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Story of Scripts - Part 5 Meso-American Scripts


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Meso-American civilization; Meso-American writing; Proto-writing like Olmec heads, symbolinc images of Chalcatzingo, Humboldt celt; fifteen writing systems, rudimentary as well as developed; complex pictures as glyphs; Media used; engraving on stone, painting on ceramics and codex; Zapotec, Epi-olmec, Aztec and Mixtec scripts; La Mojarra inscription; Mayan civilization and script; deciphering Mayan script – syllabic and logographic charts; difficulties in deciphering; Mayan number system and Mayan calendar; Dresden Codex; Sarcophagus of Pacal at Palenque

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Story of Scripts - Part 5 Meso-American Scripts

  1. 1. Meso-American Writing<br />
  2. 2. I was always fascinated by the Latin American civilizations. I cannot spell out what attracts me. I have no clear understanding of the history and geography of the region. May be my indistinct attraction is because the people there are called Indians and also is built over the impression I got from Hindu America? by Diwan Chamanlal. I come across with many stories once in a way, like the Mayan codices and the attempts at deciphering. Another fascinating feature is the name, of both places and people. Chalcatzingo, Kaminaljuyú – aren’t these quaint?<br />
  3. 3. During my study on the scripts of the word I came to know that Meso-America is one among the five ancient cultures that developed the art of writing. A fairly detailed study of the writing in this region gave me some idea of the civilization that was systematically obliterated by the Spanish invaders. <br /> My inquisitiveness of this otherwise unknown culture – unknown to me – resulted in this longest presentation.<br />
  4. 4. Meso-American writing was perhaps the result of the religious needs of the priest class. In this respect it was akin to the Egyptian. Among the ancient cultures under consideration, the Meso-American story can be begun from the beginning. I have attempted this from the proto-writing stages, as witnessed in the giant Olmec heads. By the way, the size of these Olmec heads, what a sculptural wonder!<br />
  5. 5. Considering rather small geographical area of mid-America, it is surprising there were as more than 15 writing systems in vogue. Though most of them were rather rudimentary, all of them shared certain common features. And some, like the Mayan, were fully developed. I have tried to give a sneak view of the range.<br />
  6. 6. The Mayan writing system consists of glyphs, that is, meaningful pictures. Their deciphering was the toughest for the researchers, and continues to be so. I have outlined some of the features that confound even the determined researchers. The attempt to understand the Mayan writing starts, ironically, with a man whose main aim was to destroy every Mayan book that was possible, with the list of words and sound prepared by Bishop Diego de Landa.<br />
  7. 7. All of us start from the known to the unknown. The early deciphering started likewise, thinking that Mayan would be alphabetic. And it wasn’t. This gave many people false starts. A host of researchers put in their effort, and in one sense, the search continues. But by the 1970s we have a far clearer picture.<br />
  8. 8. The Mayan writing available to us belongs to two categories. One of them is the glyphs on the monuments. They are connected with events in life, such as birth, accession, death, and so on of the dynastic rulers and this helped in deciphering syllabic signs. I am presenting a sample of this kind through the recently found sarcophagus of Pacal.<br /> The other is the vast body of material, called codices. The most famous is the Dresden Codex, an astronomy textbook that was written between 1200 and 1250 CE that records of the remarkable astronomical knowledge of the great Mayan civilization. Their record of solar eclipses may not really surprise us since other cultures had done this. But wouldn’t a table that covers 65 orbital cycles of Venus be an astonishing feat as this covers a time span of no less than 104 years? A page from the Dresden Codex will be found in my presentation. <br />
  9. 9. In this I am presenting an incomplete picture <br />of the ancient Mayan’s complicated mind. <br />
  10. 10. It would be difficult <br />to believe<br />that the squarish blocks <br />you see on the top row <br />and elsewhere <br />are actually writing.<br />These are <br />Meso-American glyphs.<br />We shall we <br />a few examples now.<br />
  11. 11.
  12. 12.
