Hieroglyphic Language

One of the greatest accomplishments of Maya civilization is a complex writing system, which archaeologists call hieroglyphs.

Much like our own writing, the Maya used hieroglyphs to record the important events in their history. But the Maya didn’t only write on paper. In fact, most of the hieroglyphs archaeologists recover are sculpted onto large stone monuments called stelae (“Stone Trees” in Mayan). Hieroglyphs are also found on pottery, jewelry, and paper books called a codex.

A hieroglyph is a picture or symbol that means something. It could mean a word or a sound. A hieroglyph that means one whole word is a logograph; one that is only a sound (syllable) or part of a word is a phoneme.

Hieroglyphs represent images from the Maya world. Sometimes these are pictures of people, animals, or plants, other times they represent important symbols from Maya religion.

Maya writing does not tell us a complete story of the Maya. Most stelae tell about the lives of rulers, including when they were born, where they were from, who they were married to, and sometimes who they fought in war. Like a history book, these stories are usually very specific about dates, places and the names of peoples involved. Archaeologists have been studying hieroglyphs for many years, but can only read about 60 percent of all the hieroglyphs found!

The study and translation of hieroglyphs is called Epigraphy. Epigraphers study ancient hieroglyphs and modern Mayan languages to try to understand Maya writing.

Even though epigraphers and archaeologists do not know about the beginnings of Maya writing, we do know that other Mesoamerican Civilizations had writing systems. But, the Maya writing system is the best known.

The first hieroglyphs date to around 100 AD. Hieroglyphs were used for over 1500 years until the Spanish arrived on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico.