Although already well-known in popular culture, the Mayan are perhaps most famous these days for inaccurately predicting the end of the world on December 21, 2012. Although we can be happy that the world’s end has so far only come to us in movie form, it’s important to understand that the Mayan never actually predicted the end of time in the first place. Instead, the predictions were based on an inaccurate understanding of the Mayan calendar, which indicated the end of a major calendrical cycle, more akin to a millennium rather than a millennEND (apologies to tonight’s guest, who probably in no way wishes to be associated with such a terrible play on words. And we use the word play loosely.)
The takeaway message here is that interpretation and understanding of artifacts even as straightforward as words and numbers can be a complicated task, and when done incorrectly, lead to radically false conclusions. It also raises the question, if the Mayans didn’t predict the end of the world, what, in fact, DID they write down?
It turns out, that the Mayans left us a rich history of births, deaths, wars, feasts, trade, and conquest. Such detailed records have allowed us to know more about the Mayan than many other past cultures, Apocalypto notwithstanding, and helped promote their popularity amongst the general public.
All of this sounds great, but you may be wondering, ok, if we have this written record, and we’ve deciphered the script, what’s the big deal? Turns out, unlike Egyptian hieroglyphics that came with their own Rosetta Stone (hardware, not software form), Mayan hieroglyphs are still being deciphered. In some cases we know what the message is saying, but in others we have large gaps in our knowledge. So instead of “The king feasted the visitors” we have “The king … the visitors” leaving us to wonder if the visitors had a good dinner or met with a bitter end. Complicating the situation further is the fact that Mayan hieroglyphs evolved over the course of 2,000 years and were written by a number of different people. Any of you who are teachers that have ever had to grade a timed, written final can appreciate that not every person writes their letters in the same fashion. Archaeologists working on Mayan sites must therefore be careful of turning to the inscriptions as a tell-all source for their archaeological finds.
Tonight’s guest has first hand experience with the problems discussed above. As a specialists in both the decipherment and translation of Mayan hieroglyphs, as well as its relationship to modern Mayan languages, Dr. Marc Zender of Tulane University has published extensively on the relationship of Mayan writing to archaeology. If you are interested in learning more about his work you can check out his publications, including his most recent publication Reading Maya Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Maya Painting and Sculpture, via Amazon or Academia.edu. In addition, he has just finished a lecture series on writing and civilization, that takes a look at the origins and development of writing systems in societies throughout history, including the Egyptians, the Mesopotamians, and the Mayans. Make sure you check out his Facebook page and tune in tonight at 6 PM ET.