Draft translation of a previously unpublished manuscript: Wolfgang Gockel

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Draft translation of a previously unpublished manuscript:
Wolfgang Gockel

On the History of the Decipherment of the Mayan Hieroglyphs

On the history of the decipherment of the Mayan hieroglyphics

Wolfgang Gockel

Many summaries on the researchers and the investigations that have lead to an understanding of the Mayan glyphs or to the interpretation of portions of the inscriptions or parts of the codices have been published in recent years, most recently Ch. Jones (1985:20ff). Thus, we can confine ourselves here to a presentation of certain key aspects1 of the research history.
Since the selection of such aspects is always subjective, we will concentrate on points that reveal the nature of the “discussion” that arose after the publication of the book "Die Geschichte einer Maya- Dynastie"2. In this context, problems of current research will also be emphasized.
In 1562, Diego de Landa, a fanatical member of the Franciscan Order, in Yucatan, burned a large number of codices (Maya manuscripts in book form) and initiated the persecution of the native scholars (priests). At the same time, however, he also collected all the available information about the Maya and their culture. Challenged to defend his inquisitorial methods by his bishop, he defended himself in a written report which also outlined a Mayan alphabet. Landa's work, which was preserved in copies in Spanish and Mexican archives, was not published until 1864. By this time, numerous stone inscriptions had been copied and three Codices in the libraries of Dresden, Madrid and Paris had been identified as Mayan.
Diego de Landa and Luis Villapando began the study of the languages and dialects of the Maya in the sixteenth century. The first grammar was written in 1620 by Colonel. These earliest linguistic investigations focused on the Yucatecan "variety" of the Mayan languages, still the one best researched.
The German E.W. Förstemann published the Dresden Codex in 1886 and was first to recognize the dot and the bar as signs for the numerical values "1" and "5". Förstemann provided the basis for all later decipherments of dates, which make up the the major part of the stone inscriptions. The results of his captivating study of the chronologies in the Dresden Codex were only generally accepted twenty years later, much to his irritation. Förstemann did not credit the Maya with the ability to write verbs or whole sentences.
As early as 1876, Leon de Rosny carried out the first serious scientific study of the Mayan hieroglyphs by comparing Landa’s information with the characters of the Codices. He was able to determine the glyphs for the colors "red, black, white, yellow” and "blue/green" and for the four directions "north, south, east, west

In addition, he noted that, for example, the ideogram “cab = Earth” independently of its meaning was used phonetically as "cab / kab” . There were two decisive reasons for the limited success of this and subsequent work on the Codices. The texts of these "books" are mainly of religious or astronomical nature and include words or meanings that are hard to find in Mayan language dictionaries from colonial times because they belonged to special subject matter mastered only by the Mayan priests, who were persecuted and driven out. Subsequent investigations have also shown that the Dresden Codex is a faulty copy of one or more earlier sources. Such errors are indeed fairly easy to determine from the calculations, but they can be identified only with difficulty in the accompanying text. The major asset (especially of the Dresden Codex) is to be found in the many rows of numbers that have proved to be the key to deciphering the Mayan calendar.

