You are here:Home/Research/ Pre-Columbian Studies/ Scholarly Activities/ Scripts, Signs, and Notational Systems in Pre-Columbian America/ Abstracts, 2008 Symposium

Abstracts, 2008 Symposium

Scripts, Signs, and Notational Systems in Pre-Columbian America

The Role of Proper Names in the History of Mesoamerican Art and Communication

David Stuart, University of Texas at Austin

The rendering of proper names for people, places and important objects was an essential aspect of all Mesoamerican scripts and pictorial traditions. This may seem an obvious point at first, but looking at names in the interwoven histories of Mesoamerican visual traditions reveals their key role in bridging indigenous categories of writing, language and art. Given the prominent appearance of name glyphs even in the Pre-Classic era, one might hazard to say proper names had some important role in motivating the advent of written communication in Mesoamerica, much as it apparently was elsewhere in the Old World. In this essay, therefore, I focus on the special "behaviors" of proper names within the visual communication systems of the Maya, Zapotec, of Teotihuacan, the Mixtec and Nahua, in order to consider how their related functions might help to define, at least in part, a truly Mesoamerican "theory" of visual communication. We see this at work, for example, in the way that personal name hieroglyphs, even with phonetic components, can be worn as headdresses in Mixtec and Maya art. Or in the way featured toponymic signs in early colonial Nahua maps and manuscripts assume an emblematic character that is neither really writing nor pictorial art, but something in between. A similar blurring of visual categories can be also seen among the Pre-Classic and Classic Maya, where proper name glyphs of people and places routinely assumed complex roles as iconographic "masks" on monuments and on architecture, while still adhering to known conventions of script and relying on linguistic encoding. These related intersections of art and writing often drew upon the individual creativity of certain artists and scribes, but each case "works" and is discernible (even to us) because it references what amounts to a basic category in human cognition: a proper name.

The More Things Change: Maya Writing Over Time and Space

Stephen Houston, Brown University

From inception to extinction, Maya script continued in use for close to 2,000 years, from the latter half of the first millennium BC to the century or so after the Spanish conquest, perhaps longer in remote areas. As such, it represents the longest and fullest record of any notational system in Pre-Columbian America. Recent decipherments and broader, reflective treatments reveal much about the structure and content of the script. What is needed, however, and increasingly of interest to specialists in Mesoamerica and beyond, is a review of how the script changed over time and across regions, with multiple variants, detours or isolationisms. These are embraced, sometimes misleadingly, by a single label, "Maya glyphs." That label puts proper emphasis on the practice of glyphic writing as a linked phenomenon, as well as, probably, its use as a diglossic device for consolidating elite bonds across a conflictive political landscape. Yet a single descriptive for Maya writing disguises the numerous bottlenecks, local emphases, and variable extinction that underscore its paradox as a communicative system, at once joined and diverse, its earliest years radically different from its latest, yet united by remarkable continuities. This paper itemizes the shared properties of Maya writing and then examines its multiple expressions over the course of scriptural development. Threading throughout is the affirmation that script always exists for some larger purpose, with users and readers of varying sort, as part of a socially embedded, meaningful practice.

The Flowering Glyphs: Animation in Cotzumalhuapa Writing

Oswaldo Chinchilla, Museo Popol Vuh, Universidad Francisco Marroquín, Guatemala

This paper will explore one of the least known Mesoamerican scripts developed at the Late Classic city of Cotzumalhuapa, on the Pacific Coast of Guatemala. Recent documentation of the sculptural corpus provides a basis for an inventory of about thirty different signs, most of which were probably day names. Collocations may represent dates or personal names, although the system remains undeciphered. This paper includes a brief description of the sign inventory and the probable identifications for selected signs, as background for a discussion of animation, probably the system's most striking feature. Most collocations are closely associated with various representations, in such a way that the signs become more than simple annotations, to become inextricable elements of the iconography. Moreover, the signs of the script are often animated in various ways, becoming active participants in narrative scenes on Cotzumalhuapa sculptures. Brief comparisons with other Mesoamerican systems offer hints about the significance of animation and other features of Cotzumalhuapa writing.

