Harold Sterling Gladwin: Mayan Hieroglyphs

Mayan stamps and cylinder seals are officially amongst “those who have gone”.

A century ago the Mayan Civilization “lasted no more than 500 years”.

Mayan Culture
The civilization of the Mayas may well have been reared upon one more ancient, but the life of that culture of which the ruins are now visible certainly lasted no more than 500 years.

The date of its extinction is unknown, but in certain places, notably Mayapan and Chichenitza, the highest development seems to be synchronous with the appearance of foreign, viz. Mexican or Nahua elements (see below).

This quite distinctive local character suggests that the cities in question played a certain preponderating role, a hypothesis with which the scanty documentary evidence is in agreement.

On the other hand the Mayan culture evinces an evident tendency to assimilate heterogeneous elements, obliterating racial distinctions and imposing its own dominant character over a wide area.

1911 Encyclopædia Britannica – Volume 5 – Central America

Nowadays, those “no more than 500 years” have been stretched out to 700 years and re-classified as the Classic Period between 250 and 950 AD.


Mayan Hieroglyphs have also come a long way in the last century.


The key to the decipherment, so far as this has progressed at present, was furnished by the Historia de las Cosas de Yucatan, a work written by Diego de Landa, the first bishop of the country.

This professed to give, with much other more or less doubtful information, the full account of a calendar system analogous to that of the Mexicans, which was said to have been used by the Mayas.

The signs for each of the 20 days and for the 18 weeks of 20 days are figured by Landa.

The first step was to compare these with the hieroglyphic characters contained in the few Mayan picture manuscripts (Codex Troano, Cortesianus, Peresianus, Dresden Codex) which have survived the destructive fanaticism of the Spanish missionaries.

1911 Encyclopædia Britannica – Volume 5 – Central Americ

Diego de Landa Calderón, O.F.M. (1524-1579) was a Spanish bishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Yucatán.

Many historians criticize his campaign against idolatry.

In particular, he burned almost all the Mayan manuscripts (codices) that would have been very useful in deciphering Mayan script, knowledge of Maya religion and civilization, and the history of the American continent.

Nonetheless, his work in documenting and researching the Mayans was indispensable in achieving the current understanding of their culture, to the degree that one scholar asserted that “ninety-nine percent of what we today know of the Mayas, we know as the result either of what Landa has told us in the pages that follow, or have learned in the use and study of what he told.”


The Mayas were a literary people.

They made frequent use of tablets, wrote many books, and covered the walls of their buildings with hieroglyphic signs, cut in the stones or painted upon the plaster.

The explanation of these signs is one of the leading problems in American archaeology.

It was supposed to have been solved when the manuscript of Bishop Landa’s account of Yucatan was discovered, some twenty years ago, in Madrid.

The Bishop gave what he called “an A, B, C,” of the language, but which, when applied to the extant manuscripts and the mural inscriptions, proved entirely insufficient to decipher them.

The disappointment of the antiquaries was great, and by one of them, Dr. Felipe Valentini, Landa’s alphabet has been denounced as “a Spanish fabrication.”

The Maya Chronicles – Daniel G Brinton – 1882

It was not until much later, in the mid-20th century, when it was realized and then confirmed that it was not a transcription of an alphabet, as Landa and others had originally supposed, but was rather a syllabary.


The decipherment and recovery of the knowledge of Maya writing has been a long and laborious process.

Some elements were first deciphered in the late 19th and early 20th century, mostly the parts having to do with numbers, the Maya calendar, and astronomy.

Major breakthroughs were made from the 1950s to 1970s, and accelerated rapidly thereafter.

By the end of the 20th century, scholars were able to read the majority of Maya texts, and ongoing work continues to further illuminate the content.


In the linguistic study of written languages, a syllabary is a set of written symbols that represent the syllables or (more frequently) moras which make up words.


In the last century the mainstream established two important facts:

1) They know “little” about the origins of Mayan Hieroglyphs.

Surprisingly, we know little about the origins and earliest phases of Maya writing.

