Of Codes, Glyphs and Kings: Tasks, Limits and Approaches in the Encoding of Classic Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions

Talk: Christian Prager (Uni Bonn), “New Approaches in Digital Epigraphy – Of Codes, Glyphs and Kings: Tasks, Limits and Approaches in the Encoding of Classic Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions”.

Permalink: http://hdl.handle.net/11858/00-1780-0000-002C-69A3-C

Date: Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Time: starting at 17:00 c.t. (i.e. 17:15)

Venue: TOPOI Building Dahlem, Hittorfstraße 18 D-14195 Berlin (map)


Maya writing is a semi-­deciphered logographic­-syllabic system with approximately 10,000 text carriers discovered in sites throughout Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras (300 B.C. to A.D. 1500). It is one of the most significant writing traditions of the ancient world. As a graphic manifestation of language, writing mediatizes human thought, communication, and cultural knowledge in the form of texts. Deciphering a script allows ideas, values, conceptions, and believes to be reconstructed, and thus permits insight into the memory of past communities. In order to achieve this, the writing system and the spoken language that underlies it must be known. For Classic Mayan, this breakthrough in decipherment has already been achieved; however, in spite of great progress made in recent decades, some 40% of the script’s more than 800 signs remain unreadable even today. One reason for this situation is their lack of systematic attestation. Even in cases in which the signs are legible, texts may still elude understanding, because the Classic Mayan language itself has not survived; instead, it can only be reconstructed through comparison of the 30 Mayan languages documented since European conquest and still spoken today. However, much pre-Hispanic Mayan cultural vocabulary has been lost in the aftermath of European colonization. Consequently, comprehensive documentation and decipherment of the approximately 10,000 extant hieroglyphic texts, reconstruction of the language that they record, and documentation of that language in a dictionary are necessary prerequisites for acquiring a deeper understanding of Classic Maya culture, history, religion, and society.

The subject of the project “Text Database and Dictionary of Classic Mayan” is an incompletely deciphered, complex writing system, which the project aims to decipher with the aid of digital tools and to describe its underlying language in a dictionary. For these purposes, the hieroglyphic texts are being made machine-readable and saved in a text database with analysis and commentary. In addition, the Classic Mayan language is being represented in its original orthography in a web-based dictionary, allowing users to compare the content with its analysis. Until now, no project in the realm of digital writing systems research has demonstrated comparable standards, goals, and qualifications, or could serve as a model for conceptualizing and developing our database. When developing their databases, research projects in Greek, Latin, or ancient Egyptian epigraphy are not faced with the same challenge of their respective writing systems and the corresponding languages being only partially or not at all deciphered. The project’s goal is to use the digital tools currently under development to compile and register newly classified signs in sign lists, make the texts machine-readable, discern readings, and document the vocabulary in its original orthography. The innovative character of our project requires flexible management when developing the digital infrastructure and deploying financial resources, as well as methodical ground work to develop working concepts that will be useful over the long term. The project’s outcomes will ultimately include the development of new tools, methods, and standards in digital research on ancient writing systems and even the digital humanities as a whole, in addition to the content it produces about the Maya script.

The project’s emphases on digital epigraphy, database development, and long-term and interoperable storage of research data in particular underscore the great significance of the digital humanities for such an innovative undertaking. Yet the project will also contribute pioneering work to computer-based research on writing systems, and will develop methods and standards that will benefit other areas of research. To this end, it is co-operating with the Göttingen State and University Library (Niedersächsischen Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek; SUB), which represents the project’s the informatics and information technological capacities. The project is assuming an interdisciplinary stance and operates at the intersection between applied informatics and the humanities.