  13. 13. Meso-America is the area that covers today’s <br />Mexico and Central America. <br />
  14. 14. Meso-American Civilisation<br />Many are the vestiges of a very vibrant civilisation. <br />Among them are<br />its architectural wonders, like the pyramids,<br />and their scripts. <br />
  15. 15. Meso-American Civilisation<br />
  16. 16. Meso-American Writing<br />Writing in Mesoamerica dates from 1000 BCE. <br />But the script, in the way we understand, <br /> took shape by the 5th century BCE. <br />The earliest deciphered writing <br /> belongs to 150 CE.<br />As could be expected, it has features common <br />to all the literate cultures and some uniqueness.<br />
  17. 17. Proto-writing<br />Like it happened in Egypt, <br /> in the initial stages, writing was used for <br /> religious and political messages, and <br /> was divorced from the common people. <br />It all started, it looks, with the development of <br /> a highly elaborate and conventionalized <br /> system of symbols. <br />Symbols written or carved could be interpreted <br /> by any knowledgeable person.<br />
  18. 18. Proto Writing<br />Take the case of the colossal Olmec heads,<br /> perhaps, of the rulers. <br />The pattern on the helmet must be typical and was perhaps identifiable.<br />This must be their proto-writing.<br />
  19. 19. Proto Writing<br />Once a conventionalized set of symbols <br /> with specific meanings became established, <br /> combination of such symbols could convey <br /> more complicated ideas. <br />
  20. 20. Proto Writing<br />On the hillock of Chalcatzingo <br />are a number of carvings <br />in low relief. <br />One is El Ray (‘The King’) <br />
  21. 21. Proto Writing<br />The relief shows<br />a ‘king’ sitting in a cave<br />
  22. 22. Proto Writing<br />Proto Writing<br />The composition <br />perhaps conveys <br />the idea <br />the king (4) has access <br />to natural powers <br />such as clouds (1), <br />rain (3), wind and <br />growth of plants (2). <br />The relief shows<br />a ‘king’ sitting in a cave<br />In essence, this carving indicates <br />the ruler's right to rule because he, <br />and nobody else, can control the fertility of crops. <br />
  23. 23. Proto Writing<br />Combining certain symbols, <br />like these on <br />the Humboldt Celt (900 BC),<br />was another way of <br />communicating.<br />
  24. 24. Proto Writing<br />Symbol of ruler<br />Greeting the lord<br />Casting of corn<br />Four groups of symbols <br />perhaps worked together <br />to convey some message. <br />Royal head dress<br />The celt probably was a greeting from one ruler to another.<br />
  25. 25. Meso-American Writing Systems<br />About 15 distinct <br />writing systems <br />have been identified. <br />Most of them are <br />rudimentary and <br />highly pictorial. <br />Only Zapotec, Olmec and Maya consisted of extensive texts.<br />And these are the earliest too. <br />
  26. 26. Meso-American Writing Systems<br />However they share these common characteristics<br /> among others:<br /> Many characters are complex pictures<br /> The shape of the signs is squarish<br /> The numerical system had a base <br /> ‘twenty’ (vigesimal)<br />
  27. 27. Media used<br />Writing was <br /> carved into stone on the side of buildings, <br /> on the lintels over doorways, <br /> on wall panels and on stelae and altars <br /> (Maya, Zapaotec, Aztec)<br />
  28. 28. Media used<br />It was <br />painted on ceramics, <br />portable objects <br />made of stone, <br />bone or pottery <br />and on stucco walls <br />(Maya, Mixtec)<br />
  29. 29. Media used<br />It was painted <br />in color on codices<br />(Maya, Mixtec, Aztec) <br />
  30. 30. Mesoamerican Scripts<br />Now let us briefly look at<br />important Mesoamerican writings<br />
  31. 31. Mesoamerican Scripts<br />Zapotec<br />The earliest inscription is <br />Danzante from<br /> the Valley of Oaxaca <br /> depicting a captive. <br />It contains two glyphs.<br />Monument 3 <br />from San José Mogote, 500 BC<br />
  32. 32. Mesoamerican Scripts<br />Zapotec<br />These stone slabs display <br />a continuous text, <br />perhaps conveying <br />some abstract ideas, <br />calendrical as well as <br />non-calendrical. <br />Stelae 12 & 13 (500-200 BC)<br />
  33. 33. Mesoamerican Scripts<br />Epi-Olmec<br />The Olmec Indians, <br />developed a writing system <br />around the 1st century BC. <br />In their inscriptions <br />we get a reference to their era.<br />It starts from the Long Count, <br />representing <br />the year 3113 BCE.<br />Does this year have connection with our Kali Yuga, 3102 BCE?<br />
  34. 34. La Mojarra Inscription<br />A stone weighing about 4 tons was found in 1986.<br />Dated to 150 CE, this contains the earliest readable inscription of Mesoamerica.<br />
