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Transmitting Change in Maya Hieroglyphs

Posted On December 15, 2020 | 09:42 am | by mayw | Permalink
Mallory Matsumoto studies classic Maya sociocultural history through paleographic changes

Mallory Matsumoto, PhD candidate in anthropology at Brown University, is a junior fellow in Pre-Columbian Studies. Her research report, “Sharing Script: Transmission of Hieroglyphic Practice among Classic Maya Scribes,” outlined paleographic changes in Maya hieroglyphs of the classic period.


Q&A with Mallory Matsumoto

What is significant about the Maya hieroglyphic writing system in the classic period (250–900 CE)? 

Of the various writing systems invented in Mesoamerica, Maya hieroglyphs are the most widely attested and had the greatest capacity to record language, at least based on what evidence we have today. Maya hieroglyphs offer a window into Maya history not available for other Mesoamerican cultures, and provide insights you can’t get from looking at other sources alone. 

During the classic period, there was a really fascinating, complicated interplay between local innovations—practices scribes developed and seem to have used for only a generation or two, or at one or a few sites—and more widespread ways of writing that persisted throughout the Maya region for centuries. Scribal communities producing the monuments I study were clearly in contact with each other and shifted their interactions over time. But there is no clear overarching pattern of how scribal communication happened; no evidence for, say, a center of innovation from which all knowledge radiated outward. Instead, it seems to have been more of a patchwork of communities all writing in different ways but ultimately using the same system and communicating with each other, directly or indirectly.


What are some examples of exchange and evolution of glyphs you have studied? 

I’m looking at inscriptions on monuments, especially from the last three to four centuries of the classic era, written by communities spread across what are now the countries of Honduras, Belize, Mexico, and Guatemala. There are so many different manifestations of how the script was communicated depending on where, when, and at what level you’re looking.

Piedras Negras, a major kingdom during the final centuries of the classic period located on today’s border between Guatemala and Mexico, provides a good case study for what I call intrasite variation. On the one hand, there is clearly some organic development over time that we might expect for a tradition operating without central oversight. But there’s also evidence that in the late eighth century under the last known king, Ruler 7, scribes were returning to glyph forms that hadn’t been used for several decades. We know the future of the Piedras Negras polity was somewhat uncertain at this time—it was involved in a series of conflicts and did not always emerge victorious. And Ruler 7, who was eventually captured by a rival polity, engaged in ancestral veneration of an earlier king who governed at a more politically stable time. This hieroglyphic reincorporation seems to be part of a broader sociopolitical orientation back to a time in Piedras Negras’s history when the elites making and interacting with these monuments may have felt more secure in their status and the polity’s future.

In another case study—intradynastic this time—I look at the ramifications of an internal conflict within a single dynasty through glyph variation. One branch of the dynasty at Tikal broke off and founded its own twin political centers at Dos Pilas and Aguateca, over a hundred miles away. Even though a political break was recorded in the epigraphic record, it was not a complete break because the rulers at the new sites continued to use the same title, signaling they still identified with the other dynastic branch. Scribes of the two branches retained some contact with each other, sharing their hieroglyphic knowledge, including forms for writing the polity’s “emblem glyph.” But we also see that those at Dos Pilas and Aguateca were inventing their own ways of writing and engaging with new scribal communities, such as at nearby Ceibal or at more distant Copan in Honduras.


What does epigraphic and paleographic analysis add to our understanding of Maya sociocultural and political history?

We can glean a lot from deciphering the glyphs and reading texts to reconstruct classic Maya history, which scholars have done really successfully in the past several decades. I’m instead taking a paleographic approach by examining the form of the glyphs and their arrangements in inscriptions—essentially looking at classic Maya handwriting on stone. I want to tease out patterns behind differences in glyph form and usage to understand how scribes produced Maya hieroglyph texts that represented very diverse ways of writing yet were still mutually legible. Looking at hieroglyphs as a manifestation of cultural exchange and knowledge transfer allows us to see different forms of interaction and movement of people and ideas that we don’t see just from reading the texts.

These sorts of broader interpretations in particular benefit immensely from exchange with other scholars, so I have really appreciated efforts by [Manager of Academic Programs] Emily Jacobs, [Program Coordinator] Adrianne Varitimidis, and [Resident Program Director] Frauke Sachse to create a space for the fellows to engage with each other to the extent that is feasible in a virtual format.


May Wang is postgraduate writing and reporting fellow at Dumbarton Oaks. Photo by Richard Tong, postgraduate digital media fellow.