Early Attempts at Decipherment

The Decipherment of Mesoamerican Writing

Black and white photograph of a stone temple
Rubbing of a relief sculpture depicting a tree and human skull
Rubbing of a relief sculpture depicting a human figure

In the early 1800s, the discovery of the Rosetta Stone and Jean-Francois Champollion’s decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs brought ancient writing systems into the public eye of the West. When Alexander von Humboldt published parts of the Dresden Codex — a Maya book from the 11th or 12th century — interest in Mesoamerica specifically surged.

Ruins at Dzibilnocac, Campeche, Mexico

Europeans pushed for new investigations into Mesoamerica in an attempt to solve the “mystery” of Maya writing. Several early expeditions were led by John Lloyd Stephens, an accomplished American travel writer, and Frederick Catherwood, an English artist with a background in archaeological illustration. During the 1840s, their publications on Central American ruins not only boosted Euro-American interest in the ancient Maya, but also provided an unprecedented amount of new information on the civilization thanks to Stephens’ captivating prose and Catherwood’s meticulous illustrations.

Rice paper rubbing of a relief sculpture in the Great Ball Court, Chichen Itza, Yucatan, Mexico

Diego de Landa’s manuscript, including its description of Maya writing, was rediscovered and published in the 1860s by Brasseur de Bourbourg. The Dresden Codex was remarkable, but it was written in a single language, and offered no point of comparison for scholars to start work. Landa’s work was invaluable for its direct comparison of the Latin alphabet and Maya script, which existed nowhere else and finally allowed scholars a real inroad to reading Maya writing: a Rosetta Stone of their own.

Rice paper rubbing of a relief sculpture in the Great Ball Court, Chichen Itza, Yucatan, Mexico

Despite the new information coming to light, 19th-century theories about Maya writing varied widely among scholars, with few understanding its true nature and many making unfounded guesses. Bourbourg, for example, speculated that Nahuatl (the language of the Aztecs), Mayan languages, and ancient Egyptian all descended from a common Germanic language spoken by a far more ancient civilization. A combination of the lack of comprehension of Mesoamerican languages and the Eurocentric dismissal of Indigenous Americans’ capacity to develop their own complex writing systems marred scholarship on these texts for years, and it was another century before decipherment of Maya writing was well and truly underway.

NEXT SECTION: Later Developments