Untangling Maya Glyphs

The basics of a beautiful script

Yaxchilan Lintel 24 (723/726)British Museum

Maya hieroglyphic writing

The Maya are the only known civilisation in the Americas that developed a full writing system with which they could record the actual sounds of anything they could speak. 

Yaxchilan lintel 16 (755/770)British Museum

Reading this in English, you will be used to words formed from combinations of 26 letters.
By contrast, Maya words are formed from various combinations of around 1000 signs, made up of logograms and syllabograms. So while our system is phonetic, Maya writing is a mixed logosyllabic system.

Maya writing developed in the 3rd c. BC and fell out of use during Colonial times in the 17th c.
But the most famous Maya inscriptions are from the (Late) Classic period, ca. 500 – 850AD.

The Fenton Vase (600/800)British Museum

Classic Maya texts can be found on a variety of mediums - like this example of a polychrome (painted in several colours) vase.

Jade plaque of a Maya king (400/800)British Museum

Maya artists not only created the large stone monuments, stelae and lintels, but also carved or incised texts and images into wood, bone, jade, and shell, for example.

Shell ornament (400/800)British Museum

Leaves 46 to 49 from a facsimile of the Dresden Codex, a Maya screenfold book. Am2006,Drg.224British Museum

There were also Maya books, called codices, made from bark-paper; but no codices have survived from Classic times, although we do have later examples that have survived.

Leaves 4 to 7 from a facsimile of the Dresden Codex, a Maya screenfold book. Am2006,Drg.224British Museum

These pages from the so-called Dresden Codex mostly contain calendrical and astronomical information connected to ceremonies. It is most probably from the 13th or 14th century, but depictions of similar books appear frequently in Classic Maya art as well.

Stela D at Quiriguá by A.P MaudslayBritish Museum

How does it work?

A few pointers to understand Maya glyphs

Maudslay cast GN.93 in storageBritish Museum

At first glance Maya writing can look a bit overwhelming with the variety and detail of the inscriptions. But if you look closer, you can distinguish the (square-ish) glyph-blocks that make up a text.

3D scan of Maudslay cast GN.93 with arrows showing reading order of glyphs.British Museum

From there we can go on to the reading order of the texts – basically, the main rule is that it is read from left to right, top to bottom (so far so good for English readers), in double-columns (and this is where it gets complicated). As with many other ‘rules’, there are quite a few exceptions, depending on the size and shape of the item the text is inscribed on.

Drawing of Stela F, Quiriguá, in Maudslay's publication, showing chronological content.British Museum

On most of the stone monuments from the Classic period, nearly half of the text (and sometimes more) covers chronological content. Especially the beginning of most texts contain very detailed calendric information, after which you get the actual rest of the sentence (the narrative content).

Maudslay cast GN.53British Museum

The Maya calendar(s)

Keeping track of time (and the celestial bodies)

Teaching slide of Maya number systemBritish Museum

So if we start with the calendric info, we first have to look at the basics = numbers.
The Maya use a dot for 1 and a bar for 5 (that’s the easy part).

Maudslay's drawing of the initial calendar series on the monuments of QuiriguáBritish Museum

This is a compilation of all the initial calendar information found on the monuments of Quirigua (that were known in the 1890s). You can see many dots and bars to the left of some glyphs, representing numbers. Each column represents one full date.

You might be able to see that the glyphs in each row look rather similar in most cases - these denote the same position in the calendar count.

Maudslay's drawing of the initial calendar series on Stela C of QuiriguáBritish Museum

We will be looking at each section in more detail now, taking this full date as an example. Many stone monuments start with a full date like this one, made up of a glyph called ISIG, followed by the Long Count and the Calendar Round (also often interspersed with information about lunations and moon phases, etc.). We will keep it simple and stick to the basics: A two-fold system comprising a linear count of days and a cyclical record of time with two different cycles.

ISIG on Stela C, QuiriguáBritish Museum

This is the ISIG or Initial Series Introducing Glyph. It often occupies the space of 2 or even 4 glyph blocks and apart from the glyph in the centre always has the same outline. For a short intro to glyphs it just means that a date follows...

The Maya Long Count from Stela C at QuiriguáBritish Museum

These 5 glyphs make up the Long Count - a linear count of time, counting the amount of days that have passed since a (mythical) start date that would be the 13 August 3114BC in our calendar.

Maya calendar glyph from the Tzolkin, cast of Stela C, QuiriguáBritish Museum

The Long Count is followed by the Calendar Round, the cyclical recording of time made up of two interacting counts - the Tzolkin and the Haab. The glyphs from the Tzolkin calendar are some of the most recognisable Maya glyphs, as they always appear in a cartouche (the frame with 'legs' around the smiley face here)

Maya Calendar Round date on Stela C, QuiriguáBritish Museum

The signs of the full Calendar Round with a Tzolkin and a Haab do not always appear next to each other, as in this example. As the Haab signs do not have the distinguishing characteristic of a cartouche like the Tzolkin, they are sometimes a bit harder to find.

Maya calendar glyph from the Tzolkin, cast of Stela C, QuiriguáBritish Museum

The Tzolkin is a 260-day cycle - it consists of the numbers 1 to 13 in combination with 20 day-names (the same date therefore recurs every 260 days). It is the longest surviving part of the Maya calendars and is still used as a 'sacred almanach' in Maya communities.

