Teaching

Short Teaching Module: Maya Writing

Merry Wiesner-Hanks
Broken fragment of stone monument with glyphs carved into it. Cup inscribed with a figure holding a ceremonial ax in one hand. Object with seated individual carved into it Small figure carved in jade

Overview

In the period from 200 to 900 C.E, which scholars later labelled the Classic Period, the Maya developed the most complex writing system in the Americas, a script with nearly a thousand characters (termed “glyphs”) that represent concepts and sounds, which over the last fifty years has been largely deciphered. Classic Maya writing was painted or inscribed with large glyphs in public places where it could be easily seen, on books made of treated tree bark, on dishes and cups, and on smaller objects made of valuable materials designed to be worn or diplayed. Many of the surviving large-scale inscriptions are historical documents recording events in the lives of the Maya kings, queens, and nobles. Others relate to the two cyclical calendars used by the Maya to determine the proper times for religious rituals, one of them cyclical and the other linear. This module includes four examples of Maya writing, one of which led to frenzied claims that the Maya had predicted the end of the world or a great transformation would come December 21, 2012. (Spoiler alert: They hadn’t; it didn’t.)

This short teaching module includes guidance on introducing and discussing the four primary sources.
 

Essay

Writing began not as a way to record speech, but to record data, such as tallies of days, animals, people, or measures of grain: it was an information technology that later became a communications technology. Writing was invented independently in at least three places—Sumer, China, and Mesoamerica—and perhaps in many more, and it spread from the places it was invented just like any other technology, through conquest, trade, and imitation. 

Writing systems—and other forms of information technology—were invented or adopted as a way to organize and run cities that had become too large to administer by word of mouth, and to store, sort, and retrieve information across space and time. Tangible records did not depend on human memory, but were external to the individual; they transcended particular contexts and could be inspected and verified. As cities grew and their populations became more diverse and interdependent, creating and maintaining common and consistent means of measurement, and assigning collective meaning to events and structures, became more important. Conversely, writing also depended on cities, on the high degree of uniformity and control that cities made available, and on the specialization of labor in cities that allowed some individuals to spend time learning to write. Thus urbanization and the development of record-keeping was a process of co-evolution. 

In Mesoamerica, the earliest surviving example of writing comes from the Olmecs in around 900 B.C.E., and by about 200 B.C.E. fully developed writing systems were in use in a number of different cities. In the Classic Period—200-900 C.E.—the Maya developed the most complex writing system in the Americas, a script with nearly a thousand characters (termed “glyphs”) that represent concepts and sounds, which over the last fifty years has been largely deciphered. Classic Maya writing was painted or inscribed with large glyphs in public places where it could be easily seen, on books made of treated tree bark, and on smaller objects made of valuable materials designed to be used, worn, or diplayed, such as carved shells, ceramic vessels, hairpins, and jade ornaments, whose value was further enhanced by the artistic quality of the writing. Students learned to write in schools, where they probably began by copying models onto perishable bark and palm leaves.

Many of the surviving large-scale inscriptions are historical documents recording the births, accessions, marriages, wars, and deaths of Maya kings, queens, and nobles counted in a linear fashion forward from a specific date. Others relate to the two cyclical calendars used by the Maya to determine the proper times for religious rituals, one of which they had perhaps inherited from the Olmecs and the other devised through their own careful observation of the earth’s movements around the sun. Such public writing communicated the links between a city’s rulers and the gods even to those who did not read (or who didn’t read very well), so it served as a form of propaganda for public consumption, assuring the city’s residents that the rulers had fulfilled their obligations to the gods. 
 

