The Talented Mr. Coe / Breaking the Maya Code / The Candyman Cove

See the title? The poetry class is already infiltrating my writing.

The Dresden Codex has long been a source of mystery to its various owners and numerous scholars. It is a pre-Colombian Maya book whose exact origin and journey from the past to modern-day is covered in ambiguity. For example, it is unknown how the codex made its way from Colombia to its current location at the Royal Library at Dresden (Germany). It is thought that the codex was sent to King Charles I of Spain from Hernán Cortés as thanks for being imported as the governor of the freshly attainted Mexican territory before being purchased by the Royal Library from a private seller. Besides the final sale, the rest is speculation.

The Codex itself is an 11-12th century book painted by Maya scribes that is central in deciphering Maya glyphs. The hieroglyphs in question are not similar in the least to Sumerian cuneiform, the Linear B script or Egyptian hieroglyphs. Sir Eric Thompson, the leading Mayanist of his time believed the glyphs were a “source of spiritual values in a modern world that placed farm more importance on material prosperity” (Robinson 121). Even though the Mayan culture has contemporary ties – there are still many Mayans today – today’s generation cannot read the glyphs. Much discovery, however, has led to the conclusion that considerable vocabulary used by Mayans today is the same behind the glyphs.

Some pieces of Maya culture can be understood, like the calendar with its three wheels.

The biggest wheel (to the right) keeps track of something resembling months. The bigger wheel around the smaller wheel together indicate the date. The original calendar only had 260 days per year, but this revised edition qualified 365 days.

“It consisted of 18 named months (…), each of 20 days’ duration, and one month of 5 days […], making altogether a ‘vague year’ […] because the extra one quarter of a day in a solar year, which we solved by adding a leap year, the Maya chose to ignore (Robinson 126).”

The Dresden Codex has many dates in it (mostly pertaining to significant divine dates since it is a semi-religious text), an interpretation that could not have been made without the discovery and correct translation of the calendars.

Arguably the most difficult part of breaking the Maya code was the multiple signifiers for a single signified. The creation of the glyphs was practical, but also artistic and allowed the writer many freedoms in his/her chosen interpretation of the signified. A major step in the decipherment of the glyphs is the realization that they are partially phonetic. “It is no ordinary alphabet, since it contains more than one sign for some letters, as well as syllabic signs” (Robinson 130).

The decipherment was met with two major obstacles: Mayan languages are relatively unknown to Maya scholars, and the combination writing system of phonography (representing vocal sounds) and logography (representing a word or phrase). After much time, a semi-universal syllabic chart was developed that enables the majority of glyphs to be read. Most (likely all) disagreements concerning this chart spawn from the ambiguity caused by the mixed writing system. It is likely, considering the use of glyphs did not carry over to future generations, that many Mayans did not know how to interpret these glyphs. Regional differences and, obviously, the Spanish Inquisition no doubt played a role in the end of this writing system. (Note: this is my opinion and is probably not shared by scholars who would laugh at my ignorance.)

Maya art was covered with equally complicated layers of linguistic clues. Murals, for example, show a single narrative with the image taking first importance, while the glyphs supplement. The 1970s in the New York art world proved lucrative for Mayan research. Michael Coe – leading Mayanist – was organizing a Maya ceramics exhibition when he noticed a trend among the glyphs printed on the utensils. He coined the trend the Primary Standard Sequence and made an intellectual, but ultimately uneducated, guess that they “referred to Maya mythical adventures in the Otherworld,” like the Egyptian book of the Dead (Robinson 143).

He may have been wrong, but his unexpected discovery was valuable (and fun) nonetheless. After additional research, a few of the patterns were deciphered as “to drink” and “cacao.” The cup was sent to Hershey Foods Corporation where it was confirmed the residue from the cup was cacao. The glyphs of the cup identified the owner of the cup and the purpose of the cup. Practical, yet artistic; those Mayans fooled us all.


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