Visible Language – Inventions Of Writing In The Ancient Middle East And Beyond
Edited by Christopher Woods with Emily Teeter and Geoff Emberling – 2010


The Maya writing system is one of the outstanding achievements of the pre-Columbian inhabitants of the Americas. It was the most sophisticated and highly developed writing system of more than a dozen systems that developed in Mesoamerica. The earliest inscriptions in an identifiably Maya script date back to 300–200 BC, in the Petén Basin.

However, this is preceded by several other Mesoamerican writing systems, such as the Epi-Olmec and Zapotec scripts. Early Maya script had appeared on the Pacific coast of Guatemala by the late 1st century AD, or early 2nd century. Similarities between the Isthmian script and Early Maya script of the Pacific coast suggest that the two systems developed in tandem. By about AD 250, the Maya script had become a more formalised and consistent writing system.


The Isthmian script is a very early Mesoamerican writing system in use in the area of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec from perhaps 500 BCE to 500 CE, although there is disagreement on these dates.

It is also called the La Mojarra script and the Epi-Olmec script (‘post-Olmec script’).


2) Mayan Hieroglyphs “were painted on paper, wood, cloth, and even human skin” using a “brush” even though no “brushes” [or pens] have been found.

Maya writing is found on everything associated with elites, including jade ear spools, carved bones, stucco building facades, ceramic vessels, and stone monuments.

The context of Maya writing also indicates that its permanence was important.

Maya texts were painted on paper, wood, cloth, and even human skin, but most of these inscriptions have not been preserved.

Nonetheless, the extensive corpus of Maya writing exists because texts were purposely carved on non-perishable materials.

Thus, records of events could be transmitted over generations, and the spoken words and writing itself, all symbols of power in Mesoamerica, would be preserved.

Visible Language – Inventions Of Writing In The Ancient Middle East And Beyond
Edited by Christopher Woods with Emily Teeter and Geoff Emberling – 2010


The Maya script was in use up to the arrival of the Europeans, its use peaking during the Classic Period.

In excess of 10,000 individual texts have been recovered, mostly inscribed on stone monuments, lintels, stelae and ceramics.

The Maya also produced texts painted on a form of paper manufactured from processed tree-bark generally now known by its Nahuatl-language name amatl used to produce codices.

Although the archaeological record does not provide examples of brushes or pens, analysis of ink strokes on the Postclassic codices suggests that it was applied with a brush with a tip fashioned from pliable hair.


Harold Gladwin saw similarities between the New World and the Old World.

British Museum Quarterly – Vol 5 – 1930

In his Handbook of Aboriginal American Antiquities, William H. Holmes points out that hieroglyphic writing is also to be found “Modeled in stucco, and painted on walls, vases, sheets of parchment and paper,” so in addition to the concept and the method of writing the Maya also used the same materials as people in Egypt, Mesopotamia and India.

Men Out of Asia – Harold Sterling Gladwin – 1947

The Maya-Quiche Area

Glyphic writing

The culminating achievement of the race is its highly developed system of ideographic writing, which it is believed was already beginning to embody certain phonetic elements, presaging the development of a phonetic system of writing.

The glyphic inscriptions are represented by numerous examples sculptured in stone, modeled in stucco, and painted on walls, vases, sheets of parchment, and paper.

The long sheets of the latter were folded and bound into books after the oriental fashion.

Although these picture writings, in the absence of a key, can not actually be read by our scholars, much has been determined with respect to their nature and application.

It appears that they are largely calendric, serving to record dates and events of importance, and in setting forth and fixing the dates of the oft-occurring observances of religion, which held a most important place in the lives of the people.

The exceptional advancement of the Maya is indicated especially by their knowledge of astronomy and arithmetic and by the development of a calendric system which compares favorably with that of the Old World of corresponding centuries.

Handbook of Aboriginal American Antiquities – Part 1
William Henry Holmes – 1919
Bureau of American Ethnology – Bulletin 60
Smithsonian Institution


Gladwin wondered what tools were used for writing on pottery and paper.

With so much to go on, one then begins to wonder what sort of a tool the Maya may have used when writing on pottery or paper, since a stone chisel and a maul would seem to be rather inappropriate.