Thomas made a new attempt to explain the character of the Mayan hieroglyphs in 1893. Like Rosny, he assumed that the script consisted of ideograms (picture symbols), phonograms (phonetic symbols) and determinatives (classifiers), but he believed that the individual symbols did not indicate vowels when read phonetically. This form of vowelless writing can be found in the Egyptian hieroglyphs. Thomas cited 70 characters in his examination, of which he confused 20 with other symbols, and still worse, he read the glyphs in the cartouches in any order he found convenient, rather than in a fixed order3. Rosny and Thomas both showed that the Mayan script includes glyphs/characters with phonetic value.
On the other hand, Brinton (1890/1895) assumed that the characters were basically ideographic . Brinton also stressed that small differences in similar glyphs were relevant for meaning and for their interpretation (1894).
Eduard Seler certainly was one of the most important Mayan language and script researchers. He made outstanding contributions to deciphering the calender and carried out comparative studies of the Mayan languages, publishing a grammar of several Mayan dialects in 1887. Some of his major achievements in calender research are still credited to the amateur scientist J. T. Goodman. Goodman, a newspaper publisher , issued “his” findings on the Mayan calendar in 1897 (4). He mocked the “academic dilettantes” and failed to mention the earlier published research (4), especially the decisive findings of Förstemann and Seler. Goodman and Seler identified the headglyphs of numbers and date terms which appear in quite different forms in the Codices and stone monuments. If the main focus in Mayan research in the next period turned from the texts to analysis of the dates, then probably because of superior chances of success with the dates.
In his book "An introduction to the Maya Hieroglyphs" S.G. Moley (1915) provided a guide to Mayan chronology and date documentation which is still used today (5). In 1930, J.E. Teeple produced a summary of his research on the lunar dates, which are often found with initial dates in classical inscriptions. The American linguist B.L. Whorf published his findings on the Maya script from 1933 to 1942. He assumes, like Thomas Rosny before him, that this script contains ideograms, phonograms and determinatives. Whorf particularly condemned the use of the word "decipherment" for mere suppositions about content or comments on the glyphs. Unfortunately, this deplorable practice prevails even in current research. After Worf's death, E. Thomson criticized his results, mainly pointing to formal errors and the fact that Whorf changed several glyph readings in the course of 12 years (6). Thomson even accused Whorf of "total ignorance" of Mayan writing, a harsh form of criticism that has appeared again and again in subsequent debates.
One of the reasons for Whorf's numerous failures in identifying glyphs was the lack of a reference system or glyph catalog. W. Gates was the first to try to create such a catalog for the Codices in 1931. In his book, 757 numbers are assigned, but only 440 glyphs recorded, including 25 day symbols, 19 month symbols and 15 numeric or calendric symbols. Later, G. Zimmermann created a catalog of glyphs in the codices, which contains 272 symbols and a numbering up to 1377 (7). E. Thompson's book “A catalog of Maya Hieroglyphs” was not released until1962. In addition to material in the Codices, it included the most frequent glyphs of the classic script monuments. His system is still used in the most recent glyph catalog (8), although it has some serious disadvantages as it doesn't account for the countless variants of symbols.
In the meantime, the study of the script had embarked on several different research paths, independently of the catalog production. H. Beyer tried to solve the the secret of non-calendric symbols with a context analysis of all the inscriptions at Chichen Itzá. As there are only a few, rather short texts available at this site, he was not able to produce any dramatic results. But, his method of research, disparaged at first, is used today, more than 30 years later, with good results (9). Another method attempted to find readings for non-calendric glyphs taking traditional day and month names as a point of departure. In 1937, W. Wolf derived the readings of the appropriate main glyphs by adopting the initial phonetic value of the Tzental day names. In a similar way, J.E.S. Thompson tried to read certain glyphs based on the Yucatecan names of days and months. The Russian scientist Y. Knorozov had pointed out the precariousness of these derivations (10) as it is not at all assured that the day and month names attested in colonial times or even later correspond to those of the classic or later pre-colonial period.
When Knorozov published the results of his examinations on the Maya script between 1952 and 1955, they were rejected by most Maya experts. In 1953, Thompson even claimed that, as far as he knew, there never had been any deciphering in the USSR and therefore never could be. Thompson denied the existence of phonetic symbols in the Maya script although he himself used three readings given by Landa (11). In 1957, the Mexican M. Covarrubias noted not without cause: "Unfortunately, politics has been linked to research on the Mayan writing system”. Knorozov, like Whorf and Gates before him, has denounced the misleading use of the term "deciphering" [for mere suppositions], citing Thompson as an example. Thompson claimed in 1950 that he had deciphered 30 hieroglyphs (12), but only provided readings for 8, leaving the rest as just interpretations (13). Knorozov's comprehensive work was first translated from Russian (1963) into English in 1967. Today, with the American school working on the basis of Knorozov's findings, the background of the original rejection of his work is shamefacedly disguised or rationalized away (14).
To do Knorosov justice, his method and some of his results will presented here. Knorozov mainly used the evidence from the codices and Landa's alphabet for his investigations. Both of these sources contain errors and the readings obtained from them are incorrect in many cases. Knorosov used the method of cross-comparison to test and verify his readings, assuming, like many other investigators, that the texts in the codices were descriptions of the accompanying pictures – which is far from certain. Far more likely, the texts provide additional information about the pictures. Another uncertainty arises from the fact that his initial cross-comparisons were between individual words only without taking the coherence of the whole sentence into account.
Knorozov's contribution is not so much in the reading of individual glyphs as in the method and the proof that the Maya hieroglyphs really do represent phonetic values.
About the time of Knorozov's publications, American investigators began to concentrate on interpretations of the content of the documents which could be gleaned from the structure of the inscriptions and parts of the text. H. Berlin recognized the importance of the so-called emblem glyphs that are typical in particular sites or regions. He was, however, reluctant to identify them as place names,15 which is the general practice today. This is a questionable practice as, in the case of Palenque, for example, more than 6 different emblem glyphs for the site have been identified – a clear indication that the glyphs are not place names as it is unlikely that Palenque could have had so many different names.
Using the Piedras Negras inscriptions as an example ,T. Proskouriakoff was able to demonstrate ,in 1960, that the classical stela texts contained historical information. Landa had reported this and Morley and Stephens suspected that this was the case. Thompson, however, repeatedly rejected this view. Proskouriakoff's greatest contribution is the identification of the cartouches for important events like births and coronations.

