Professor speaks of deciphering Mayan writing at annual lecture

By Rochelle McConkie

The world of anthropology is constantly evolving because all it takes is one find to really change everything, said David Stuart at a lecture Monday.

Stuart, a renowned anthropologist and professor at the University of Texas at Austin, spoke in the Rufus Wood Leigh Lecture-the annual lecture series sponsored by the U department of anthropology and the Utah Museum of Natural History.

Stuart addressed the topic “Deciphering the Earliest Maya Writing,” relating his experiences and research involving recent discoveries of Mayan writing in Mesoamerica.

The lecture was held in honor of the late Charles Elliot Dibble, who taught anthropology at the U and was known for his expertise in Mesoamerican and Aztec studies and his extensive work in translating the Florentine Codex.

John McCullough, chairman of the Leigh Lecture Committee and U anthropology professor, said, “We wanted a lecture that honored (Dibble) with someone of his caliber-Dr. Stuart is of his caliber.”

Visiting ancient Mayan sites at age 3 and deciphering Mayan writing at 8, Stuart had an early start in his research.

While teaching at Harvard in 2001, Stuart said, his research in deciphering Mayan hieroglyphs picked up speed. He sent one of his graduate students, William Saturno, to the “middle of nowhere” with only a GPS system, and Saturno literally stumbled into ancient Mayan ruins in San Bartolo, Guatemala.

After walking through the forest for three days, running out of water and low on supplies, Saturno came to Las Pinturas, a Mayan pyramid with a tunnel dug out by looters.

Saturno said he “climbed into the tunnel to die,” Stuart said. Looking up from the floor, Saturno saw a Mayan mural, dating as far back as 100 B.C.-nearly four centuries older than the earliest Mayan stele that had been found, which dated to about A.D. 292.

The mural included a depiction of the Mayan creation of the world, showing the maize god and the creation of corn through pictures and Mayan hieroglyphs. Saturno immediately sent pictures of the mural back to Stuart, who began studying them immediately.

Dating from the pre-classic era, the San Bartolo find challenged the idea that Mesoamerican writing was significant to certain areas in particular periods of time. Until this discovery, most Mayan writing dated from the classic period, from A.D. 250 to 800.

Although not all Mayan writing can be read, Stuart has been able to decipher the hieroglyphs by reading them phonetically. Recent finds, however, have proven difficult to decipher because there is nothing to compare them to. “The only way we can understand the text is to understand it relative to other Maya languages,” Stuart said.

Thursday, a Cascajal block was discovered near San Lorenzo, Mexico, containing writing from the ancient Olmec civilization. The writing dated back to almost 1000 B.C., making it the earliest Mesoamerican writing ever found.

“Over the last three years, our understanding of Mesoamerican writing has completely changed by almost 1,000 years,” Stuart said.

News of this discovery prompted many U students to attend Monday’s lecture.

Justin Tackney, a first-year graduate student in anthropology, said, “I have a strong background in classics, and I’m interested in Mesoamerican culture. With the new inscriptions found a few days ago, I wanted to see this.”