Primary Sources

Maya Monument with glyphs, 4th-9th centuries

Broken fragment of stone monument with glyphs carved into it.
Annotation

This stone monument carved with glyphs comes from Tortuguero, a Maya archeological site in southernmost Tabasco, Mexico that has been badly damaged by development. The monument is in a museum in Tabasco, and the smaller fragment is in the Metropolitan Museum in New York City. The inscription on the monument is the only one known that mentions 2012 as the end of the current era in the Maya Long Count linear calendar. Scholars explained over and over that Maya scribes did this in order to situate the event described in the glyphs—the ritual dedication of a building by the ruler of Tortuguero who calls himself “Lord Jaguar”—in time. Throughout the text, the sculptor makes reference to future and past calendric period endings, similar to our saying something like "just after the New Year," or “right before Thanksgiving in 2010.” Lord Jaguar also boasts about his conquests in the inscription, with descriptions of pools of blood and piles of skulls. Despite the explanations of scholars, prophecy seekers interpreted this the way they wanted, reading its descriptions of past events as predictions for a future doomsday or spiritual transformation. Books, movies, TV programs, newspaper articles, Youtube videos, and online conspiracy-mongering added to the hype, and the Maya calendar became a part of the world view of those featured on the National Geographic Channel’s “Doomsday Preppers” reality series. 

The source is part of the teaching module on Maya writing

Maya Vase with Mythological Scene, 7th-8th century

Cup inscribed with a figure holding a ceremonial ax in one hand.
Annotation

This drinking cup shows the aging Rain God Chank with a ceremonial ax in one hand and the other on a building that has split open. Other figures on the cup may represent the Maize God, who the Rain God is bringing back to life by breaking open the building’s roof, although the mythic scene is difficult to interpret. Around the rim of the cup are glyphs that refer to the raising of a drinking cup as a dedication, and refer to the owner of the vessel as “striker,” perhaps linking him to the action of the Rain God shown on it.

The source is part of the teaching module on Maya writing

Maya Drinking Vessel with Seated Lord, 7th-8th century

Object with seated individual carved into it
Annotation

This large ceramic vessel, made for drinking chocolate, shows a figure wearing a loincloth, necklace, and a large headdress that looks like the tail feathers of the quetzal bird. The text, which appears in a glyph block right in front of the figure (only partially visible here), identifies this as “the drinking cup of Baje(?) Kaan Took’, the ruler.” The figure may be the ruler Kaan Took’, as his elbow overlaps the final glyph and he appears to be blowing smoke underneath the glyph block. Maya scribes and artists often created scenes with complex interplay between text and image, as here.

The source is part of the teaching module on Maya writing

Maya Deity-Face Jade Pendant, 7th-8th century

Small figure carved in jade
Annotation

This small carved jade ornament, about 2 inches square, was most likely the central ornament on the paper headband of a Maya ruler. Kings received the paper headband during the ritual in which they became king, signifying the moment in which they were “wrapped” into the office of kingship, transitioning from human mortal into divine king. The ornament represents the face of Ux Yop Hu’n (“Three Leaves Paper” or “Three-Leaf-Paper”) a complex supernatural being associated with the beginnings of kingship and the foundations of human rule who personified the paper headband worn by ancient Maya rulers. This supernatural face also serves as a hieroglyph in other examples of Maya writing, standing for Ux Yop Hu’n and for the Principal Bird Deity, a great supernatural bird associated with wealth and rulership in ancient Maya myth. So the symbols and writing carved on this small ornament connected the ruler with mythical precedents and cosmic forces, as did the fact it was made from rare and valuable jade.

The source is part of the teaching module on Maya writing

Bibliography

Michael D. Coe and Stephen D. Houston, The Maya, 9th ed. London: Thames and Hudson, 2015. An excellent introduction to Maya civilization, designed for students.


Scott A.J. Johnson, Translating Maya Hieroglyphs. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2014. A comprehensive guide that shows readers step-by-step how to translate ancient Maya glyphs


Linda Schele and David A. Freidel. A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya. New York: Morrow, 1990. The story of Maya kingship.


David Stuart. The Order of Days: Unlocking the Secrets of the Ancient Maya. New York: Harmony Books, 2011. A look at the hubbub surrounding 2012 by a foremost scholar of Mesoamerican art and writing, along with a broader consideration of the role that time played in Maya culture.
 

Credits

Merry Wiesner-Hanks is Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She is the long-time senior editor of the Sixteenth Century Journal, an editor of the Journal of Global History, and the editor-in-chief of the nine-volume Cambridge World History (2015). She is an author or editor of more than thirty books and nearly 100 articles that have appeared in English, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Greek, Chinese, Turkish, and Korean.

How to Cite This Source

"Short Teaching Module: Maya Writing," in World History Commons, https://worldhistorycommons.org/short-teaching-module-maya-writing [accessed May 23, 2022]