In 1976, D.H. Kelley published an outstanding book on the state of the research on the study of Mayan writing.16 Kelley, who was one of the first to recognize Knorosov's contribution, uses both structural analysis and cross-comparison.

In 1977, Th. Barthel published readings of some 300 glyphs as determined by the Tübingen research group.17 These found little acceptance at first. In recent years, D. Dütting (as a representative of the Tübingen school) has published numerous integral texts. These, however, rarely exhibit grammatically correct forms and can often only be understood metaphorically. In 1981, Dütting presented his translation of the text of Lintel 1 of Kuná-Lacanhá. M. Davoust and B. Riese offered a critique of this almost complete translation of the text that consisted primarily of attacks aimed at the readings of particular glyphs, since they were not able to offer an alternative translation. The controversy demonstrated, in any case, how far removed researchers were from a real decipherment.18 Despite assertions to the contrary, this situation prevails down to the present day as a glance at the most recent glyph catalog confirms.19

Nine researchers read T. 116 as “il, kin, kim, ki?, n(e), k'in, ni , ne, en”, whereby the readings “-n” and “ne” are also categorically rejected. With so many possible readings, the Mayan writing system would have had no practical function since it would not have allowed a precise interpretation.

The two following examples may serve to illustrate how Mayanologists work: An article in the New York Times (4 April 1989) reports on the latest “progress in deciphering the ancient Mayan language,” relying on American researchers as its source.20 One of the translation examples in the article mentions a goddess, “white heron,” whose name is contained in a head glyph. The prefix “kak'ax” 'lamed' is simply ignored.21 This presumed goddess is written exactly the same way as a female ruler of the same name22 and nowhere is there any indication of a divinity, except perhaps for the preceding 807 year time span that serves as proof that she reached an age to rival Methuselah. Until a few years ago, the woman was called Sak Kuk. Although it is well-known that her name is often written with a heron's head (heron = sac/sak, boc/bok), B. Riese now translates the glyph as “Tier” 'animal'.23
The rest of this lengthy article explains research methods and gives readings for individual glyphs as examples. A header reads “Scribes found many ways to write the same sentence [?].” If entire sentences can be written in different ways, one must ask why N. Grube finds my procedure of using different writings of the same name as cross-comparisons to be particularly ridiculous.24
The translation of a sentence from the inscription on Stela 2 in Aguateca25 provides a further example of questionable results. The object in question, found in Guatemala, has 25 still clearly legible cartouches with glyphs. Of these, 10 contain dates and time spans. The authors Stuart and Houston offer a transcription with a reading. Here is a comparison of their translation with two translations of the same passage by D. Dütting and W. Gockel. The picture shows a large, elaborately dressed ruler with jaguar claws standing over a lightly clothed prisoner.
I.= Stuart und Houston, II.= D. Dütting, III.= W. Gockel

Zahlen= Glyphennummern nach Katalog Thomson.

