Pre-Mayan hieroglyphics deciphered Ancient monument yields king's tale

March 23, 1993|By John Noble Wilford | John Noble Wilford,New York Times News Service

There once was a warrior by the name of Harvest Mountain Lord. He lived in a hot, humid land by the bend in a river that flowed into another river that ran to the sea. Many were the battles he fought and the blood rituals he endured, for this warrior was ruler of the people by the bend in the river.

The exploits of this warrior-king who lived 1,800 years ago -- perhaps another culture's King Arthur -- were recorded in hieroglyphics carved on a stone monument, or stela, found in 1986 in the Mexican state of Veracruz. On the face of the stela are a full-figure portrait of a richly attired man and a lengthy text telling of his rise to kingship through several years of warfare and elaborate accession rites presided over by a shaman.

Archaeologists had felt sure that this could be one of the most JTC important pre-Columbian monuments ever found. But they knew nothing of the story it told because they could not read the strange script.

Now they can. An archaeologist and a linguist have for the first time deciphered the ancient writing system called epi-Olmec. They determined that it was closely related to ancient Mayan writing, which has only recently been deciphered itself, and could be descended from the obscure hieroglyphics of the Olmecs, a pre-Mayan people who developed one of the earliest major civilizations in the Americas.

Reporting in the journal Science, archaeologist Dr. John S. Justeson of the State University of New York at Albany and linguist Dr. Terrence Kaufman of the University of Pittsburgh said that, from evidence in the text, the basalt monument has been dated at A.D. 159, making it the earliest artifact to be deciphered anywhere in the Americas.

The Olmecs were a particularly enigmatic people, known today mainly through their distinctive sculpture of huge human heads with mask-like expressions and thick lips. Their heartland was in the Mexican states of Veracruz and Tabasco.

The writing is called epi-Olmec because it was used by people living in the former Olmec lands, at least some of whom were probably Olmec descendants. The language represented in the text, the researchers found, is an early form of Zoquean, a branch of the Mixe-Zoquean language family still spoken by 100,000 to 140,000 people in the area.

Describing their work in interviews, Dr. Justeson and Dr. Kaufman said several factors contributed to their success. For one thing, the length of the text enabled them to analyze the repetition of certain signs in different contexts and with different prefixes and suffixes, which helped establish the grammar. They also got clues to word meanings from calendar notations and comparisons with Mayan signs.

By contrast, the decipherment of ancient Egyptian in the early 19th century was a more straightforward task. The Rosetta Stone bore a bilingual text, so semantic correspondences could be made between the unknown Egyptian and the known Greek.

Research by Dr. Kaufman as a graduate student 30 years earlier proved crucial. By studying the present Mixe-Zoquean languages, he reconstructed the grammar and basic vocabulary of their unknown ancestral language. "It was like reconstructing old Latin from our knowledge of modern Romance languages," Dr. Kaufman said.

The much shorter texts on a few other artifacts from the same region and time were also helpful.

By the end of their research last year, the scholars had identified in the 21 columns of stela hieroglyphics at least 150 signs of the epi-Olmec writing system. Most of them are abstract signs representing syllables, combinations of which make words. But more than 30 are logograms, graphic images representing words.

Few extinct written languages have been deciphered in this century, the most recent being Linear B, the Minoan script representing Mycenaean Greek, in the 1950s, and the Mayan hieroglyphics over the last three decades.

Still defying scholarly analysis are Linear A from Crete and the early languages of the Indus River Valley and Easter Island.

Decipherments can be controversial.

Dr. Richard Diehl, an archaeologist at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, said: "The crux of the problem is that there are still not enough texts to provide a critical data base for a thorough decipherment. We need to get more texts, and that's what I want to do."

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