What was Maya writing like?
The Maya were the only civilization in the Americas to develop a fully-fledged writing system just like ours. Glyphs were read from left to right and top to bottom in paired columns.
Their hieroglyphic script can be seen on carved stone stelae, door lintels and on painted murals and ceramics.
There are over 800 signs, but only half of them have been deciphered. One of the reasons for this is that the Maya have many different ways of spelling a word that makes it very confusing for us!
An example is the word King – we have just one spelling for King, K-i-n-g – whereas the Maya word for King was Ajaw and it could be spelt in at least 6 different ways!
Only the elites could write and so you can imagine that writing concerned elite activities – the calendar and life histories of rulers, such as their birth, death, marriage, warfare and conquests.
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.
These codices give us an insight into other aspects of Maya life. They include astronomical tables used for predicting solar and lunar eclipses as well as the movement of the planets, Venus and Mars.
There is also mention of planting and tending their crops, caring for the stingless bees they raised for their honey and making offerings of incense or cacao.