The Russian Connection

Maya Glyphs—Interpreted Thanks to Two Russian Scholars

When I started my travels in Yucatán in 1975, only a handful of Maya glyphs had been deciphered. In fact, one prominent archeologist—J. Eric S. Thompson—was of the opinion that such glyphs as existed were primarily calendrical. Earlier archeologists had deciphered the vigesimal (base 20) numbering system of the Maya as well as the day glyphs for the two calendar systems. But the notion that the glyphs provided names and descriptions of events was considered as far-fetched.  It was Sir J. Eric S. Thompson who felt that ancient Maya was anti-phonetic.

It took two Russians to show that, yes, the Maya did have a history, and that the history was described on commemorative stelae at the various ruins.

Tatiana Proskouriakoff

First came Tatiana Proskouriakoff (1909-1985), born in Tomsk, who spent much of her professional life with Harvard University and its Peabody Museum. It was she who made a key discovery. According to Wikipedia:

Her greatest contribution was considered the breakthrough for Maya hieroglyphic decipherment in the late 1950s and early 1960s. While researching the chronology of changing styles of Maya sculpture, she discovered that the dates shown on the monumental stelae were actually historical, the birth, accession, and death dates for Maya rulers. Analyzing the pattern of dates and hieroglyphs, she was able to demonstrate a sequence of seven rulers who ruled over a span of two hundred years. Knowing the context of the inscriptions, Maya epigraphers were then able to decipher the hieroglyphs.

The next key person was one of her countrymen who had never even seen a Maya ruin first hand:

Yuri Knorozov

It was only after Thompson died in 1975 that the work of Yuri Knorozov came to the fore. During the height of the Cold War, he wrote a paper entitled “The Writing of the Maya Indians” (1963), followed by his own translations of many of the glyphs. His work opened the floodgates. New scholarly works on the Maya archeological sites come with dates, names, and even history.

If you are interested in the subject, I recommend you read Michael D. Coe’s Breaking the Maya Code, Third Edition (2012). The book is dedicated to Knorozov and his work.


The Copán Ruling Dynasty


Altar L with God/Kings of Copán

When I first began traveling in Maya lands, the Maya did not appear to have a history. Now that so many of their glyphs have been translated, we see that—particularly in the Classic Period between AD 600 and and some point in the 9th century AD, most of the major archeological sites not only had a history, but a rich one as well.

The first event recorded at Copán in Honduras was in 321 BC on Altar I. There was a founder of a dynasty called K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’ who ruled between 416 and 437 AD. Then there were two unnamed rulers before K’altuun Hix dedicated a carved step inside the Papagaya Structure around 480 AD. There were two more unnamed rulers before Balam Nehn (524-532 AD) and Wil Ohl K’inich (532-551 AD).  After an unnamed Ruler 9, we have a filled-chronology that takes us all the way to 822 AD:

  • Moon Jaguar (553-578)
  • K’ak’ Chan Yopaat (578-628)
  • Smoke Imix (628-695)
  • Waxaklajuun Ub’aah K’awiil, better known as 18 Rabbit (695-738)
  • K’ak’ Joplaj Chan K’awiil, better known as Smoke Monkey (738-749)
  • K’ak Yipyaj Chan K’awiil better known as Smoke Shell (749-763)
  • Yax Pasaj Chan Yopaat, better known as Yax Pac (763-820)
  • Ukit Took’ (began reign in 822 AD)

It was Ukit Took’, the last known ruler of Copán, who dedicated Altar L, shown above, identifying his predecessors. There are no known dates at Copán after 822 AD.

What happened in 822? The kingship failed for various reasons, as it did around then through most of the adjacent area, for environmental reasons (probably drought), overpopulation, and a change in the form of governance.

As alien as the dynastic names above may seem, the chronology is surer than that of many European dynasties of the period. The calendar was sacred to the Maya, so they were sure to note the exact date that events occurred—and that didn’t even happen in most European countries of the Dark Ages.