E.2. usw. kartuschenbezeichnungen

.2. 23.130/131.683b.

I. Stuart und Houston: na.wa. ha.

er war geschmückt (zum Opfer)

II. D. Dütting: al.an.kal

unterworfen und eingeschlossen ist

III. W. Gockel ah.ili/a’n.k’al

aha’n k’al

es schuf den Abschluss

F.2. 17.603/93V.113.751V.

I. Stuart und Houston: yi. ch’a. ki.balam.


II. D. Dütting: 44.93?.102.751

Herr von Seibal

III. W. Gockel: kil.xex. hun. chakal

kil xrx hun chakal

Der Zeit des Samens des 1. Chakal

(Samen= Umschreibung für Sohn)

F.3. 229V168.176.528.528.
I.Stuart und Houston: ahau (seibal)

Herr von Seibal

II. D. Dütting: edler Spross der Herren von Seibal

III. W. Gockel: xakal.paa:al.pak’.k’al.kil.k’al.

xakal paal pak’al.kil k’al=k’atun

der spionierende Nachfahre des gefallenen Kriegers

F.4. 17.86V.671.

I.Stuart und Houston: yi.na’l. chan

yichanul?= in Begleitung von

II. D. Dütting: der Hauptherr, der große Hirsch

III. W. Gockel: kil.wal.chick.

kil wal chick

der Gegenspieler
F.5. 11.86V/108.764.

I.Stuart und Houston: u.nul.chan.=u chanul?

der Hüter des? (Gefangenen)

II. D. Dütting: der Fänger von

III. W. Gockel: u.wak.k’ab

u wak’ab

der Zerstörer

F.6. 544.116.762V.

I.Stuart und Houston: k’in.ni.balam. Sonnenjaguar

II. D. Dütting: Kin balam

III. W. Gockel: k’ in.il.ich:chak (ich=Auge)

k’inil ich’ak.

der priesterliche Kralle (Name)

F.7. 38/36.168V.716.

I.Stuart und Houston: chul. Dos Pilas ahau göttlicher Herr von dos Pilas

II. D. Dütting: edler Spross der Herren von Aguateca

III. W. Gockel k’anal?. paa:al.kuch.

k’anal? paal kuch

stolzer Nachfahre des Ortes

I. Stuart and Houston

F1 Er war geschmückt (zum Opfer)

F2 Jaguarpranke

F3 Herr von Seibal

F4 in Begleitung von

F5 der Hüter des ? (Gefangenen)

F6 Sonnenjaguar

F7 göttlicher Herr von Pilas


F1 He was ornamented (for the sacrifice)

F2 Jaguar paw

F3 Lord of Seibal

F4 accompanied by

F5 the protector of (the prisoner?)

F6 sun jaguar

F7 divine Lord of Pilas

II. Dütting

F1 unterworfen und eingeschlossen ist

F2 Herr von Sebal

F3 edler Spross der Herren von Seibal

F4 der Hauptherr der große Hirsch

F5 der Fänger von

F6 . . .

F7 edler Spross der Herren von Agnateca


F1 conquered and imprisoned is

F2 the Lord of Seibal

F3 nobel scion of the lords of Seibal

F4 the chief leader, the great stag

F5 the capturer of

F6 . . .