This curiosity leads to a situation which is like going up into the attic and searching around in the old cupboards.

One sees a box on a top shelf, reaches up, the string breaks, and down comes a shower of dust and knickknacks that have been carefully hidden away.

Our position is very embarrassing, as in this case the box contains some objects which it is not regarded as good taste to mention in orthodox company, judging by the sepulchral silence that has heretofore surrounded them.

Men Out of Asia – Harold Sterling Gladwin – 1947

Gladwin found the Maya used “seals”.


The objects are nothing less than seals — yes, seals.

Not the aquatic mammal, but the “Witness My Hand and Seal” variety.

Why American archaeologists should be so allergic to seals we cannot (or dare not) tell you, but the fact remains that search as you will in the indexes of books on the Maya and Mexico or in those on general American anthropology, you will find no mention of “seals” unless you should chance to look in Frans Blom’s The Conquest of Yuicatan, in which case you will find the following gem:

Again there are the small clay seals. They have been found in irrigation ditches, on the sandy banks of the rivers washed up by the current, and in our excavations. They are there, but we do not know whether they were used as tribal or clan markings for labeling property or simply for decorative purposes.

Some of these seals are made for a single imprint, and others are cylinders which when rolled over a surface give a band of figures somewhat like the Babylonian roll seals. All of them arc now a puzzle to us.

The Conquest of Yucatan – Frans Ferdinand Blom – 1936

Men Out of Asia – Harold Sterling Gladwin – 1947

The Maya Indians of Southern Yucatan
and Northern British Honduras
Thomas William Francis Gann – 1918



Nearer the center of the floor of the chamber were found two small cubical objects of light greenstone 1 cm in diameter, very closely resembling dice, with a geometrical device inscribed in rather deep lines upon two of their opposed surfaces; these might have been seals or stamps, or they might have been used in playing some game.

The Maya Indians of Southern Yucatan
and Northern British Honduras
Thomas William Francis Gann – 1918



In the New World, especially Mexico, Central America, and Peru, flat and roller stamps date back also to ancient times, though not as early as in the Old World.

Similarities as well as differences exist between the uses of stamps in the two parts of the world.

Before the Spanish conquest in the New World, stamps were used to impress designs on skin, cloth, paper, and pottery.

In the New World also, stamps were generally made of baked clay.

Several, however, have been found made from other materials, such as wood, stone (two examples from Yucatan), copper (examples from Patzcuaro and Xochiniilco, central Mexico), and gold.

A Possible Linear Script From Preclassic Mexico – Welby W Ricks


Gladwin pondered whether the Maya had independently developed every individual component of their hieroglyphic writing system.

The Maya Indians of Southern Yucatan
and Northern British Honduras
Thomas William Francis Gann – 1918


One starts with the conception, the methods and the mediums by means of which Mayan hieroglyphs were made and finds them to be the same as those that were employed in Egypt, Mesopotamia and India.

The glyphs — pictographic, phonetic and ideographic — were of the same type as those in Egypt, Mesopotamia and India.

Then one stumbles on stamp seals, also characteristic of the same Old World centers, and finally winds up with cylindrical seals, which have always been regarded as the hallmarks of Egypt, Mesopotamia and India.

It would be interesting to have a mathematician tell us what the odds would be against the Maya having independently duplicated each link in this long chain.


It’s a difficult issue to resolve as glyphs often echo their associated object.

It is evident that a good deal of the parallelism that exists between the Cretan and the Egyptian hieroglyphs is of a quite general nature and such as is to a large extent shared by all systems of conventionalized pictography.

Thus it will be found that the different heads under which the Cretan hieroglyphs are here classified are almost equally applicable, not only to the Egyptian system but to such widely separated groups as the original picture signs of Babylonia, the primitive ‘keys’ of the Chinese writing, and the Maya pictographs of Central America.

Such categories as the ‘human body and its parts‘, ‘arms and implements’, ‘cult objects and symbols’, ‘houses and domestic utensils’, ‘plants and animals’, the earth and sky’, form parts of a purely natural classification which might be adopted in any part of the globe.

