Glyphs at Ek’ Balam (Source: Wikipedia)

For years, the Maya script remained a mystery to the world, even to the Maya people of today. The Maya script was used to write the Classic Mayan language, ancestral language to the other Mayan languages of the modern world such as Yucatec, Ixil, and Q’echi’. The Maya writing system of Mesoamerica is one of 3 writing systems in the world that developed independently (the other two being Cuneiform from Mesopotamia and oracle bone writing in China). Seemingly reminiscent of Egyptian hieroglyphs, early discoverers termed the Maya script as hieroglyphs—or glyphs—despite there being no relation between the two writing systems.

Decipherment: Early work  

How were these glyphs deciphered to begin with and who were involved? According to Rogers (2005), decipherment of Maya glyphs began with the very same person who repressed Maya culture and ordered for Maya texts to be burnt during the Spanish conquest. Some of Diego de Landa Calderón’s actions were considered so extreme, to the point where he was recalled back to Spain. As part of his rehabilitation, Landa worked on a publication that described Maya life, their calendar, as well as their writing system.

Landa’s alphabet was established, as an attempt to write out Maya equivalents in the Roman alphabet. This alphabet proved to be problematic due to communication errors between Landa and his Yucatec Mayan-speaking consultant. He failed to grasp that Maya symbols depict morae (consonant-vowel sequences), instead of individual consonants or vowels.

Between the 1930s and 1960s, the field of Maya glyph studies was dominated by British archeologist J. Eric Thompson. According to Thompson, the people of the Maya civilization were gentle folk who focused on time and created inscriptions about the mysteries of the skies. He proposed that there wasn’t a system within these depictions of gods and priests. As scholar and Mayanist Michael D. Coe explains in the documentary Cracking the Maya Code, Russian linguist Yuri Valentinovich Knorosov was another key figure in the decipherment of Maya glyphs in the 1950s (LeBrun et al, 2008). According to the International Encyclopedia of Linguistics (Frawley, 2003), the first step to deciphering a writing system would be to count the number of signs. Scripts with fewer than 30 signs are usually alphabetic, 50–100 signs are likely to represent a syllabic system, and anything in the hundreds would be logographic. The Maya script has about 800 different symbols. While previous scholars believed that the Maya script was a limited logographic system, Knorosov proposed that the Maya writing system was a mixed system that consisted of logographs and symbols that represented actual sounds from the Classic Mayan language.

Knorosov’s work, unfortunately, was met with critics and came to a halt for several decades. Along came Tatiana Proskoriakoff in the 1930s, fresh out of Architecture school. She spent more than 20 years doing fieldwork, working on drawing or reconstructing the Maya ruins at Piedras Negras. Proskoriakoff then made the revolutionary breakthrough that Maya glyphs depicted not mystical stories of the heavens, but actual historical events. Decipherment of Maya glyphs then picked up speed in the 1970s, thanks to key figures such as David Stuart, who found that there were many repeated elements in Maya glyphs, and that there were phonetic substitutions, allowing words to be written in multiple ways.

A logosyllabic writing system  

What appears to be intricately carved pictures in a grid-like pattern are in fact a complex and sophisticated system of writing. Maya writing is composed of logographic and moraic components, and is supported by phonetic complements. Each glyph could represent a complete word or a syllable. The script consists of a complete syllabary, meaning that it comprises glyphs that each represent a consonant–vowel sequence (which is more precisely known as a mora).

A Maya scribe, a position of prestige, would have been able to transcribe any word in their language phonetically. Maya glyphs are read in ‘paired columns’, from left to right, and then top to bottom. In Mayan phonology, words typically end with a consonant.

However, with their writing system’s syllabary, they had to come up with a way to ensure that the final vowel would not be pronounced. The Mayas did so by using “echo” vowels. In order to allow readers to know that the word ends with a consonant, they would repeat the previous syllable’s vowel, which would then be cancelled out when being read.

(Source: The Story of Decipherment: from Egyptian Hieroglyphs to Maya Script (Pope, 1999))

Take the word balam (Mayan word for ‘jaguar’, as in the illustration above), for example. In Maya glyphs, there are five ways this word can be written. The leftmost glyph in the top row is the logogram for balam. The other three glyphs in the top row incorporate this logogram, but include phonetic complements: either the prefix /ba/, the suffix /ma/, or both. Typically, the first and/or last syllables would be transcribed, but not a medial syllable (in this case: /la/)

Alternatively, balam can also be written out phonetically, as shown in the second row. The symbols for /ba/, /la/, and /ma/ would be written out, with the /a/ in the syllable /ma/ as the silent “echo” vowel. Hence, there was much flexibility and room for creativity for the Maya scribes, who could decide which glyphs to write based on their aesthetic value. Depending on the space available and the purpose of writing, scribes also used multiple variants of glyphs. These are known as head and full-figure variants, as seen for the number zero below.

(Source: Rogers, 2005)

Usage: The Maya calendar

The Maya were artists, architects, and astronomers. Glyphs were carved into and stone: appearing on stelae, walls of buildings, pottery, and monuments. The Mayas also wrote on bark paper at the time, and produced codices (books bound with wood and deer hide). These inscriptions typically documented rulership, conquest or astronomical events. The ‘Long Count’ calendar in particular (as seen below), could often be found on Maya monuments.

The jaab’ and tzolk’in (Source: Ancient Scripts)

The calendar system that the Maya created was remarkably intricate. They employed jaab’ (a 365-day solar calendar), as well as tzolk’in (a 260-day ritual cycle). Jaab’ is divided into 18 blocks of 20 days, plus 5 extra days at the end called wayeb’. Tzolk’in consists of two parallel cycles, of 13 and 20. Jaab’ and tzolk’in make up the ‘Calendar Round’, a 52-year cycle. At an even greater scale, the Maya devised the 5,126-year ‘Long Count’, which consisted of 5 increasingly larger cycles: k’in (one day), winal (20 k’in), tun (18 k’in), k’atun (20 tun), and baktun (20 k’atun).

Perhaps we can all remember the 2012 phenomenon: It is believed that the Mayas predicted a cataclysm on 21 December 2012. This date was in fact the completion of 13 bak’tuns, the completion of the Long Count cycle—there was no evidence of the Maya actually predicting the end of the world!

Decline of Maya

The knowledge and use of Maya writing flourished for centuries. Unfortunately, it failed to survive the Spanish conquest in the 16th century. As mentioned above, Spanish bishop Diego de Landa Calderón banned the use of Maya glyphs upon the conquest of the Yucatán peninsula of Mexico and deemed Maya glyphs as the work of the devil. Hoping to convert locals to Christianity, the Spanish called for Mayan . The Spanish missionaries enforced the use of Spanish and the Latin alphabet for Mayan languages, which has continued on to this date.

The Maya writing system hence came to a standstill. Only 4 of those codices escaped the burning and remain today: the Madrid, Grolier, Paris and Dresden codices. Fortunately, over the last few decades, researchers have been able to decipher the Maya glyphs, and have done extensive research to shed some light on this lost ancient culture.


Frawley, William. International Encyclopedia of Linguistics: AAVE-Esperanto, Volume 1. Oxford University Press. 2003.

Lebrun, David, Rosey Guthrie, Nathan Hendrie, Eric Marin, Jay O. Sanders, Sarah Holt, and Michael D. Coe. Cracking the Maya Code. Boston: WGBH Educational Foundation, 2008.

Pope, Maurice. The Story of Decipherment: from Egyptian Hieroglyphs to Maya Script. Thames and Hudson. 1999.

Rogers, Henry. Writing Systems: A Linguistic Approach. Blackwell Publishing. 2005.

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