F7 nobel scion of the lords of Agnateca

III. Gockel

F1 Es schuf den Abschluss

F2 der Zeit des Samens des 1. Chakal

F3 der spionierende Nachfahre des gefallenen Kriegers

F4 der Gegenspieler

F5 der Zerstörer

F6 der priesterliche Kralle (Name)

F7 stolzer Nachfahre des Ortes


F1 This set an end to

F2 the time of the seed [son]of Jackal I

F3 the spying descendant of the fallen warrior

F4 the opponent

F5 the destroyer

F6 the Priestly Claw [proper name]

F7 proud descendant of this place

[Stuart and Houston English text retranslated from German text as original was unavailable – tr.]

The picture and the text contradict each other in both the Americans' translation and Dütting's as both give the name “Janguar Claw” to the prisoner. In the American translation there is a further contradiction since, in the picture, as would be expected, the victor is richly attired, not the prisoner. Furthermore, it should be noted that, in the two places were no Mayan transcription is offered, the translation is simply a supposition of the authors. The third glyph T.683b in the first cartouche is frequently attested with the reading “20=k'al”.26 The read “20=ha” is nowhere attested – not in Yucatecan, Chol or Proto-Chol. The term “ah-chan-nul” is attested in the form “ah kanul=protector.”

Why the keeper of a prisoner should be termed his “protector” is something that requires an explanation. Since the appearance of Knorosov's work, it has been considered permissible to drop the vowel of the final glyph in a word where necessary, but does this justify dropping a vowel within a word as is necessary with Chol “yichnal= together with”? 27 There are further objections to be raised against the two incomplete translations, but here it should suffice to refer the reader to the 1988 translation based on cross-comparisons.28

In addition to the deplorable practice of referring to suppositions as “translations,” there is another peculiarity to be found in Maya research: Nowhere else does one encounter such frequent references to “unpublished manuscript” or “personal opinion” as in this field.29 Unpublished findings normally do not count as proof since they cannot be verified. It almost seems as if research on the Mayan hieroglyphs has the nature of an occult science practised by a selective fraternity. This would, in any case, explain the curious reaction to my first Maya book.30 N. Grube published a critique of the book in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (26 January 1989). Since the editors failedto allow me to reply (despite oral assurances), I would like to take the opportunity to address some of the points in dispute here.

Grube reproaches me for failing to mention the successes of the American school. In particular, he mentions a “consecration formula” that is to be found on various vessels and the “translations” of the Palenque texts by L. Schele and others. The formula in question is not to be found in the texts which I treated and the “translations” consist mostly of suppositions.31 To be sure, Grube is correct in pointing out that Palenque is in Chiapas and not in the state of Tabasco some 30 km away. What significance the modern provincial borders have for the hieroglyphic problem is, however, unclear. No one would characterize Grube as “unqualified” just because he uses the technical term “transcribe” for citing a catalog number or for the identification of a glyph32 rather than in the correct sense of “to transfer from one writing system to another.” Grube also claims that I did not go into the question of glottalized sounds and the grammar. Apparently, he failed to read pp. 21-23 in the book he was critiquing. Grube then points to some examples of “false translations.” It should, of course, be understood that a false translation by no means indicates a false reading or deciphering of a sign. Since many Maya terms have various meanings, even today, scholars are divided even about the translations of texts recorded in the Roman alphabet. On page 34, I did, in fact, mistakenly give the translation “Grabstock” 'digging stick' = (“xul”) for “tsul.” But, this occurs nowhere else in the book and is of no consequence. The term “k'al/kal” is not attested in the lexicon in the meaning “beenden” 'complete', but it is attested with the meaning “abschließen” 'finish' and as “k'alak=dead.” According to Grube, “ah” cannot be translated as “Mann” 'man', but he himself designates this morpheme as “männlicher Agens” 'masculine agent'.33 In the lexicon Cordemex it is explained as “prefixed to dynastic names, indicating men” [original Spanish?]. Since this was a determinative, it was not interpreted by the Maya [as a separate word], but merely served to indicate that the term it belonged to stood for a man. My somewhat problematic translation “k'il/kil=Zeit” also comes in for criticism. Here again, the critic seems to have overlooked material in the book itself, where I give the most important attestations for this reading on pp. 25, 39 and 40, e.g., “lakil= zu der Zeit, für diese Zeit” 'at this time', “antankil=Hochzeit” 'wedding' (cf. “atan=wife”). If Grube, in an article of his own,34 uses terms like “ich interpretiere” 'I interpret”, “ich lese” 'I read', “ich vermute” 'I conjecture', “wahrscheinlich” 'probably', “möglich” 'possible', “könnte” 'could be', more than fifty times in ten pages, he can hardly criticize me for presenting hypotheses.