The Written Surface as a Cultural Code: A Comparative Perspective of Scribal Traditions from Southwestern Mesoamerica

Javier Urcid, Brandeis University

Throughout nearly two millennia prior to European contact, SW Mesoamerica witnessed the development of at least six scribal traditions of different duration, prestige, and hence geographical extent. Without involving the later scribal productions on bark paper and deer hides, this paper outlines some of the societal uses of these writing traditions by examining the contexts in which inscriptions rendered in less perishable media were seemingly deployed. Textual records and narratives where set in monumental architectural contexts to enhance group identities or to make claims privileging the monopoly of political power. Genealogical reckonings were displayed, either fixed to architecture and anchored to places or on moveable slabs, to disambiguate or contest membership in ranked corporate groups as a means of legitimating access to landed estates and offices; Inscribed portable objects in different media were commissioned as mnemonic aids in the perpetuation of a historical memory, to influence social constituencies through competitive generosity, and/or to signal self-references in the mediating role that materiality had on ritual performances. Items of material culture, often mimicking miniaturized versions of other objects, were marked with nominative signs seemingly to express real or attributed ownership. These varied societal dimensions of writing approached the use of the inscribed surface in different ways, allowing us to ascertain how the visual syntagmatics played an important role in the kinds of knowledge being conveyed and the way that knowledge was perceived, apprehended, disseminated, and transferred.

Teotihuacan and the Development of Writing in Classic Period Central Mexico

Karl Taube, University of California, Riverside

Although we have an increasingly nuanced understanding of the origins and development of ancient Maya hieroglyphic writing, this is generally not the case for writing systems of central Mexico. In part, this derives from the widespread assumption that Teotihuacan, the great urban center of Early Classic Central Mexico, lacked writing. In this study, I note that Teotihuacan had a highly developed writing system. Along with bar and dot numeration, day names, toponyms, and personal names or titles can be discerned at Teotihuacan. In addition, many Teotihuacan murals feature large and elaborate hieroglyphic signs. Many of the signs and conventions of Teotihuacan writing continued with subsequent Late Classic centers of highland Mexico, including Cacaxtla, Xochicalco and Teotenango. In addition, many traits of the Postclassic writing of the Toltec and Aztec can also be traced to Teotihuacan, the original source of Central Mexican writing.

Phoneticism in the Aztec (Nahuatl) Writing System

Alfonso Lacadena García-Gallo, Universidad Complutense de Madrid

The initial proposals, which since mid-nineteenth century looked for a phonetic decipherment of Aztec writing, found strong opposition in the anti-phonetic school (led by E. Seler and E. Thompson), a school, which for almost a century, dominated the study of Mesoamerican writing systems. As a result of the prevailing anti-phonetic tendency, Aztec writing has been usually denied the status of "true writing system," being instead labeled in the scholarly literature as "imperfect writing," "partial writing," or as a "pictographic/pictorial recording system," exhibiting only incipient or partially-developed phoneticism.

Based on the theory of writing and its methodology, which has been successfully used in the decipherment of ancient scripts, in this paper I will again take up the old phonetic approach to the decipherment of Aztec writing. I will propose that Aztec writing, which records the Nahuatl language, was a full writing system of the logo-syllabic type (as other writing systems in the Old World and as the Maya writing system in the New) that was composed of several hundred logograms and half a hundred phonograms conforming an open syllabary, which employed scribal practices (rebus, phonetic complementation) characteristic of the group of logo-syllabic scripts, and idiosyncratic conventions for word composition that set Aztec writing apart within this group.

The decipherment and systematization of Aztec writing, now underway, opens a new period of study and revision of Nahuatl hieroglyphic sources (often neglected in favor of their alphabetic glosses, when present) and illuminate the probable nature of other Mesoamerican writing systems, some of them undeciphered, and the methodology needed for their decipherment.

Representations of Time-Space in Aztec Pictographical Histories and Monuments

Federico Navarrete Linares, Instituto de Investigaciones Históricas, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México

The aim of this paper is to analyze the way in which chronotopes, that is, meaningful conceptions and representations of time-space, were depicted and materialized by the Aztec writing system in early Colonial codices and in Postclassic stone monuments.

