Maya script, also known asMaya glyphs orMaya hieroglyphs, is thewriting systemof theMaya civilizationofMesoamerica, presently the onlyMesoamerican writing systemthat has been substantially deciphered. The earliest inscriptions found, which are identifiably Maya, date to the 3rd century BC inSan Bartolo,Guatemala.Writing was in continuous use until shortly after the arrival of theconquistadorsin the 16th century AD.
TheMaya scriptis generally considered to be the most fully developed Mesoamerican writing system mostly because of its extraordinary aesthetics and because it has been partially deciphered. In Mayan writing, logograms and syllable signs are combined. Around 700 different glyphs have been documented, with some 75% having been deciphered. Around 7000 texts in Mayan script have been documented.
Maya writing usedlogogramscomplemented by a set ofsyllabicglyphs, somewhat similar in function to modernJapanese writing. Maya writing was called “hieroglyphics” orhieroglyphsby early European explorers of the 18th and 19th centuries who did not understand it but found its general appearance reminiscent ofEgyptian hieroglyphs, to which the Maya writing system is not at all related.
The codices and classic texts were written by scribes who were usually members of the Maya priesthoodin a literary form of theCh’olti’ language. TheCh’olti’ language is anextinctMayan languagewhich was spoken in the Manche region of easternGuatemala. The Ch’olti’ language has become of particular interest for the study ofMayan Hieroglyphssince it seems that most of the glyphic texts are written in an ancient variety of Ch’olti’ called Classic Ch’olti’an by epigraphersand which is thought to have been spoken as a prestige dialect throughout the Maya area in the classic period.
The decipherment of the writing was a long and laborious process. 19th century and early 20th century investigators managed to decode theMaya numbersand portions of the texts related toastronomyand theMaya calendar, but understanding of most of the rest long eluded scholars. In the 1960s, progress revealed the dynastic records of Maya rulers. Since the early 1980s it has been demonstrated that most of the previously unknown symbols form asyllabary, and progress in reading the Maya writing has advanced rapidly since.