  35. 35. The figure depicted is Harvester Mountain Lord.<br />It describes ritual bloodletting, <br /> warfare and political intrigue.<br />
  36. 36. La Mojarra Inscription<br />The script is logo-phonetic. <br />The text is written vertically <br />around the figure. <br />
  37. 37. La Mojarra<br />Inscription<br />It starts in the middle <br />of the block and <br />is identified as column A. <br />The text continues on the left. <br />It returns to the middle, <br />resumes from column M and<br />proceeds towards the right. <br />
  38. 38. La Mojarra <br />Inscription<br />After exhausting <br />the space, <br />the text is written<br />in the central portion <br />around the figure <br />of the Lord. <br />(V, W, X, and Y). <br />
  39. 39. La Mojarra Inscription<br />We may decipher <br />Line A<br />of this inscription.<br />
  40. 40. La Mojarra Inscription<br />
  41. 41. Mesoamerican Scripts<br />Aztec & Mixtec<br />Both Mixtec and <br />Aztec writing <br />systems <br />were logographic, <br />consisting of <br />a combination of signs <br />and pictures. <br />
  42. 42. Mixtec Writing<br />The few surviving Mixtec manuscripts, <br /> written on deerskin and known as codices, <br /> allow us to trace the Mixtec script<br />to 940 CE. <br />
  43. 43. Mixtec Writing<br />This codex depicts warriors conquering a town.<br />This is surmised from the warriors’ drawn weapons (1)<br /> and the arrow piercing the hill (2).<br />The glyphs with dots (3) above may be names.<br />
  44. 44. Mayan Civilisation<br />At the height of their civilisation (200-900 CE), <br /> the Mayans had developed exceptionally <br /> advanced mathematical systems, <br /> achieving the use of zero and place notation.<br />They had also made great strides in astronomy. <br />Their astronomical tables and data <br /> have been found to be remarkably accurate. <br />
  45. 45. Mayan Civilisation<br />Their mathematics and <br />sophisticated calendric and astronomical systems <br /> were inextricably linked to their religion. <br />
  46. 46. Maya Writing System<br />Maya writing preserves a vast body of material <br /> and is the only fully enunciated <br /> phonetic Mesoamerican script.<br />As a representative of Mesoamerican writing<br /> the Mayan script is taken <br /> for a detailed discussion.<br />
  47. 47. Maya Writing System<br />The important period of Mayan writing <br /> can be divided into:<br />- Classical Period (200-900 CE)<br /> mostly inscriptions, and<br />- Post-Classic Period (900-1500 CE)<br /> mainly manuscripts<br />
  48. 48. Maya Writing System<br />There are many lengthy <br />narrative accounts inscribed <br />on buildings and slabs and <br />painted on ceramic vessels <br />and codices. <br />
  49. 49. Deciphering the Mayan Script<br />The history of the decipherment of <br /> the logo-phonetic Mayan script <br /> is long and has been eventful.<br />The quest started in the 16th century<br /> following the Spanish conquest,<br /> and was marked by major breakthroughs <br /> in the 1970s and 1980s.<br />
  50. 50. Mayan Script<br />Each sign in the Mayan script is a glyph.<br />Each glyph may represent <br /> an idea or a sound, or both.<br />That is, the script is logo-phonetic.<br />There is no alphabet in Mayan script.<br />
  51. 51. Mayan Script<br />Before we go further, let us have a look at samples of<br />the syllabic and the logographic charts<br />prepared by epigraphists.<br />This could help in following the later discussion<br />
  52. 52. A Sample Syllabic Chart<br />The most obvious feature <br />of the chart is <br />the large number of<br />variant signs for <br />a single sound.<br />For example,<br />cha has four versions.<br />This feature is known as <br />homophony.<br />
  53. 53. A Sample Logographic Chart<br />Here are shown <br />a few logograms,<br />signs signifying<br />an object or an idea.<br />
  54. 54. Mayan Number System<br />It is based on 20 (vigesimal)<br />
  55. 55. Numbers were placed vertically<br />They did not express fractions<br />
  56. 56. Deciphering Mayan Script<br />In 1566, the first bishop of Yucatan, Diego de Landa, <br />compiled a key to the Mayan syllabary <br />consisting of 27 Spanish letters and <br />the Mayan glyphs with similar sounds. <br />This was based on the wrong notion <br />that the script was alphabetic.<br />
  57. 57. But first major breakthrough was 1950s <br />when Yuri Valentinovich Knorosov (Russian) <br />proposed that the Mayan script was partly phonetic<br />Further progress was made during the 1970s and 1980s <br />
