01. December 2021

Using Data Processing to Crack Maya Hieroglyphs Bonn-based academy project is recording and deciphering Maya inscriptions

Bonn-based academy project is recording and deciphering Maya inscriptions

Mysterious pyramids and highly advanced calendars: a great many myths surround the Mesoamerican Maya peoples. It was not until about 200 years ago that researchers began to clear the overgrown ruins of the Maya’s cities and attempted to decode their mysteries. But one thing had many of them stumped: the texts written in Maya hieroglyphs. The Bonn-based Maya Dictionary Project is setting out to change that: since 2014, it has recorded and cataloged thousands of characters, developed digital tools for analyzing texts and built a global network of experts from all areas of Maya research.

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With a script that has two dozen pictures for a single pronoun, it is no surprise that generations of academics have tried and failed to crack the Maya’s writing system. For Maya script is highly complex: besides logograms, which are more or less a pictorial representation of the word they stand for, there are also syllabograms, which are put together to form the spoken word.

And all of this comes in many different variations, because “the ‘artists,’ as the Maya scribes called themselves, were afraid of repetition,” as Dr. Christian Prager explains. He is the coordinator of the “Text Database and Dictionary of Classic Maya” project, which is led by Professor Nikolai Grube from Bonn. “If they’d already used a particular syllabogram or logogram in a text, they’d make the same word in a new way using different elements.” This fear of repetition means that there are now at least 20 known variants of the personal pronoun “u.” “With such a wide scope, nobody noticed – quite understandably – when the same word was being used,” Prager says.

A fascination born in childhood

Prager has been fascinated by ancient scripts, particularly that of the Maya, ever since he was 11. Focusing first on Ancient Greek writing systems, he then moved on to Egyptian hieroglyphics. “I then came across a book that talked about the Maya script and the fact that nobody had deciphered it yet. And the fascination has never left me since.” Prager, who is German but was born in Switzerland, would visit the University of Basel’s library while at school, borrow books on the subject and get in touch with researchers at an early age.

What began as a hobby now had him in its grip forever: he packed in his office job, retook his Abitur and moved to Bonn to study. “This was the only place that taught Maya script. I’m fascinated by the thoughts of the past that people have written down.”


Digital decoding tools

It is a fascination shared by many in the eight-strong team led by Prof. Nikolai Grube from the Department for the Anthropology of the Americas at the University of Bonn. To make it easier to crack the code behind the hieroglyphics, they have been working on their online Maya dictionary since 2014. “Back then, we began by re-inventing the wheel so we could document, analyze and publish inscriptions,” Prager explains. The project is being funded by the North Rhine-Westphalian Academy of Sciences, Humanities and the Arts and the Union of the German Academies of Sciences and Humanities. At its inception, it was one of the first Digital Humanities projects in Bonn.

Working with the University of Göttingen, the researchers from Bonn created the digital infrastructure for a virtual research platform. They completed their task last year and, since then, have been using it to record the characters they found, together with historical record data from older catalogs. The number of characters in the catalog currently stands at some 832, around half of which have been confidently deciphered. “At the end, it’ll be around 1,400 characters,” Prager estimates.

The project is being supplemented by an open-access image database containing 40,000 photos of archaeological sites, digs, buildings, stelae and other monuments as well as vases and small finds. Many of them feature hieroglyphs. The photos show over half of the known Maya inscriptions.

Using automation to make texts readable

As well as cataloging and documenting hieroglyphs, the Maya Dictionary Project also intends to enable texts to be read from a central location and ultimately compile a dictionary of Classic Maya from the vocabulary used in these texts. To this end, a digital tool has been integrated into the research platform that allows writings to be automatically transcribed and transliterated, makes texts easier to work with thanks to an annotation function and checks that translations make sense.

Another element is a tool for calculating calendar dates and astronomical information, because many inscriptions on pillars, stelae or vases also mention astronomical events alongside precise dates. “The Classic Maya celebrated zero positions in their calendar with rituals, like we do New Year, and erected stelae and other monuments to mark the occasion. On these they put collections of historical events, all accurate down to the exact day,” says Prager, who – like many of his team – can now read Maya script fluently.


Lost scripts

Between 10,000 and 15,000 pieces of hieroglyphics in and on buildings, on stone monuments and on jars and jewelry have been preserved to this day. “Around 60 percent of all known Maya texts can currently be read with a good degree of plausibility,” Prager states. The fact that we have been able to decipher the Maya script at all, unlike that used by the Indus Valley Civilization, for instance, is thanks to historical happenstance. Modern Maya languages have preserved some of the words and pronunciation, while we also have notes made by Spanish monks from the 17th century.

Also, it is believed that broad swathes of Maya society could read, but only few knew how to write. “We know that the Maya scribes were often members of the royal family,” Prager says. Specifically, they signed their works as “itz’at” – artists, as “tz’ib” – scribes, and as “uxul” – sculptors, which indicates a high level of self-awareness. The job of scribe was not without its dangers: “In wartime, scribes were captured and kidnapped, and some were even killed,” Prager reveals. “Stone monuments of other kings were smashed to smithereens, faces of rulers were knocked off.”

Damnatio memoriae – being erased from history – was clearly standard practice among the Maya too.

South facade of a ruin in Olvidado
South facade of a ruin in Olvidado © Maya Image Archive (Project Text Database and Dictionary of Classic Mayan, by Ivan Šprajc, CC BY 4.0
Christian Prager deciphering Maya inscriptions
Christian Prager deciphering Maya inscriptions © Universität Bonn / V. Lannert
The Bonn Collection of the Americas contains various objects from Maya culture.
The Bonn Collection of the Americas contains various objects from Maya culture. © University of Bonn / V.Lannert
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