What did the Mayans write with?

Why is Chorti barely spoken?




Why do we learn to write?

Floresmila , La Pintada
Now a day almost every boy and girl goes to school to learn how to read and write. It's a very useful tool to have for it allows us to better our communication skills through letters, information pamphlets with other people; we can also read books and news papers to learn more about what's going on in the world. Writing also helps us organize and express our thoughts and feelings. The wonderful thing about it is that it's so simple; all we need is a pencil and a piece of paper.
But it was never this easy. The ancient Mayas didn't have any paper or pencils or books, nor were children taught how to write. Individuals who belonged to the nobility, the elite of the Mayan empire were the ones allowed to write. In addition, when they were to commemorate special events, they requested specially appointed scribes. And that is how part of the Mayan history was preserved.
Madrid Codex

How did the Mayas write?

The Mayas did not use letters to write but used drawings. These drawings are known as hieroglyphs, or just glyphs. In some occasions, we also use drawings instead of written words. Check out these next examples:

$ this symbol represents money.
An arrow indicates direction.
A cross almost always represents the church or religion.
A skull with bones represents danger. We sometimes see it on poisonous contents and it is also a symbol that people who do not know how to read can understand.

Different ways to write "jaguar"
If the Mayas wanted to write the word “"jaguar" they would draw the head of a jaguar. They also had glyphs that would represent sounds, similar to our letters, however each glyph represented a syllable, meaning a joining of letters not only a letter. To write the word "jaguar", we use the letters a, g, j , r and u. The Mayas would draw three glyphs and each one representing a syllable like so:
ja + gu + ar

Sometimes the Mayas used the drawing and the symbol of a sound in a single glyph. It is quite difficult for us to read the Mayan glyphs. Some drawings, such as the head of the jaguar, are easily understood, but others are still in search for meaning.

What did the Mayas write with?

The ancient Mayas didn't have a pencil or ink, nor workbooks. All that they would use to write is what they would find in their natural surrounding. They would make ink out of natural pigments and would write with paintbrushes. They would use a certain type of paper that was bleached with lime stone to smoothen it out. They also didn't have books such as the ones we are familiar with, they used to fold long pieces of their home-made paper like a note book and they would use both sides of the page to write on.
These Mayan books are known as codices. They contain drawings and texts written in glyphs of the history of the Mayas, their beliefs and their way of life. Unfortunately only four codices survived the colonial conquest and are the sole survive on our planet. Since they are made out of a fragile type of paper, many were ruined by the humidity in the weather. In addition, the Spanish conquistadores burned many of these texts on the premise that they believed these texts to be diabolic, they limited the Mayan people form reading these texts as it went against their methods of converting them to Catholicism.

Is it possible to read a ladder???

Detail of the Hieroglyphic Stairway
One of the most beautiful constructions of the classical Mayan world is the Hieroglyphic staircase which is found in the Archaeological Park of Copan Ruinas. It s a giant pyramid measuring 21 meters high, with more than 2000 glyphs carved into the stairs. In the middle of the path way you can see five kings made out of stone. And at the very bottom you can see a giant head that represents the opening to the underworld.
This staircase was discovered in a terrible state. Half of the stairs had been eroded and it was near impossible to figure out the order of their original placement. The first archaeologists began to re-organize the carved stones but didn t know where exactly to place them since they were not able to interpret the glyphs, they simply put the stones in random places. It s a very complicated and long process for archaeologists, their noble attempts to re-construct the staircase was futile as it made a nice mess of things.
Hieroglyphic Stairway by Tatiana Proskouriakoff

How to decipher Mayan hieroglyphs?

Deconstructing hieroglyphs is far from easy. Sometimes we could recognize an image for example the head of the jaguar, but in most cases what seem to be familiar images that are seen in most glyphs do not have the meaning that we may think. Nevertheless, in recent years with the discovery of newer glyphs and meanings archaeologists have been able to decipher 85% of all the Mayan hieroglyphs!
Diego de Landa' Aplphabet
 Paris Codex
One of the most important individuals on the understanding of Mayan glyphs is the Spanish Bishop Diego de Landa who arrived in the Yucatan of Mexico in 1562; he took a strong interest in understanding and deciphering the sounds that are represented by each glyph. The problem with this what that he believed that each glyph represented a letter, similar to today's language, and so he needed to wait a little longer until the Russian linguist Yuri Knorosov discovered that these glyphs did not represent letters but syllables, a conjunction of letters. Unravelling Mayan hieroglyphs revolves around the comparison of many glyphs to one another. In some occasions it's a guessing game what they could possibly mean, by analysing the context or by using other information. For example, if you were to read the sentence: Today was a hot day because the XXX was very strong you could imagine which word would be used to replaces the XXX.

Can a child be an archaeologist?

The young David Stuart
David Stuart is a North-American archaeologist whom since very early in his life has wanted to study Mayan culture, in part due to the heavy influence and fascination his parents held to the Mayas. He was too young to work with his parents out in the field but he loved seeing the temples covered in mysterious drawings. When he was 10 years old he was in Coba Mexico where they had just discovered two stelas. His father, George Stuart, began to draw the glyphs and so would little David. He would study the piece from all angles until he was able to decipher certain ones. By the age of 15 David was already recognized as a specialist in Mayan writing! He was granted a scholarship to study at university and now, as an adult, he is the director of the Mayan hieroglyphic department in the museum of Peabody in the United States.

Why is Maya Chorti barely spoken?

The Chorti language is barely spoken in the Copan valley and it is a shame for it is part of the Mayan culture of Honduras.
The loss of language was due to many factors. Some persons left their native communities to live in areas where only Spanish is spoken, with no options of practicing their Chorti. In other cases the Chorti were oppressed and discriminated, and so were forced to hide their mother tongue for it was forbidden or they were embarrassed to show it. The consequences were grave, the language was not conserved. In other words: Chorti was not taught in schools, parents weren t teaching their children and the result was that only a few words were salvaged such as ixchocos (children), mix (cat) and charco (mud well).

Fortunately enough, now a day there is a lot of interest to take back this language. Many Chorti are reclaiming their culture, and almost all rural community schools are being taught the language. The Mayan glyphs help us understand the language of our ancestors because many of the Chorti language were used back in the day of the Mayas. Another excellent reason to protect our monuments!
Girl from Choncó

Did you know that...

Glyph mistaken for an elephant
Deciphering Mayan glyphs is no easy task; many scientists have made some serious mistakes. One of the first archaeologists was sure that a glyph represented elephants, which would be crazy, because the Mayas never even knew about the elephant's existence!
The scribes were the ones in charge of writing the history and successes of the kingdom. They formed a social class and were very highly revered. Generally, they were relatives of the Kings and would live in beautiful houses and would dress quite well..
 Madrid Codex
Chuen Glyph
The scribes were protected by an array of nahaules , like the rabbit and monkey. They also had their alloted day in the calendar the Tzolk in, dedicated to the scribes, the 11th day, el Chuen.