Time Line of Decipherment

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Giant steps—and missteps

By the 1930s, British researcher Eric Thompson was the world's foremost expert in glyph studies. His achievements included deciphering signs related to the calendar and astronomy as well as identifying new words from the Maya lexicon. Thompson also developed a numerical cataloguing technique, the "T"-numbering system, for each glyph (above). This enabled experts to easily discuss symbols that had yet to be fully understood or identified. Nevertheless, glyph studies nearly came to a halt during this time, in large part because Thompson had most scholars convinced that each of the symbols in glyphs stood for entire words or ideas. For instance, the glyph for "west" included a well-known symbol for the sun and an as-yet unidentified symbol depicting a nearly closed hand. Thompson suggested that the hand meant "completion." And so "west," where the sun sets, was symbolized by "completion of the sun." It was a reasonable guess, but one that, along with Thompson's more general take on the glyphs, would be proven wrong.

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