Over the past 50 years, an increasingly significant part of our understanding of Classic Period (A.D. 250-900) Maya society has derived from the study of Maya hieroglyphics. Scholars now recognize that Maya scribes used a mixed phonetic and iconographic system of writing to record elite exploits, document royal lineages and inscribe artifacts with ownership statements. Defined by linguists as full writing, Maya hieroglyphics represent a system of graphic symbols that could be used to record and convey any thought that could be spoken.

Deciphering the texts painted on polychrome pottery has revealed information regarding the function, geographic and social origin of particular vessels and provided insight into Maya beliefs and the nature of elite interactions. In the process of examining these ceramic texts, epigraphers have divided the painted signs into two categories: (1) conventional hieroglyphs that can be phonetically read and translated into meaningful words or phrases, and (2) symbols described as "pseudo-glyphs" because they do not conform to the established canons of glyph morphology (Longyear 1944, 1952). With National Science Foundation support, this study seeks to define more clearly the nature of literacy for members of Classic Period Maya society by documenting and examining a large sample of scientifically-excavated ceramics decorated with pseudo-glyphs. This study will emphasize both archaeological context and glyphic analysis to assess the social function and significance of pseudo-glyph-decorated pottery.

After creating a comprehensive photographic database of vessels curated in Guatemala by the Museo de Antropologia e Ethnologia, the Ceramateca of the Instituto de Antropologia e Historia and the Morley Museum, and vessels from various in-process field projects, this study seeks to establish whether pseudo-glyphs, like conventional pottery texts, form a written symbol system that conveys meaning. Statistical and comparative analysis of the texts should reveal what pseudo-glyphs, if any, are consistently employed or combined and whether pseudo-glyphs exhibit a grammar. Additionally, comparing the vessels excavated from different locations may reveal whether pseudo-glyphs functioned stylistically to signal ethnic, gender, kinship, or economic identity. For example, does pseudo-glyph embellished pottery appear most frequently in household or lower-status contexts? Or is there an indication that such pottery appears disproportionately at a particular site or group of sites?

By creating the first database of scientifically-excavated Maya ceramics that are embellished with pseudo-glyphs, this research will form a foundation for future interpretations of the nature of Maya literacy during the Classic Period. More broadly, this analysis may be cross-culturally compared with the uses of writing in other societies.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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John E. Yellen
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University of Colorado at Boulder
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