Maya epigraphy

The term „Maya” is usually used to refer to a group of linguistically related peoples living today in eastern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, western Honduras, and El Salvador, as well as to the pre-Columbian communities that were their ancestors. For the last two hundred years, the ancient Maya have been in the center of attention of both scholars and a wide international audience, as this was one of the most unique ancient societies that ever existed. It is also the only pre-Columbian culture that left behind written sources, which can be studied through epigraphy and help comprehend their language and literature.

The very name of the discipline (epigraphy) comes from the Greek word epigraphḗ, which means „inscription.” Ancient texts of the Old World have been studied by scholars since at least the 16th century, the Maya writing – since the 19th century, the time of the pioneering travels of John Lloyd Stephens, who was the first to introduce Maya antiquities and hieroglyphs to popular audiences. Nevertheless, they remained a great mystery for many years, as scholars tried hard to understand what was written there and in what language.

It was not until the 1950s that a Russian scholar Yuri Knorozov proposed how to approach the decipherment of Maya glyphs and paved the road for major developments (The history of decipherment and principles of Maya writing) in understanding the Maya writing in the 1970s and next decades. Today we know that the inscriptions were written in what is known as Classic Mayan, a prestigious written language that coexisted with many spoken Mayan languages used in various parts of the Maya world. Multidisciplinary studies of the inscriptions continue, as there are still glyphs that researchers cannot read yet. The surviving texts include only four Maya books (so-called codices), around  5,000 carved stone monuments, and over 50,000 fragments of pottery with hieroglyphs (very often small fragments with just a single hieroglyph). But on the plus side, archaeological excavations continue to uncover more and more carved monuments covered with texts, adding to the existing knowledge of the Maya civilization.

Maya glyphs were neither the first nor the last writing system in Mesoamerica, but no other culture left such a significant number of inscriptions, and no other writing has been read to such an extent. The Maya used glyphic writing for about 2000 years. Their texts, consisting of complete sentences with fixed syntax and verb forms, allowed for the creation of long narratives. And this is why it sparked so much interest not only among scholars, but also among amateur enthusiasts. The following page tells the story of what epigraphy is, how a unique online course in Maya epigraphy (currently supervised by Dr. Boguchwała Tuszyńska) is conducted in Poland, and how it contributes to the development of the discipline in Poland and worldwide.

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