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Time Line of Decipherment

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1981

1981
In their own words

Before all the glyphs could be read aloud in the original Maya, researchers needed to complete Yuri Knorosov's phonetic decipherment. This began in 1981 when 15-year-old budding Mayanist David Stuart (above, with Linda Schele) discovered that individual Maya words could be written in multiple ways, using different symbols for the same sounds, as in "faze" and "phase." Eric Thompson's theory had been that the Maya wrote in rebus, in which symbols are used for whole words. A modern rebus of the phrase "I can see" might include pictures of an eye, a tin can, and the sea. While some glyphs can indeed be read this way, Stuart's finding—that any symbol with the correct beginning sound can be used to identify that sound in a word glyph—is also true. As a result, a single glyph could be drawn in dozens of ways. With this revelation, scholars could now read many glyphs once considered indecipherable.


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