My hypothesis will be that the Aztec writing system did not just denote time and space, through the notation of dates and the establishment of chronologies and through the use of toponymic glyphs, but also sought to represent both visually in meaningful and coherent ways, using specific conventions of visual narration and organization of glyphs and other visual elements within a significant whole that included both signs and images. These visual chronotopes were the backbone of the narratives presented by Aztec "texts." A comparison between different painted histories and monuments will show how the Aztecs used different chronotopes to represent qualitatively different time periods in their history and also in different contexts of representation.

The analysis of these contrasting ways of depicting time and space will in turn lead to a more general reflection on the nature of the Aztec systems of writing and visual narration, centered on the idea that they were not only systems of abstract signs meant to denote speech, but more complex systems that integrated logography, phonetics and images into complex narratives, that sought to represent visually, as well as linguistically, the realities they were describing, particularly the chronotopes. As such, they were not universal signifying systems, but ad-hoc configurations, developed to represent specific realities in specific contexts.

Elaboration and Abbreviation in Mexican Pictorial Registers: The Case of Origin Narratives

Michel Oudijk, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México

Mesoamerican pictorial registers and particularly historical sources contain accounts that are organized in certain themes that were well known among a wide audience. While the themes are dealt with including the particular details of each account, the underlying structure will be more or less the same. Such themes may be, for example, the foundation, the toma de posesión, or taking hold of the bundle. As these themes are well-known, pictographically these can be depicted in elaborate pictorial scenes or can be annotated by one simple pictorial element that represents the whole theme. Thus, in studying Mesoamerican pictography one first has to recognize the themes and from there analyze the pictorial elements within their particular context. However, as a scene is either elaborate or a mere annotation, it is necessary to use analogies between related scenes to reach an understanding of the scene. In order to use analogies one has to apply thematic units or groups of symbols with significant relationships.

In this presentation I will discuss the theme of the place of origin. Through the use of analogies, I will construct a body of thematic units that will show how certain elements were used and applied in different pictorial and alphabetic documents in order to construct particular legitimating accounts.

Ruptures and Unions: Graphic Complexity in Sixteenth-Century Mexico

Elizabeth Boone, Tulane University

This paper analyzes the complex graphic situation that developed in early colonial central Mexico when the refined indigenous semasiographic system came into contact with alphabetic writing and European figural illusionism. Mexican pictography prized figuration over abstraction in the semantic realm and relied on spatial principles for its grammatical structure. In contrast the newly introduced alphabetic script was semantically abstract and conventional, and has a syntax that was visually manifest through semantic variation and linear sequence. European illusionism, being alphabetic script's partner in European graphic discourse, was highly figural and iconic but had only the loosest grammar. The sudden coexistence of these three systems-which were so similar in some ways and so different in others-and the pressing need for graphic communication between the peoples who relied on them, led to an intricate mixing, almost a hybridization, of systems.

The questions I address are three: What were the formal/stylistic, semantic, and syntactic elements that pulled loose through ruptures to their original systems? How did these elements join with other liberated elements to form unique hybrid systems? What were the functional, communicative needs that required these hybrids?

In this paper, I want to pay particular attention to the structural changes occasioned by this mixing of elements from formerly discrete graphic systems. Because the new systems had to serve both indigenous and European audiences, their fundamental nature as scripts and/or pictures changed.

Moche as Visual Notation

Margaret Jackson, Stanford Humanities Center

Moche art of ancient Peru has always been popular for its aesthetic beauty and compelling imagery. Yet, far from being vehicles of solitary personal expression, Moche artworks carry strong aspects of conventionalization clearly related to larger patterns of social agency. Artists employed oft-repeated, sometimes abbreviated images, which themselves were compounded with modifying elements, in many ways similar to what is seen in other ancient American pictographies. Even the most realistic depictions tend to include clusters of seemingly standardized motifs that read as signs forming visual phrases. Such phrases many times incorporate what seem to be logographs or other script-like devices. Yet, beyond noting a tendency toward conventionalization, very few investigations have addressed Moche visual imagery at the systemic level or attempted to place Moche imagery within a larger context of indigenous American mixed pictorial notational traditions. The present research explores Moche iconography in terms of larger patterns of visual notation, examining the role of the visual corpus in Moche society and seeking to articulate areas where notational structures may become apparent.

