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Magazines > Information Today > November/December 2018

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Information Today
Vol. 35 No. 9 — Nov/Dec 2018
The Glyphs That Keep on Giving
by Brendan Howley

It’s the gift-giving season, so here’s a gift from me to you—all about one of the greatest mysteries in human history, featuring genius Russians, a British explorer-photographer, archaeologists, and a pair of very librarian-like American Mayanist-linguists and their visionary protégés, all culminating in what might be, could be, that rarest of things in this life: a happy ending out of great tragedy.

Destruction and Rebirth

Our story begins 1,200 or so years ago, around 800 A.D., as a civilization flourished in the jungles reaching from the Guatemalan highlands north to the Yucatán, cultivating a thriving agriculture, building extraordinary temples, deriving a mathematically perfect calendar, and evolving an astronomy of such sophistication that its accuracy stood as a reproof to the best Europe had to offer a millennium later.

Then, suddenly, this civilization spun into decline, such that by the coming of the conquistadors, the once-great Mayan civilization was a shadow of itself. Far from disappearing, this culture had a rich literature and a respect for writing that meant that scribes were by definition near-royalty, and the very best scribes were as prominent in the Mayan hierarchy as the royals and the high priests. (That the scribes were also notary-librarians as well as communicator-illustrators only adds to the richness of our holiday story.)

The culture of the Maya is still of great depth and resonance for us North Americans for manifold reasons, but perhaps the salient reason is a kind of deep Western respect (and not a little guilt) mingled with a fascination for the sheer mysteriousness of the hows and whys of Mayan civilization.

It’s the latter that has intrigued me, a kind of codebreaking of a culture that illustrates something profound about the integrity of the human passion to understand—the heartbeat of libraries. The paradox of the codebreaking of the Mayan hieroglyphs is that the man whose work proved critical to finally understanding the glyphs found on temple walls, memorial “stelae”—standing stones—and art objects such as ceramic bowls, was the very man who singlehandedly destroyed almost the entire written record of the Maya.

Diego de Landa, a Spanish Franciscan monk who was sent to the Yucatán as a missionary, discovered that Mayan converts to Catholicism under the Spaniards had continued their scribe traditions, incorporating secret references to their birth religion in the Catholic texts. Outraged, Landa ordered his own brutal version of the Inquisition, torturing the scribe-converts and anyone else he considered a heretic as likely participants in secret human sacrifices.

On July 12, 1562, Landa oversaw the burning of some 2 dozen Mayan codices—the core library texts of the culture—and some 5,000 cult images. His intention, recorded at the time, was to prevent human sacrifices and the corruption of Catholic writings, as well as to ready his Mayan converts for the end of time, which he expected in 1600. The burnings, Landa recorded, “caused the Mayans great affliction.” He escaped a church reprimand despite severe criticism from his peers and ultimately became the bishop of Yucatán.

This cultural atrocity was followed by a strange sequel. Having singlehandedly ordered the destruction of the codices and the imposition of Spanish as the Mayans’ language, Landa did a very odd thing. He collaborated with a series of Mayan scribes, also converts, to capture the Mayan glyphs and map them, one-to-one, to the Latin alphabet. This text survives to this day.

But so too—incredibly, given Landa’s fervor—do four Mayan codices, paper-bark folding texts radiantly hand-painted with hog-bristles, eerily beautiful and detailed. Meanwhile, the Spanish conquest eradicated all but remnants of Mayan culture. Fast forward a thousand years: The Victorians loved a grand adventure, and few were as dramatic as the photographic expedition to the Mayan homelands by Alfred Maudslay, a British diplomat. Maudslay’s awe-inspiring work cleared a thousand years of jungle from the temple sites he visited, but his lasting contribution was a series of astonishingly detailed glass-plate photographs of Mayan glyphs.

Maudslay’s images led to an explosion of interest in Mayan culture and the life’s work of J. Eric S. Thompson, the first to codify Mayan glyphs based on the interrelationships of the individual components of each glyph. He created a kind of Dewey decimal system for the glyphs from Maudslay’s image corpus. Thompson’s deconstruction of the glyphs’ actual meanings proved off the mark, but for half a century he was the grand old man of Mayan scholarship, and his codification of the glyphs still stands to this day.

Enter the Librarian

A German librarian-mathematician, Ernst Förstemann, using a codex that conquistador Hernando Cortes had shipped to Europe and Landa’s mapping text, made the first breakthrough in actual decoding, proving both the mathematical basis of the Mayan calendar and the way the pre-conquest Mayan scribes used dates in recording the glyphs. In other words, Förstemann realized the temple glyphs were a historical record.

Two Russians—architect Tatiana Proskouriakoff, who immigrated as a child to the U.S., and Moscow linguist Yuri Knorozov-—working independently, proved the glyphs were a recording of royal lineages, intermarriages, and political alliances, told not symbolically but phonetically. Proskouriakoff’s exquisite drawings of the temple sites and the glyphs themselves are as outstanding in their way as Knorozov’s detective work in proving the underlying linguistic structure of the glyphs.

And two American researchers proved indomitable in drawing together the threads of all the work that came before them. Linda Schele and Peter Mathews, working at the site of Schele’s decades-long study with American artist-researcher Merle Greene Robertson at Palenque, cracked the royal-calendar code in 3 amazing hours’ work at the very first Mayan “roundtable.” This blockbuster insight set the stage for the final codebreaking, by wunderkind researcher and MacArthur Fellow David Stuart, who grew up playing amid Mayan ruins. He proved Thompson’s theories wrong by revealing that the Mayan scribes were themselves artists: The glyphs can be written multiple ways to suit the creative impulses of the scribe involved.

The Gift of the Mayans

It’s the gift that keeps on giving: There’s a Mayan renaissance underway, as laden historically as, say, the Irish rediscovery of Gaelic or the Polish underground universities during the Nazi occupation. The Maya today live in economically and politically unstable regions of Mexico and Guatemala, and their cultural renaissance is playing out against centuries of racism and economic and ecological deprivation. Despite the odds, new generations can now speak Mayan, and scribes—who’d handed down their work since the 1600s in a quiet literary underground—now work with software designed to produce glyph-texts.

It’s as wonderful an outcome as one could imagine: Young Mayans are beginning to assemble contemporary libraries of Mayan writings, capturing long-lost oral histories and reviving the powerful Mayan visual and plaster arts.

And that’s a good thing. Happy holidays, and all the best in 2019.

Brendan Howley is a veteran Canadian Broadcasting Corp.-trained investigative data journalist with roots in media design, content strategy, and digital technologies. He has created successful, award-winning multiplatform storytelling offerings for clients from Fortune 100 giants to tiny culinary microproducers. He has been involved in data-driven digital media collaborations with public and university library networks in Canada and the U.S. and with Kew Gardens in the U.K. Hes at present creating Open Media Desk, a data-driven province-wide library digital newsroom network for the Federation of Public Libraries of Ontario. For more, contact Send your comments about this article to