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Deciphering the Maya: Scholars, students and enthusiasts meet to unravel clues to an ancient civilization

Each year millions of tourists travel to Mexico’s Yucatán to visit the ruins of Chichén Itzá. For many, Chichén Itzá offers a first glimpse into the world of the Maya, the most advanced ancient civilization on the American continent. The grandeur of its buildings and the mysterious beauty of the hieroglyphic inscriptions that adorn them inevitably stagger the visitor. And the treacherous climb to the top of Chichén Itzá’s central pyramid offers a view of the world that the Maya inhabited for thousands of years—dense jungle populated by jaguars, iguanas and myriad birds, and scattered with temples and religious structures.

The Temple of the Warriors and Group of the Thousand Columns at Chichen Itza
The Temple of the Warriors and Group of the Thousand Columns at Chichén Itzá reveal the impressive scale of the ancient city.

More than 500 people will gather this month at The University of Texas at Austin to expand their view of Chichén Itzá and the Maya world at the annual Maya Meetings at Texas. The 10-day conference is widely recognized as the most important such meeting in the world, bringing the foremost scholars in Maya studies—archaeologists, epigraphers, art historians, anthropologists and others—together with students, contemporary Maya people from Mexico and Guatemala and Maya enthusiasts of many backgrounds.

This year’s meetings run March 6 through March 15, and the focus is on Chichén Itzá and its neighbors, including the nearby site of Ek Balam, where important discoveries have been made in the past five to 10 years. Participants will hear about the latest findings in Maya studies, and they’ll also be treated to the energetic, even chaotic atmosphere that has long made the Maya Meetings so exciting.

Only here can a retired businessman with an interest in the Maya pore over a hieroglyphic inscription with a key epigrapher in the field. At the same time, experts in the late pre-classic period may be seated around a table brainstorming together. Beginners may be struggling through decoding their first hieroglyph. The Maya Meetings are a place where anything can happen.

“It’s like making a soup, and you just start throwing things in and heating it up, and it begins to boil and takes on a flavor of its own,” says Peter Keeler, who directs the Maya Meetings. “This is an important part of why we’ve had so many important breakthroughs in understanding here, because everybody’s welcome, and everybody’s ideas are welcome. It’s a full-fledged interaction.”

The Maya Meetings are organized by the Center for the History of Ancient American Art and Culture (CHAAAC, a name chosen because of its similarity to the Maya rain god Chaak) in the College of Fine Arts. They were created in 1977 as the Maya Hieroglyphic Workshops by the late Linda Schele (pronounced SHEE-lee), a professor in the Department of Art and Art History, who until her death in 1998 was considered the greatest Maya scholar in the world.

A typical Maya hieroglyph, carved in stone
This typical hieroglyph, carved in stone, shows the artistic qualities of the Maya writing system.

Schele permanently changed the field of Maya studies by working with others to decipher the hieroglyphic language that unlocked the history of the Maya. Moreover, her warm personality, accessible books and inclusive approach to scholarship inspired countless others to study the Maya.

“She was the most down-to-earth and exuberant, natural person you could meet,” says Dr. Julia Kappelman. “She was also a genius.”

Schele approached her career with the sense of a quest. In 1970, she was teaching art at the University of South Alabama and was what she described as “a fair to middling painter” when she and her husband took a Christmas trip to Mexico. What was meant to be a two-hour visit to the ruins at Palenque in Chiapas turned into a 12-day visit, which fueled a lifelong passion.

In the film “Edgewalker: A Conversation with Linda Schele,” Schele explains that as an artist, she had “built up an anticipation of what it would be like to see a society in which art is central to its existence instead of peripheral as it is to us.”

“When I walked into Palenque I saw what I had anticipated,” she says, “and I saw that kind of dream materialized into a real place, and I became obsessed with trying to understand who had done it and why.”

At the time that Schele visited Palenque, scholars still believed that the cryptic hieroglyphic language decorating Maya buildings had nothing to do with Maya history. But in 1973, at a small conference dedicated to Maya art and culture at Palenque, Schele and scholar Peter Mathews deciphered a major section of the Palenque king list. They had rediscovered the history of the city that had been forgotten for 1,000 years, and they had demonstrated that the hieroglyphs were historic in nature. It was a stunning achievement.

Linda Schele's drawing of a tablet showing Janaab Pakal, Palenque's most famous king
Linda Schele’s drawing of a tablet showing Janaab Pakal, Palenque’s most famous king, receiving a headdress from his mother. He sits on a double-headed jaguar bench. The hieroglyphs in the tablet name both figures.

It was the first of many. For the next 25 years, Schele worked with others to decode the hieroglyphs, and a new story of the Maya emerged. Previously mythologized as a civilization of pacifists and stargazers, the Maya were actually a people of great pageantry. They relished bloodletting, be it in battle, sacrifice, or on the playing field, and they were very much concerned with war. Their world was organized into warring city-states, and their writing speaks of dynastic struggle, marriage politics and the creation of the universe.

