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Ancient Mayan Writing

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Essay title: Ancient Mayan Writing


Mayan writing is one of the most beautiful but highly complex and difficult scripts in the world. It is a system that uses pictographs and phonetic or syllabic elements. The Maya used this sophisticated style to carve symbols into stone. The most common place for writing was the perishable books they made from bark paper, coated with lime to make a fresh white surface. These books were screen-folded and bound with wood and deer hide. They were referred to as codices, however only four remain today because of their perishable nature and Spanish book burning. The Maya writing system was one of the greatest achievements of their civilization. Maya writing also appears on an array of materials and in many places such as carved stone, door lintels, architectural stuccos, painted murals and carved on pottery.

The Maya believed events were repeated over cycles of time, they kept detailed histories anchored in time by their calendars to predict events. By keeping records of rainy and dry seasons, the Maya could determine the best times to plant and harvest crops (Rudell 21). They had developed these accurate calendars that could be used for prophecy. They also were able to predict planetary cycles, phases of the moon and Venus.

The Maya, like all Mesoamerican people, used a vigesimal numbering system. The first nineteen numerals were similar to our English terms, with unique numerals from one through ten, and the numerals eleven through nineteen produced by combining one through nine with ten(Rudell 26). The symbols used by the Maya to write numbers bars and dots were used throughout Mesoamerica. The dot has the value of one, and the bar has the value of five. The Maya are also believed to have the first known concept of zero. Thisis represented by the elliptical shell.

Symbols known as glyphs were used to record non-numerical information. The Maya used logographs (shorthand symbols) for many more words than we do. Another class of glyphs stood for sounds that make up words. Mayan words are generally regular in sound structure. Most of the syllables consist of two or three sounds. There are a little over 800 known Maya glyphs (Rudell 21). The glyphs usually contain several elements that are combined to give individual glyphs an oval appearance. The largest glyphic element is the main sign.

Maya glyphs appear to me as very complicated. Although some are recognizable as pictures of natural objects, others are very unrecognizable and unclear. For example, a glyph portraying a monkey head is actually a logograph meaning ”sacred” or “divine”. The designation of vertical columns by letters and horizontal rows offers a convenient way to preciously indicate an individual square of the overall grid. Glyph blocks form the main aggregate in Maya writing. Composed of two or more signs, they serve the fundamental building blocks.

Glyphs vary depending on the type of material they were written on. For example glyphs carved on monuments look somewhat different than

those that are painted (Rudell 21). Also when carving stone, the Maya created predominately bas-relief sculpture where they cut away the background surface, leaving carved surfaces raised in relief. Painted glyphs were shaped with the brushes in calligraphic style where the lines flare and narrow according to the brush’s shape. An important category of signs are the affixes. These were generally rendered

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