The Maya themselves did not invent writing, but they did develop the most complex mixed-scripture writing system called Logo Syllabic, made up of over 800 glyphs. The origins of Maya writing may be traced back to the south of Mexico , to a place called Veracruz , as well as to Guatemala 's and El Salvador 's Pacific Coast. The people who lived there, the Olmecs or Mihezoke people, painted these first glyphs at Tres Zapotes around the year 29 BC, this was the first evidence of written language in ancient America . The most ancient text that presents the total set of characteristic traits of Maya writing is preserved in Stela 29 of Tikal, dated 292 AD. At Copan the earliest known text is found in Stela 63 which shows the Long Count date of 9.0.0.0.0 8 Ahau 14 Ceh correspondent to December 11th, 435 AD of the Gregorian Calendar, this date commemorates a date that had special significance to the Ancient Maya a period ending known as the Baktun or a 400 year cycle (of 360 days each) or the ninth such cycle since the creation of the current state of the world, which has been calculated to have begun on 3114 BC.

Even though writing was not invented at Copan , it was at Copan that it reached its greatest expression. The hieroglyphs found in the monuments at Copan towards the end of the Late Classic Period show a degree of specialization and a rich style that was all their own. It is no surprise that from the texts discovered at Copan have come great breakthroughs in comprehending their complex, yet fascinating, writing system.

Glyphic texts documented the lives of the rulers: their births, accessions to the throne, and periods of office such as Katuns (terms of 20 years), marriages, wars, burials and other important facts about a Ruler's story. Hieroglyphic writing is composed of signs for ideographs, which are units of meaning, words, or parts of compound words; and of syllables, which are units of sound. The texts were written in blocks of the same size, each containing one or more signs. Within a glyph block there is usually one sign that is larger than the others: it is the “main sign”. Attached to it, will be affixes, super fixes, prefixes, postfixes, sub fixes and even infixes, which modify or define the main sign. Maya texts, beautifully painted or sculpted, express complete sentences with nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions and more parts of language composition. Mayanists Sylvanus G. Morley and Sir Eric Thompson didn't believe the texts left by the Maya involved the history of real people. They thought the texts concentrated mostly on calendrical, astronomical and sacred information. They thought the characters depicted on the stelae were Gods. But as Maya Archaeology continued to make its pioneering advances in the middle of the humid rainforests of Mesoamerica , the contrary was revealed: the stelae contained nothing but information on the Rulers of The Maya World for more than 570 years. The discoveries made by other Mayanists: Tatiana Proskouriakoff in Piedras Negras and Heinrich Berlin in Tikal would change the old views forever. At Copan in modern times reknowned Epigraphers such as David Stuart have advanced epigraphy to ever greater levels. These special breed of Archaeologists who research the intricate hieroglyphs, know about 800 different graphemes from Maya scripture. Decipherment of the Maya writing system or glyphs has come a very long way since its dawning in the 1930s, when it opened a fascinating puzzle for epigraphers to unveil: the story of Maya Rulers, whose births and deaths, ancestries and parentages, conquests and inaugurations, ritual events and ceremonies, all made part of the complex religious and political belief system. At Copan's Altar Q there is a huge part of the puzzle, this altar gives us a definite and official account of all legitimate rulers that held office at Copan, field archaeology has shown us that there were other rules, some prior and some posterior to those depicted at Altar Q, but the picture that this elaborate altar paints is that of a continuity of power, the unbroken dynasty that made Copan withstand the test of time until our eyes con all but wonder what was it like so long ago.

It seems amazing that they were recorded for posterity forever by the vanished Maya of the Classic Period. Giant strides have been given since the 1930's to decipher the hieroglyphs; however there is still a lot of work yet to do as new texts keep surfacing. Piecing all the information together from the different sites and scattered texts, we may have an approximate story of ancient history in the region and the relationship between different city-states. The whole picture may never be fully painted, but future epigraphers will greatly enjoy the challenge it poses…

 


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