In her many articles, essays and co-written books, Schele made this world accessible to the public. She never forgot how when she first fell in love with the Maya, she was welcomed into the fold without any scholarly background, and she was committed to maintaining that sense of inclusiveness. She also enthusiastically welcomed collaboration.

“I cannot describe to you,” she wrote, “the sheer joy of working with colleagues who follow different approaches…agreeing about many things, combining ideas and data, debating, playing together until a new kind of understanding emerges from the collaboration that would never come from any one of us alone.”

Her spirit of collaboration and inclusiveness is very much alive at the Maya Meetings, where the varied mix of people and expertise is unlike anyplace else.

The meetings begin on March 6 with the two-day Texas Symposium featuring scholarly talks for a general audience by key scholars in the field of Maya studies. On the evening of March 7, Mathews will give an introductory public lecture “Introducing Maya Glyphs,” which will provide an introduction to the weekend Hieroglyphic Forum.

This year’s forum will consist of 12 hours of lectures, with comment and discussion from the audience. The Long Workshops that follow from March 10 to 15 are designed to provide an intensive hands-on experience in deciphering real glyph texts. While beginners may decode their first texts ever, scholars may be meeting in think-tanks and breaking new ground in the field.

Schele teaches contemporary Maya people how to read hieroglyphs
By teaching contemporary Maya people how to read hieroglyphs, Schele tried to “give back to them the tools they need to recover their past.”
Photo: David Schele

When Schele died of pancreatic cancer in 1998 after teaching at the university for 18 years, her work had made the Department of Art and Art History the primary place in the world to study Mesoamerican art and Maya hieroglyphic writing. To ensure the continuation of what she had begun, Schele and her husband generously established the financial groundwork for the Linda and David Schele Chair in Mesoamerican Art and Writing in the College of Fine Arts. That position is held today by CHAAAC Director Nikolai Grube.

CHAAAC itself was established in 2000 with a gift from William and Bettye Nowlin, who also issued a challenge grant to encourage others to support the program. CHAAAC is sponsoring the excavation of several important temple-pyramids at the Maya site of Palenque, a project being directed by University of Texas at Austin graduate student Alfonso Morales. In addition, CHAAAC helps coordinate the J.D. Sibley Family Conference on World Traditions of Art and Culture. This year’s conference in November will focus on Peru’s Moche civilization, an area of specialty for CHAAAC’s Dr. Steve Bourget.

As well as sponsoring the Maya Meetings that Schele pioneered in 1977, CHAAAC continues to support her other work, including her goal of bringing discoveries about the Maya hieroglyphs to contemporary Maya people.

Palace at Palenque
The Palace at Palenque, with a view of the courtyards and “houses” that make up the complex.

Although people tend to think of the Maya as a lost civilization, there are still more than 10 million people living in Mexico and Guatemala who are ethnically Maya. While some are scholars, teachers, lawyers or modern professionals of all sorts, many live in ways little different from how their ancestors lived, in thatch-roofed structures with walls of wood poles and mud. They often have corn, the sacred grain and a staple in their diet, planted near the house, and practice rituals descended directly from those practiced a few thousand years ago.

But while they still speak Maya languages, contemporary Maya were until recently unable to read Maya writing. At the invitation of indigenous Maya academics in Guatemala, Schele and colleagues, including Nikolai Grube, organized 13 Hieroglyphic Workshops in Guatemala and Mexico between 1988 and 1997. For the first time in history, Maya could read and ultimately write using the hieroglyphic inscriptions of their ancestors. Through CHAAAC, Grube and others, including university graduate students, continue that work.

Maya hieroglyphic writing is now part of the curriculum in Maya schools. Maya newspapers and publications spell headlines and titles in Maya hieroglyphics as well as roman letters, and children have learned to write their names using the Maya writing system.

Most important, learning their writing system has given the Maya the tools to recover and reclaim their history.

“The Maya are people who have had their history and mental sovereignty ripped away from them and kept away from them for 500 years,” Schele said, “and it is a basic human right to control your own history.”

Each year, CHAAAC brings a group of contemporary Maya to the Maya Meetings, where they can interact with participants and be part of the dialogue about their own ancestral culture. Friendships are forged and world views are expanded.

Expanding our view of the world was one of Schele’s driving forces and propels those at CHAAAC today. With their grand temples, incredible art work and rich culture, it’s clear why the Maya capture the imagination. But uncovering clues to the Maya also offers us a chance to view the world from an alternative perspective. And working through that perspective not only offers a better picture of the Maya, but also of ourselves.

“To me history is not a fixed set of events,” Schele said. “History is a changing relationship between events of the past and living people. That’s why we have to write it over and over and over again, because our relationship to the past is under continual change. But without that past, we don’t know who we are.”

[For more information about the 2003 Maya Meetings at The University of Texas at Austin, visit the Maya Meetings Web site or call 512-471-6292.]

Vivé Griffith

Images of hieroglyph, Palenque and Schele drawing
courtesy Linda Schele Archives at the
Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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