The Maya Writing System

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The Maya were the only civilization in the Americas to develop a fully-fledged writing system. Their hieroglyphic script (800 signs, half of them deciphered) can be seen on carved stone stelae, door lintels and on painted murals and ceramics.

Writing was often inked in codices; screen-fold books of bark paper, bound with jaguar skin. Spanish colonial authorities burned almost all of them; only four are known to have survived. The surviving books are full of astronomical and calendrical information.

Writing concerned the calendar and life histories of rulers, such as their birth, death, marriage, warfare and conquest. The Maya writing system is logosyllabic, which means that some signs indicate meaning and some signs represent sounds. Glyphs were read from left to right and top to bottom in paired columns.

Offerings to deities to protect the stingless bees –


Download – Maya writing lesson plan

Download – Maya stelae powerpoint

Further activities and resources

  • The FAMSI website has a teacher guidebook and also a booklet entitled a non-technical introduction to Maya glyphs.  This is an excellent guide showing how to write your name in Maya hieroglyphs, simple sentences and includes information on the Maya calendar and numbers
  • The Maya had emblem glyphs for their cities, much as football teams have insignia.  Using examples from the FAMSI booklet, students can make their own emblem glyph using the attributes of their town.
  •  Stelae were carved standing stones that represented the major events in a ruler’s life, such as accession to the throne, marriage, conquest and so on.  Using the booklet students can draw their own stelae and record important events in their lives.
  • Show the NOVA documentary ‘Lost Kingdoms of the Maya’, which includes a tour with David Stuart (a Maya epigrapher) around Copan. Copan has a stairway of 62 steps, each 10 m wide, which contain some 2,200 individual glyphs, the longest of all Maya hieroglyphic texts, representing the major rulers of the Copan dynasty.  Students can make their own hieroglyphic stairway concerning events of their family’s lives or the town in which they live.
  • For the Maya, writing and painting were virtually identical and within the glyphs themselves there is a strong link between text and picture.  Ask pupils to try and decipher the lintel from Tikal above (  Various dates are mentioned that pupils should be able to pick out.
  • A great resource is the NOVA documentary ‘Cracking the Maya Code’. The documentary includes a timeline of decipherment and an interactive with the mural of San Bartolo. The website also has a great example of how to read a stela.  After watching the video on San Bartolo students can make their own mural either on own or collectively about themselves or their town.  The mural should reflect life and events in their town.  Photos of the Mural
  • Show the presentation on the codices from the Maya Codices database.  Discuss what is represented in the codices, the animals, people and objects. What numbers are there? Ask pupils to paint their own manuscript on what they did during the holidays and then tell the class as part of a story-telling session.  You can then compile all the manuscripts and make one codex, which you can display as a book.
  • How Maya Hieroglyphs are Written – Demonstration. Expert decipherer and calligrapher Dr Mark Van Stone explains how Maya hieroglyphs are constructed by writing a modern name in glyphs. His website includes a discussion on the end of the world. After watching the video students can try their hand at writing their own name in glyphs, or rather what they think their own name would look like in Maya hieroglyphs
  • Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University. This site lists all the Yaxchilan lintels (which are displayed in the British Museum) as well as others, explaining the details of the scene with both a drawing and photo of each lintel.

Further Reading 

  • Breaking the Maya Code: Michael Coe. Thames and Hudson. 1992.  History of the decipherment of Maya hieroglyphics.
  • Reading the Maya Glyphs: Michael Coe and Mark Van Stone. Thames and Hudson. 2001. Guide that will enable students with no previous training in Maya epigraphy or archaeology to read and understand commonly encountered Classic Maya texts.  Also fully covered are descriptions of the nature of the script, the Maya calendar, dynastic and political texts and aspects of the natural and supernatural world in which they lived.



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