Maya hieroglyph, the Haab part of the Calendar Round, from Stela A at QuiriguáBritish Museum

The Haab is a 365-day cycle and therefore corresponds to the vague solar year. It consists of 18 named 'months' with 20 days each and 5 extra days at the end of a cycle.

Maya Calendar Round date on Stela A, QuiriguáBritish Museum

The articulation of both Tzolkin and Haab produce the Calendar Round, the most commonly used calendar in Mesoamerica (not just among the Maya). It is a 'round' as approximately every 52 years a specific date repeats itself.

Stela C at Quiriguá (c. 1883)British Museum

In this photo of Stela C at Quiriguá you can see the calendar in the upper half of the hieroglyphic text.

Here is the large ISIG, followed by the 5 glyphs of the long count and the Calendar Round - can you see the Tzolkin cartouche? The date would be transcribed as, 6 Ajaw 13 Yaxk'in (which would be the 28 August 455 AD in the Gregorian calendar).

Screenshot of 3D scan of Maudslay cast GN.93British Museum

Logosyllabic writing

Who needs an alphabet?

Photo of a drawing board with a line drawing of a Maya inscription by A.P MaudslayBritish Museum

In Maya writing you can sometimes recognise faces, animal heads or hands, for example, while other parts just look like squiggles to us.

Example of logographic spelling of 'balam' (jaguar)British Museum

Instead of 26 letters, each representing a sound, you have logograms = a sign representing a word. In this case, the head of a jaguar represents the word 'jaguar' (or balam in Maya).

Example of syllabic spelling of 'balam' (jaguar)British Museum

And then you also have syllabograms = a sign representing a syllable (consonant-vowel, e.g., ki, ba, mo). This is the same word as the jaguar head - balam - just 'spelled' with the syllables ba, la, and ma (forming the word balam).

Screenshot of the separate scans of the casts of Stela E being joined togetherBritish Museum

Art in writing

The 'problem' of playfulness - the nature of ancient Maya writing makes it possible to create different versions of many words. You can spell it using only syllables or a mixture of syllables and logograms; and different mixtures at that. In our writing, the closest is probably the difference between all kinds of printed fonts, handwriting, calligraphy, etc.

K'ak'Tiliw11British Museum

These are all examples of different ways to 'spell' the same thing: K'ahk' Tiliw Chan Yopat, Quiriguá's most famous ruler. He is mentioned on most of the monuments at Quiriguá and you can see the way Maya scribes combined and played with the possibilities of their logosyllabic script.

Drawing of glyph block showing the ruler's name from Stela D (east) at QuiriguáBritish Museum

Drawing of glyph block showing the ruler's name from Stela J (east) at QuiriguáBritish Museum

A slightly more elaborate version, stretching over 3 glyph blocks, but reading the same: K'AK' - TILIW -li -wi (upper left block); CHAN -na (upper right block); YOPAT (lower left block)

Detail of the cast of Zoomorph B, QuiriguáBritish Museum

The most elaborate way of writing is the so-called 'full figure' variant. Each sign is represented as a fully formed figure, human, animal, a bit of both; and sometimes on top of each other. The glyph block on this cast also represents the same name.

Coloured-in drawing of a glyph block from Zoomorph B at QuiriguáBritish Museum

Transcription: K'ak' (red) Til[iw] (yellow) Chan (blue) Yopat (green) make up the name of K'ahk' Tiliw Chan Yopaat

Epigrapher Christophe Helmke working with the Maudslay casts (2017) by GMP teamBritish Museum

Narrative, decipherment and research

In the last 30 years the decipherment of Maya hieroglpyhic writing has made huge advances and we now know much more about the history of the ancient Maya by being able to read their script. At least we know a lot about the exploits and genealogy of the rulers and nobility, as probably only a very small percentage of ancient Maya could write, read, or afford a scribe.

Maya hieroglyph from Stela A at QuiriguáBritish Museum

And although some words seem pretty obvious - for example this verb (Chok), meaning 'to scatter'...

Stela E, Quiriguá, drawing inscription on west sideBritish Museum

the full intricacy of the text might take a while to learn and understand.

Maya hieroglyph from Stela J at Quiriguá.British Museum

But it has led to interesting histories being revealed - this glyph is another verb in the texts of Quiriguá recounting an important victory of ruler K'ahk' Tiliw Chan Yopaat - can you see the axe separating the first glyph part diagonally?

Drawing of Stela H, Copán (1844) by Frederick CatherwoodBritish Museum

It tells the story of how the Quiriguá ruler captured and decapitated Waxaklajun Ubaaj K'awiil (here is one of his stelae), the great ruler of the much bigger city of Copán (now in Honduras). No wonder it appears quite a few times on the monuments in Quiriguá!

Photo of Stela E, Quiriguá, Guatemala; with man standing beside it. (c. 1881-1884) by A.P. MaudslayBritish Museum

Stela E at Quiriguá - one of the monuments recounting this event.

And commemorating K'ahk' Tiliw Chan Yopaat for eternity.

Credits: Story

All images © Trustees of the British Museum
Text and image selection: Claudia Zehrt, Project Curator: British Museum Google Maya Project
Thanks to: Kate Jarvis, Christophe Helmke, Eva Jobbova and other BM Google Maya Project collaborators

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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