  58. 58. The Mayan script is logo-syllabic; <br /> 550 logograms (whole words) and <br /> 150 syllabograms (syllables)<br /> 100 glyphs representing place names and <br /> the names of gods <br />
  59. 59. Difficulties in deciphering<br />The Mayan language was unknown <br /> to the explorers in the 16th century.<br />But the speakers of the language today, <br /> helped with the vocabulary,<br /> though they could not read the glyphs.<br />But the diversity among the dialects of the language <br /> was vast.<br />Reading Mayan poses a number of problems<br />
  60. 60. A glyph may represent an idea, or a sound or both; <br />and there is no clue to these.<br />may represent<br /> - Cauac, a day’s name,<br /> - a 365-day year and <br /> pronouncedhaab,<br /> - syllable Cu<br /> - etc<br />For example, this glyph<br />
  61. 61. A word can be written in more than one way.<br />For example, the word, BALAM, meaning jaguar<br /> may be written as<br />a logogram for jaguar, or<br />using phonetic components<br />or, various combinations of the two<br />
  62. 62. Further, there are multiple glyphs for some sounds..<br />For example, <br />these are the four different glyphs <br />for the syllable CHA<br />and these are the three different glyphs <br />for the syllable BU<br />
  63. 63. To complicate further, the constituent symbols can be combined in a number of ways<br />There are four constituent symbols of Chum tun.<br />CHU<br />(logographic)<br />M<br />(phonetic)<br />TU<br />(logographic)<br />N<br />(phonetic)<br />1 2 3<br />Alternate glyphs<br />And all of them are equally acceptable<br />
  64. 64. It may be pointed out that <br />in Chinese too constituent symbols combine, <br />but strictly in a specific manner. <br />
  65. 65. The Spanish bishop was surprised <br />when for a word (really a sound) ‘le’<br />the Mayan prisoner wrote<br />This would be similar to <br />an Englishman writing weigh<br />when asked to write <br />வே<br />
  66. 66. We have similar situations in English too!<br />Homophony (variant signs for a single sound) in English<br />‘whey’, ‘weigh’ and ‘way’ <br /> are all pronounced the same way.<br />‘gh’ (in trough), ‘ph’ (graph) and ‘f’ <br /> have the same sound.<br />Polyphony (variant sounds for a single sign) in English<br />‘g’ and ‘c’ are pronounced in more than one way<br />And we don’t notice them!<br />
  67. 67. It is not, then, surprising that<br />that complete decipherment could have taken till 1980s.<br />
  68. 68. Mayan Calendar<br />The pyramid’s with<br />four stairways of 91 steps,<br />along with the platform <br />total 365, days in a uear<br />El Castillo, Chichen Itza, Mexico<br />Built in 1050 CE<br />
  69. 69. Aztec Calendar, an adaptation of the Mayan calendar<br />Consisting of a 365-day agricultural calendar, <br />as well as a 260-day sacred calendar <br />
  70. 70. The ancient Mayas had invented <br />a calendar of remarkable <br />accuracy and complexity. <br />
  71. 71. The Maya calendar uses <br />three different dating systems in parallel, <br /> a civil calendar of 365 days,<br /> a divine calendar of 260 days, and<br /> a Long Count, <br /> to denote an era of a large time span<br />
  72. 72. The successive units<br />finally leading to Long Count are: <br />starting from the basic unit, kin (day)<br /> a unial (20 days)<br /> a tun (18 uninals = 360 days; <br /> approx. I year)<br /> a katun (20 tuns = 7200 days; <br /> approx. 20 years)<br /> a baktun (20 katun = 144,000; <br /> approx. 394 years)<br /> a Long Count (13 baktuns; <br /> (approx. 5122 years) <br />It can be seen that it is mostly based on 20<br />
  73. 73. Baktun (13)<br />Unial (18)<br />Kin (20)<br />Katun (20)<br />Tun (20)<br />The beginning is calculated to fall on <br />13 Aug 3114 BC<br />and would be written as <br /><br />After (which falls on 20-12-2012) <br />it should be reset for the next day.<br />
  74. 74. It is not known yet the sigunificance of choosing<br />this beginning of Long Count, namely <br />13 Aug 3114 BCE.<br />But is very close to the brginning of<br />our Kali Yuga, which is an astronomical event, namely,<br />17 February 3102 BCE<br />Is there any significance?<br />
  75. 75. Deciphering the Mayan Script<br />We shall be taking two examples:<br />writing from a page of a codex and<br />inscriptions on a stone<br />
  76. 76. Codices<br />A codex means an ancient manuscript. <br />Mesoamerican codices are folded books. <br />The writing was done on fig bark paper <br /> bound in jaguar skin.<br />
  77. 77. Codices<br />They are sacred manuals <br /> in which are recorded crucial information <br /> used by the priests <br /> to interpret and influence unseen forces etc. <br />
