October 30, 2002

Breaking the Maya Code, by Michael D. Coe

This book is a popular survey of Mayan archaeology, with the decipherment of Mayan writing being the uniting theme. The topic may sound dry, but the book isn't--because it's really the story of people. It's the tale of the Mayans themselves, of course, but even more of the wide and varied cast of characters who have studied them over the last five-hundred years. And unlike the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphics, which was accomplished (with the help of the Rosetta Stone) by the great Champollion in two busy years, the decipherment of the Mayan script took many strange turns and odd directions courtesy of the many strange and odd people who have studied it.

It's a surprisingly engaging tale--this is my second time through it, in fact. I learned quite a bit about the Mayans, dispelling quite a few myths, but also about language and writing systems in general (by the end, our alphabet alphabet seems a thing of wonder).

It's also something of a cautionary tale about trends in academia. The Old Guard in Mayan Archaeology had decided that Mayan script was "ideographic", that is, that each glyph corresponded to a particular idea, rather than to any particular word. The same has often been said of Egyptian writing, and Chinese as well, and it turns out that it's hogwash. Every writing system known encodes spoken language, and every writing system known has a phonetic component. In Mayan script, for example, a jaguar's head might be used to mean "jaguar", but it might be used purely for the sound of the word "jaguar" as part of another word. If we wrote English the way the Mayans wrote their language, we might use a glyph that looked like a cat to mean "cat", but also as the first sound in "catapult", "cattle", "category", and so forth.

This has been known to be true for Egyptian, for example, since the mid-nineteenth century; the Old Guard's ideas were 50 years out of date even at the beginning of this century. And although the first successful phonetic decipherment of Mayan script was done in 1952, it was thirty years before that small beginning was able to blossom and bear fruit--largely because the staunchest member of the Old Guard was dead by then.

Anyway, it's a cool book. There's a second edition out, with more pictures than I've got in mine; I should probably find a copy.

Posted by Will Duquette at October 30, 2002 07:33 PM