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The Decipherment of Ancient Maya Writing

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The Decipherment of Ancient Maya Writing
Edited by Stephen Houston, Oswaldo Chinchilla Mazariegos, and David Stuart. (University of Oklahoma Press, Norman: 2001. Pg. xx, 554. Illustrations.) ISBN: 0-8061-3204-3.

Reviewed by Simon Bomin - September 11, 2009

The Decipherment of Ancient Maya Writing consists of a tantalizing collection of essays, letters, and other documentary evidence that trace the history of how the Ancient Maya Writings were first deciphered, and how our understanding of the Maya writing system has changed over the years. Edited by Stephen Houston, Oswaldo Chinchilla Mazariegos, and David Stuart, this book contains forty-eight essays and other writings that range from an excerpt of a letter written in 1519 reporting on Spanish discoveries in the 'New World' to a 1990 essay by the German scholar Nikolai Grube that showcases the newly discovered (at least accepted at that time) sophistication of Classic Mayan that is the epitome of the new epigraphy that is now in common use among Mesoamerican scholars. All the essays and other writings in this book have been translated, when necessary, into English, and each is preceded by a brief introduction that introduces the author, the period in which the piece was written, and information which places the writing within the historic context of our understanding of Maya hieroglyphs at the time the piece was written.

The writings in this collection are organized thematically, with chapters covers such topics as Time, Principles of Decipherment, The Nature of Maya Writing, Supernaturals, and Discovery. What follows is a sampling of titles included in this collection: In addition to this collection of classic writings on the history of the decipherment of Ancient Maya writings, this book also includes more than two hundred line drawings. As well, many of the writings in this book are not readily available to scholars or amateur researchers. In short, this book is essential reading for both Maya scholars and Maya enthusiast, for whom this book will shed light on how our understanding of the Maya writing system has developed, and how building upon this information, modern scholars can read, with a fair degree of proficiency, most of the Maya glyphs that have been uncovered. This book will also be of great interest to historians and language experts of every ilk for its compelling charting of man's endeavor to rediscover how to decipher and read a vibrant and enlightening ancient system of writing. It is a story of intellectual discoveries, luck, and a challenging mystery that took more than 500 years to satisfactorily solve, and it was a task that was only solved through the combined efforts of hundreds, if not thousands, of individuals. This book deserves an honored place on the bookshelves of all Maya scholars, enthusiasts and both private and public libraries. It is also a book that can be effectively used as a supplemental reading text in a variety of University level courses ranging from history to linguistics.

Related Reviews:

The Memory of Bones: Body, Being, and Experience among the Classic Maya, by Stephen Houston, David Stuart, and Karl Taube.
How did the Classic Maya view the human body? How did they express their emotions? What role did the human body play in their art, their world view, and their sense of what comes after death? These and many more intriguing questions are answered in this compelling book.

Popol Vuh: Sacred Book of the Ancient Maya, edited by Allen J. Christenson.
This electronic library and database serves as a comprehensive resource on the Popol Vuh, and it includes not only the original text of the Popol Vuh, but also English and Spanish translations of the text, along with audio files of native speakers reading the text, hundreds of photographs, and essays and notes on Maya culture, history, and language.

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