  78. 78. Dresden Codex<br />The Dresden Codex was written <br /> between 1200 and 1250 CE.<br />It is one of three codices that escaped destruction <br /> by the Spanish conquistadors<br /> in the 16th century.<br />It turned up in Dresden, Germany, in the 1700s.<br />
  79. 79. Dresden Codex<br />The Dresden Codex contains complex<br /> astronomical calculations. <br />These are made using eclipses and <br /> movements of planet Venus,<br /> giving an astrological significance.<br />
  80. 80. Dresden Codex<br />The codex depicts a number of rituals and gods <br /> and matters connected with daily life<br /> such as agriculture. <br />
  81. 81. Codices<br />The codices look like <br />strip cartoons<br />about Mayan Gods, <br />Goddesses and <br />deified animals.<br />
  82. 82. Codices<br />Instead of being given <br />close to the figures,<br />the captions <br />are generally written <br />above the characters.<br />
  83. 83. Dresden Codex<br />Page 19 of the Dresden Codex<br />is taken for a brief discussion.<br />In codices, <br />above the portrait of each divinity<br />appears the glyph meaning its name<br />v<br />v<br />Young Moon Goddess<br />Young Moon Goddess glyph<br />
  84. 84. Dresden Codex<br />Death God<br />Death God glyph<br />
  85. 85. Dresden<br />Codex<br />Months<br />In this part of the page five dates are given. <br />The months are shown on the left, <br />and the numerals <br />required for calculations are given on the right. <br />
  86. 86. Sarcophagus of Pacal at Palenque<br />One of the breakthroughs in the decipherment of <br />the Mayan script took place in 1952 <br />with the discovery of a sarcophagus of a ruler, <br />named Pacal (603-683 CE), <br />a discovery that can stand comparison <br />with the discovery of Tomb of Tutankhamun.<br />Let us follow the decipherment briefly.<br />
  87. 87. Temple of Inscription at Palenque<br />The temple is found in the most beautifully conceived <br />of the Mayan city-states, Palenque<br />and one of the loveliest archaeological sites in the world. <br />
  88. 88. The sarcophagus in it covered the remains of the Maya ruler. <br />The pit contained <br />a bounty of treasure <br />that included <br />life-size jade mosaic mask of the king. <br />
  89. 89. Sarcophagus of Pacal <br />A giant slab of stone <br />covered the remains of Pacal.<br />The carving on it <br />is also a work of art.<br />
  90. 90. Sarcophagus of Pacal<br />The ruler is shown falling down <br />the Great Trunk of the World Tree<br />
  91. 91. Sarcophagus of Pacal <br />at Palenque<br />Pacal is falling down the great<br />Trunk of the World Tree<br />from the celestial bird (heaven)<br />into the open jaws<br />of the Other World.<br />He is accompanied by a monster <br />carrying a bowl of sacrifice. <br />
  92. 92. Sarcophagus of Pacal <br />at Palenque<br />One can see five glyphs<br />on the border,<br />important participants <br />in the Mayan lore,<br />like sun, moon, <br />day, night etc.<br />
  93. 93. Sarcophagus of Pacal <br />There are glyphs on the bottom edge <br />that helped in deciphering the Mayan script.<br />
  94. 94. Sarcophagus of Pacal<br />There are eight signs representing <br />various numerals and names of days and months. <br /> 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8<br />Experts have found these <br />to be the dates of birth and death of the buried.<br />
  95. 95. Sarcophagus of Pacal<br />Let us try to read the glyphs.<br />8 Ahau<br />(a date)<br />13 Pop<br />(a date)<br />6 Etznab<br />(a date)<br />11 Yax<br />(a date)<br />80 <br />years<br />Hand<br />Sheild<br />Birth<br />Death<br /> Birth date<br /> Death date & Age<br /> Name <br />These second dates are according to Long Count, <br />similar to our Christian Era<br />
  96. 96. Sarcophagus of Pacal<br />8 Ahau<br />(a date)<br />13 Pop<br />(a date)<br />6 Etznab<br />(a date)<br />11 Yax<br />(a date)<br />80 <br />years<br />Hand<br />Sheild<br />Birth<br />Death<br /> Birth date<br /> Death date & Age<br /> Name <br />The inscription shows that the ruler, called Hand-Shield,<br />was born on the 26th March 603 and died at the age of 80<br />on the 31st August 683 (dates correlated to the Christian era).<br />
  97. 97. Finally, let me attempt to select the glyphs <br /> which might sound like my name<br />S(a) wa mi na t(h)a n(a)<br />
  98. 98. That was a civilisation, <br />violent and superstitious, but<br />that made great strides in <br />art and architecture <br />mathematics and astronomy.<br />It has left behind huge monuments<br />comparable to the Egyptian pyramids<br />and enormous secrets for us to fathom,<br />while exploring new dimensions in<br />written communication.<br />