Unravelling the Mysteries Trapped Within Mayan Hieroglyphs

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.  This will be a huge step forward for deepening our understanding of the social, political, and historical aspects of Maya civilization.

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The Maya invented dentistry. But not for teeth health or cleanliness – they were all about aesthetic. Mayan dentists would drill into patients teeth and precisely place gemstones in the cavity. So precisely, in fact, that most skeletons’ teeth still hold their gemstones, a thousand years later. And Mayan dentistry was not just for the wealthy or powerful.  Citizens from all classes had their teeth filled with gemstones!


Eric S. Thompson - Catalog of Maya Hieroglyphs, 1962.

The Mayan script, also known as Mayan glyphs or Mayan hieroglyphs, is the writing system of the Maya civilization of Mesoamerica, currently the only Mesoamerican writing system that has been substantially deciphered. The earliest inscriptions found, which are identifiably Maya, date to the 3rd century BCE in San Bartolo, Guatemala. Maya writing used logograms complemented by a set of syllabic glyphs, somewhat similar in function to modern Japanese writing. Mayan writing was called “hieroglyphics” or hieroglyphs by early European explorers of the 18th and 19th centuries who did not understand it but found its general appearance reminiscent of Egyptian hieroglyphs, to which the Mayan writing system is not at all related.

The Maya hieroglypic writing is arguably one of the most visually striking writing systems of the world. It is also very complex, with hundreds of unique signs or glyphs in the form of humans, animals, supernaturals, objects, and abstract designs. These signs are either logograms (to express meaning) or syllabograms (to denote sound values), and are used to write words, phrases, and sentences. In fact, the Maya can write anything that they can say.


Frederick Catherwood was an English artist who explored Mesoamerica in the mid 19th century with writer John Lloyd Stephens, climbing the crumbling steps of the pyramids of Copán. By this stage, these buildings had fallen into decline, and were overgrown with jungle. Catherwood is best remembered for his extraordinarily detailed drawings of ruins of the Maya civilization. Some lithographs of these artworks are shown here.

The first is titled Colossal Head, at Izamal. Idol at Copán and Back of an Idol at Copán follow, the fourth is Gateway of the Great Teocallis, Uxmal, and the final work is titled Teocallis, at Chichén-Itzá

These lithographs are courtesy of & and be viewed at Casa Frederick Catherwood in Merida, Mexico: "Views of Ancient Monuments in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan" is on permanent exhibition there. Images via the Maya Portrait Project.