All of this shows that the results of research on the Mayan hieroglyphs to date are anything but certain, leaving no room for radical reinterpretation. Perhaps it is the resulting precariousness of his position that moves B. Riese, a man who man who modestly terms himself “Mayaschriftentzifferer” 'Decipherer of Mayan writing ', to libel me as a fraud and a charlatan.35
“People who live in glass houses should not throw stones.”

1Comprehensive presentations can be found in D.H. Kelley, 1962 and 1976 and Y. Knorozov, 1967.

2 W. Gockel, Mainz, 1988, Dordrecht, The basis for the present translations is explained there.

3Knorozov Y., 1967: 25

4E. Seler, in ZfE.31, 1899: 725ff.

5see the new edition, 1975, An Introduction to the Study of the Maya Hieroglyphs, Dover Publ New York

6E. Thomson, Maya Hieroglyphic Writing, 1950:311-313

7G. Zimmermann, The hieroglyphs of the Maya Manuscripts, 1956

8K. Kurbjuhn, Maya, The complete Catalog of glyph readings, Kassel, 1989

9E. Beyer used, Studies on the Inscriptions of Chichen Itza, 1937, see this later, V. Bricher, A Grammar of Mayan Hieroglyphs, 1986


11Y. Knorozov, 1967:33

12Thompson, Maya Hieroglyphic Writing. Introduction, 1950:263-288

13Knorozov, 1967:29 ff bes.33

14see Scientific American, August 1989:70 ff and also S.D. Houston, Reading the past, Maya glyphs, 1989:16 f.

15H. Berlin, in Journal de la sociéte des Américanistes, NS.XLVII, 1958:111-119.

16Deciphering the Maya script, 1976.

17In Tribus, 1977:97ff.

18All in Mexicon, Vol. III, 1981: D. Dütting, pp. 45-48, M. Davoust, pp. 58f., Riese, pp. 59-61, Th. Förster, pp. 79,80, Th. Barthel, pp. 80f.

19K. Kurbjuhn, Maya, p. 22.

20Researchers solve riddles of Ancient Mayan language

21Kreuztempel, Palenque, TC:E.5-F.9

22Trilogie, Palenque, Tr.I:O.1

23B. Riese, Spektrum der Wissenschaft, Januar 1990, p. 134, see also W. Gockel, Spektrum der Wissenschaft, August 1990:8,9.

24Letter to the editor, Stern, 20.6.1988.

25In Scientific American, August 1989:70ff., the same aricle in Spektrum der Wissenschaft, October 1989:138ff. D.Dütting, in ZfE. 1981.216.

26H. Berlin, Signos y signifcados en las inscripciones Mayas, 1977:180f., see also Palastplatte, Palenque, B:17.

27See S.D. Houston, Maya Glyphs. 1989:34.

28W. Godkel: Glyphenkatalog, indicated here with “WG.”

29E.g., C. Tate, The royal women of Yaxchilan, in Memorias del primer coloquio internacional de mayaistas, 1985:807-827 (6 of 14 sources unpublished and 3 supposedly to appear). Similarlly, B. Riese, in Baessler Archiv, NF Bd. XXX, 1982:257ff.

30See note 28 here

31See B. Macleod, in Mexikon, Vol. XI, No. 2, 1989: 27ff on the consecration formula and the state of the translations. See L. Schele and B.A. Miller, Blood of the kings 1986:272-274, p. 273 where the authors do not even recognize the date on A.6 + B.6 of the inscription in Tempel 14 in Palenque.

32In ZfE, 1986:56,58.


34Ibid: 56-66.

35Letter to Stern, 23 June 1988.

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