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Decipherment

The fascinating story of the decipherment of Mayan hieroglyphic writing is one that is not yet over. Still, as of 2012, over eighty percent of known texts have been decoded, most of these being inscriptions from the Late Classic period (AD 600–900), carved in stone.

A remarkable series of insights and contributions led to this point—insights and contributions that were, however, often ignored or disputed for periods in the past, only to be validated and built upon later in time. As early as 1832, the Franco-American Constantine Samuel Rafinesque—who discovered the Maya bar-and-dot numeration—suggested that hieroglyphic writing represented the spoken Mayan language. The French priest Brasseur de Bourbourg followed in 1864 with his publication of Diego de Landa's 1566 manuscript, a significant resource that confirmed a relationship between glyphs and speech.

Most Mayanists, however, rejected a phonetic aspect up until the second half of the twentieth century, concentrating instead on numbers and dates in Maya texts and making contributions to the understanding of calendric and astronomical information. It was only in the 1950s that Yuri Knorozov finally demonstrated the logographic and phonetic nature of Mayan hieroglyphic writing in a model that eventually gained widespread acceptance, despite the opposition of Mayanist J. Eric S. Thompson.

The writings of many other individuals who have played important roles in the story of decipherment—including Rosny, Förstemann, Berlin, Proskouriakoff, Schele, Coe, and David Stuart—are anthologized in The Decipherment of Ancient Maya Writing (2001), edited by Houston, Chinchilla Mazariegos, and Stuart. And for an eminently readable account of one of the greatest scholarly adventure stories of modern times, there is Michael Coe's Breaking the Maya Code (1992).