Chuquibamba Textiles, Calendars and Andean Administration

R. Tom Zuidema, The University of Illinois

Textiles known under the name Chuquibamba probably came from the Incaic province of Condesuyu in Southern Peru. Numerous repetitions in rows of small figured squares can be interspersed at regular intervals by eight pointed stars. Squares and stars are free standing or placed in larger frames. Even numbers occur in equal rows and columns; uneven numbers are introduced by way of alternate alignment. Modifications and irregularities help to arrive at other desired numbers. Different schemes were employed in planning these textiles. Two large ones explain in detail calendrical schemes; others allude to significant numbers thereof. Textiles may refer to a variety of social and ritual orders also known from historical records. Analysis also leads to questions of: origin of textiles and their weavers; ways of counting and organization that contrast them with other styles and quipus; ritual uses in Inca times and before; and the question of administrative use in Cuzco and the society where they first occurred. Chuquibamba textiles constitute a major notational system since before Inca times. I suggest it was well known in Cuzco.

Tocapu: What Is it, What Does it Do, and Why Is it Not a Knot?

Tom Cummins, Harvard University

We know next to nothing about one of the most ubiquitous forms of Late Horizon Andean visual expression. Although the tocapu is found on Inca and colonial textiles, ceramics, wood, architecture and just about every other type of material and medium, Spanish colonial sources, early and late, say very little about them. Recent studies are also few and far between, and those that exist most often attempt to "decipher" or "interpret" what type of representational system the tocapu is. This in an important question, of course, and this paper will touch on some of these interpretations. However, this paper will explore the broader range of tocapu as an Inca and Colonial sign/image. This means looking at the tocapu in relation to other Andean visual forms to see if we can recognize a coherent set of relations, or not. Are there any underlying principles of the Inca expressive system that we can bring forward through such a study, or must we understand the different Andean forms such as khipu and tocapu as discrete?

Sign Communities and the Political Economy of Cord-Keeping in the Andes: 1000–1600 C.E.

Gary Urton, Harvard University

This paper addresses the question of sign communities in Andean cord-keeping technologies from the late Middle Horizon, Wari tradition, through the time of the rise and demise of the Inka Empire, and into the period of the tumultuous transformations of the early Spanish colonial period. Centrally at issue will be the question of the standardization and conventionalization of sign values among communities of producers and users of Andean cord-recording technologies over this ca. 600 year long time period, from Wari color-banded, wrapped cords to Inka knotted-cords, and down to the time of the competing cord- and alphanumeric script-based recording communities of the early colonial period. What can we say about the standardization of cord-keeping sign values under the different political-economic regimes that employed these technologies for recordkeeping over this long period of time? What changes in cord recording principles and technologies marked the transitions from one of these major periods/traditions to the next? What can we deduce given the information presently available to us concerning both the sign values, and their referents, characterizing the different cord-keeping technologies, as well as about the political economies that supported, sustained and found their rationale in these recording technologies? The presentation will draw on archaeological and ethnohistorical records, as well as on the results of seven years of research by the Harvard University Khipu Database Project.

The Rapaz Khipu Patrimony in Long Chronology: (In collaboration with Carrie Brezine, Raimundo Chapa, Gino de las Casas, and Víctor Falcón Huayta)

Frank Salomon, University of Wisconsin

The high agro-pastoral village of Rapaz (Oyón Province, Peru) houses a famous patrimonial khipu collection, consisting of some 263 most un-Inka looking cord objects. Villagers revere them as sacred (but illegible) records. Are they Pre-Hispanic, as villagers think, or a later fake as Kaufman Doig has alleged, or something else? The khipus possess a considerable material context. It comprises a walled ceremonial-administrative precinct, a temple to the mountain deities and a central redistributive storehouse. Archaeological research in the two buildings in 2005–06, together with close study of the khipus themselves, yielded materials for C14-based reconstruction of storehouse, cord, and temple chronology. C14 of post-conquest provenience is inherently problematic, but iconographic clues mitigate some dating hazards. The results indicate that the khipus date from the Late Colonial or Early Independence part of a much longer overall chronology linking the precinct with Pre-Hispanic antiquity. Remodeled during and after the campaigns called "extirpation of idolatries," and remaining in service to the Andean deities until this day, the Rapaz temple, its khipus, and its storehouse call into question common ethnohistoric suppositions about the fate of Andean institutions during early modern and modern times.