Alfred Maudslay’s insight

While skimming through Alfred Maudslay’s memoir, A Glimpse at Guatemala (1899), I came across this interesting paragraph (p. 255) from his chapter devoted to “The Hieroglyphic Inscriptions,” where he briefly characterizes the nature of the script:

An attempt was . . . made by Landa to construct an alphabet and to give a short example of phonetic writing; but in this he was not successful, for whatever phonetic value the glyphs may possess was probably of a syllabic and not of an alphabetic character, and Landa’s alphabet has proved to be to students almost as great a puzzle as the hieroglyphics themselves (emphasis added).

Maudslay’s passing statement about the “syllabic . . .character” of Maya writing was never followed up directly, of course. His lost insight reminds me of Charles Bowditch’s reasoned statements about the historical nature of inscriptions at Piedras Negras, published just a few years after Maudslay’s book and which anticipated Proskouriakoff’s work by more than five decades. Oddly, neither idea took root in those very early days of Maya glyph research.

One thought on “Alfred Maudslay’s insight

  1. Ulli Wölfel December 23, 2007 / 5:34 PM

    While reading the book “The Hill-Caves of Yucatan” by Henry C. Mercer (from 1896) I came across a similar passage, in which the author discusses the superiority of Mayan Writing over the Mexican or Peruvian systems:
    “[…] the Mayas, like the Egyptians, had proceeded beyond pictures to hieroglyphs, where symbols more or less arbitrarily stand for words or syllables, and the mind prepares itself to invent an alphabet” (p. 73)

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