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Maya Hieroglyphs
In this exercise you will work with some Classic period Maya inscriptions from Piedras Negras, a major Classic
Maya center. The goal of this exercise is for you to identify patterns in the dates on these inscriptions and to
use these patterns to try to identify the significance of the inscriptions. The same data you have in this exercise
was used by real Maya scholars to make major breakthroughs in deciphering Maya writing.
These monuments form a continuous series, erected every five tuns (one hatun). (In one case there were two
monuments marking the end of the hatun). Each monument contains at least one date, written using the Maya
Long Count we’ve talked about in class. Information about these monuments and their inscriptions is
organized in the following way:
Page 2 contains a description of each monument and the figure or scene carved on it, when that information is
available. There are three kinds of monuments: stelae, “altars” (which were probably not really used as altars),
and thrones.
Some monuments show the “ascension motif” so named because of the ladder and footprints that seem to
depict the principal figure’s climb up to the platform or throne where he sits. Some show warriors, sometimes
with prisoners. Others show figures seated on thrones. Others show standing figures, but without the shields,
spears, and hatchets that identify the warriors. Page 3 shows examples of the “ascension motif” and a warrior
with prisoner.
A map of Piedras Negras is included on Page 4 to show where each of the monuments you are working on was
Page 5 has the standardized versions of glyphs for numbers, dates, and three other important glyphs.
Pages 6, 7, and 8 show a simplified version of some of the Long Count dates carved on these monuments.
Every monument has an initial series date, which indicates when it was carved. Some have, in addition, a date
associated with the “vulture” glyph and/or a date associated with the “fish head” glyph. All the monuments
are listed in chronological order according to their initial series dates.
Your essay should describe the patterns you see in this series of monuments, and make some educated
guesses about what they commemorate, who the figures were, and what the “vulture” and “fish head” glyphs
signify. In addition, your essay should answer the following questions, which will help you think through this
problem. I recommend that you work your way through them, getting a clear answer to each one before you
move onto the next.
1. On what date in the Gregorian calendar (the one we use) does this series of monuments begin? End?
2. How would you divide this series of monuments into groups of related monuments (Look at their
locations in the site and at the earlier dates they mention). How many years are spanned by each
3. How many different dates are associated with the “vulture” glyph? The “fish head” glyph? How do
these dates relate to the dates of the monuments on which they are mentioned?
4. How many years separate the earliest date mentioned in each group of monuments from the carving
of the latest monument in the group? What do such lengths of time seem to correspond to?
5. How does all this relate to the scenes depicted in relief carving on the fronts of the monuments?

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