For hundreds of years, linguists have been trying to decode the ancient hieroglyphic script of the Mayans, left behind on monument carvings, painted pottery, and drawn in handmade bark-paper books.
Now, thanks to ongoing work by expert linguists, decipherment is advancing at a rapid rate and almost reaching completion – to date, 85 – 90% of the symbols have now been decoded. Completing the decipherment will be a huge step forward for deepening our understanding of the social, political, and historical aspects of Maya civilization.
France’s EPFL (Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne) is leading the research, and here’s how they do it:
EPFL researchers have come up with an algorithm to analyze Mayan writing. This project could one day contribute to translating this complex and still partially unknown language.
While some five million people still speak a language that evolved out of Mayan civilization in South America, the written language has suffered a different fate. The secrets of the classical Maya were lost with the destruction of most works during the Spanish conquest in the 16th century. Only three codices have been preserved, and they are in museums and institutions in Paris, Dresden and Madrid.
These documents contain precious data for the researchers who are seeking to discover the secrets of this pre-Columbian writing, much of which remains obscure (10 to 15% of the symbols are not known). Researchers at Idiap, a research institute affiliated with EPFL and with the new Digital Humanities Laboratory of the College of Humanities, are harnessing the power of computers to help archeologists and epigraphers make significant progress in their work.
The researchers, working closely with the Maya writing specialists, have analyzed thousands of hieroglyph signs, which are symbols that represent a sound, or also a meaning. Maya texts are often written in the form of blocks. A block could contain one or multiple glyphs, representing a sound, a word or even an entire sentence.
“Each image tells a story,” said Rui Hu, a researcher working on Social Computing at Idiap. “Sometimes we can guess their meaning with the help of people who still speak this language today, and also by using glossaries.” The task is particularly difficult because the hieroglyphs are difficult to decipher in the historical documents owing to their age and state of deterioration. What’s more, pre-Columbian writers sometimes drew the symbols in different and creative ways, varying by era and location. And then there are those symbols that look like each other yet mean something completely different.
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