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Message of the Maya in Modern Translation

Amateur researchers, contemporary techniques and technology help fit together language puzzle of an ancient society. CENTRAL AMERICA: ARCHAEOLOGY

By Greg Stec / June 22, 1989


HE'S no Indiana Jones, but Christopher Jones has seen his share of lost cities, jungle ruins, and forgotten temples. As a research specialist at the University of Pennsylvania's University Museum in Philadelphia, he helped recover the fabulous Mayan twin pyramids at Tikal in Guatemala. Now he is among a handful of experts with a working knowledge of ancient Mayan hieroglyphics and language.

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``What I like are the kings' names,'' he says. ```Ah Kakau' is one of the great kings of Tikal. It means `Lord Chocolate' or `Sir Cocoa.'''

Tikal, it turns out, derived much of its wealth from a monopoly of the cocoa trade in pre-Columbian Central America. So carrying a title like ``Lord Chocolate'' was prestige indeed.

``Chocolate was a beverage to be enjoyed,'' Dr. Jones says. ``They mixed it with honey, so it was sweet. Of course, all food and all drink was ritual. Even the most common tortilla was eaten in a rsspectful way, because it was sustenance, bread. And so chocolate has its ritual purposes too.''

Discovering the titles of Mayan royalty, the names of their gods and their food, the dates of important events, and all the other things great and small that make up an advanced society has taken more than a hundred years of digging and probing. At last, though, most of the Maya's intricate writing is yielding to modern techniques of linguistics and computer technology.

A Spanish missionary, Diego de Landa, took a stab at rendering Mayan symbols into European phonetics in the 16th century. But his list was incomplete and only amounted to matching some Mayan glyphs with Spanish sounds.

Milestones, such as grasping the Mayan dating system and reading the names of kings, arrived at intervals of decades or more and might not have happened at all without the help of a small army of amateur Mayanists, who added their efforts to those of professionals working with limited staff and budgets.

George Stuart, a staff archaeologist for the National Geographic Society, says the contributions of amateurs are becoming increasingly important. ``A lot of amateurs have special knowledge. There's one engineer who's starting to get interested in Mayan stucco and concrete, stuff we'd never be able to do. Somebody else might be an X-ray technician, who could help us with some technique in the field. We need a lot of help.''

The tradition of amateur involvement continues at places like Penn's University Museum. Annual ``Maya Weekends'' are held for amateurs and professionals to exchange ideas and techniques.

Professor Jones says he is involved with the workshops because he wants to tap as much energy and as many ideas as he can from outside the academic world. He shows eager amateurs how to write and pronounce the ancient Mayan glyphs. ``There's a tremendous amount of interest. The people who are teaching the workshops this year are the people who started in the workshops several years ago.''

Jones and other Mayanists are making steady progress in understanding Mayan hieroglyphics because of a shift in the approach to translation that started about 30 years ago. Instead of looking at the glyphs as ``codes'' or puzzles to be cracked, amateurs and professionals alike began to realize that many individual symbols represented complete ideas or concepts, much as the spoken word often conveys its real meaning through context and emphasis.

The names of Mayan cities are an example. ``For each ruin there is an emblem glyph,'' says Jones, ``which the king used to call himself the sovereign ruler of that dynasty.'' The symbol for Tikal resembles a bundle of 20 sticks. Units of 20 were fundamental to Mayan counting and dating systems. One literal interpretation of the name ``Tikal'' then is ``place of the 20s,'' which would seem appropriate for a major center of commerce and politics.