The Decipherment of Mesoamerican Writing


About the Institute and Exhibit Program

Founded in 1924, the Middle American Research Institute (M.A.R.I.) at Tulane University strives to promote greater understanding of the vibrant and diverse cultures of Mesoamerica, the area encompassing much of Mexico and Central America.

The Institute stewards an extensive collection of textiles, artifacts, and ethnographic materials and an archive of letters, field notes, maps, and photographs gathered during field projects and given by generous donors. M.A.R.I. endeavors to make these collections visible and accessible to researchers, students, and the general public through exhibitions, workshops, symposia, and scholarly publications.

M.A.R.I. interns have the opportunity to work with and research the Institute’s archival and artifact collections. The culmination of their hard work is an online exhibit available through Tulane’s library website. These exhibits cover a wide range of topics showcasing the people and material culture of Mesoamerica.


The Decipherment of Mesoamerican Writing

The writing system used by the ancient Maya was intricate, changeable, elegant, and deeply misunderstood for years by outside observers. Almost as interesting as the writing itself, however, is the story of how modern scholars studying these hieroglyphics began to be able to read and understand the work of ancient scribes. Long-held assumptions about the system’s mysticism were gradually discarded in the face of improved knowledge about Maya civilization.

It’s important to keep in mind that, although ancient history can be traced through records created centuries ago, Maya people and their culture are not relics of the past. Today there are over 4 million living Maya, who speak more than thirty Mayan languages, retain their cultural identities, and continue to actively shape their own legacies.


Creation date: Fall 2021

Acknowledgements: The exhibit was designed by Archives Intern Zack Jordan; supervised by Erin Patterson, M.A.R.I. Archive Manager; and edited by Emily Davis-Hale.

Exhibit Sections