It is only when we come to details that the distinctions of locality leave their mark, and the prominence given to the lotus and papyrus in the Nile Valley may be transferred in Crete to the saffron or the olive, while the Chinaman perchance chooses a bamboo, and the man of Yucatan a mimosa.

Several of the signs belonging to the above categories, such as the sun, moon, and stars, the eye, hand, or other parts of the human body, and certain simple implements and weapons, may be considered to be common to all systems.

The parallel appearance of such in Crete and Egypt is not therefore a proof of indebtedness on either side.

Scripta Minoa – Arthur Evans – 1909

But there are additional avenues of inquiry.

Barry Fell argued Micmac Hieroglyphics are related to Egyptian Hieratic.

This document, comprising a single sheet, was headed The Lord’s Prayer in Micmac Hieroglyphs.

At first glance I perceived that about half (at least) of the hieroglyphic signs were remarkably similar to Egyptian hieroglyphs as rendered in the simpler cursive form called hieratic.

But what was more surprising, indeed mystifying, was that the meaning of these signs in Egyptian matched the meaning assigned to them in the English transcript of the Micmac text given on the document.

America B.C. – Barry Fell – 1989 Edition
Amazon US: https://www.amazon.com/dp/0934666555
Amazon UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/0934666555


Hieratic is the name given to a cursive writing system used for Ancient Egyptian and the principal script used to write that language from its development in the third millennium BCE until the rise of Demotic in the mid first millennium BCE.

It was primarily written in ink with a reed pen on papyrus.


See: https://malagabay.wordpress.com/2017/02/13/avalon/

The Mi’kmaq or Mi’gmaq (also Micmac, L’nu, Mi’kmaw or Mi’gmaw) are a First Nations people indigenous to Canada’s Maritime Provinces and the Gaspé Peninsula of Quebec. They call their national territory Mi’kma’ki (or Mi’gma’gi).

The nation has a population of about 40,000 (plus about 25,000 in the Qalipu First Nation in Newfoundland), of whom nearly 11,000 speak Mi’kmaq, an Eastern Algonquian language.

Once written in Mi’kmaq hieroglyphic writing, it is now written using most letters of the Latin alphabet.


The drawing back of the land [like curtains] when the Pacific Ocean basin opened suggests the Mayan and Chinese cultures share a hieroglyphic heritage.

See: https://malagabay.wordpress.com/2020/02/23/southern-beech/

Seal script is an ancient style of writing Chinese characters that was common throughout the <b latter half of the 1st millennium BC.

The general term seal script can be used to refer to several types of seal script, including the Large or Great Seal script and the lesser or Small Seal Script.

The term Large Seal script itself can also cover a broad variety of scripts, including a variation of Qin writing earlier than the small seal characters, but also the earlier Western Zhou forms, or even oracle bone characters as well.

There were several different variants of seal script which developed independently in each kingdom during the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods.

In the popular history of Chinese characters, the Small Seal script is traditionally considered to be the ancestor of the clerical script, which in turn gave rise to all of the other scripts in use today.





A hieroglyphic heritage that appears to include block printing.

Woodblock printing or block printing is a technique for printing text, images or patterns used widely throughout East Asia and originating in China in antiquity as a method of printing on textiles and later paper.

As a method of printing on cloth, the earliest surviving examples from China date to before 220 AD.

Woodblock printing existed in Tang China during the 7th century AD and remained the most common East Asian method of printing books and other texts, as well as images, until the 19th century.



As always:

Consider the evidence and draw your own conclusions.

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11 Responses to Harold Sterling Gladwin: Mayan Hieroglyphs

  1. Pingback: Harold Sterling Gladwin: In The Dog House | MalagaBay

  2. Yry says:

    A pointed long nose and wide nostril Mayan face features are difficult
    to reconcile with Chinese, Korean and Japanese face looks.
    Do we know what color of the hair went with the Mayans?

    It’s quite a headache to pinpoint their original location. I’ve always
    been baffled by their script and by their complex roundish mode of
    depicting things on parchment or on stone.
    Yet I have two photos of big stone frescoes in Mayan heartland
    displaying way more fluid depictions, but are they really Mayan or
    from another anterior culture?

    North west South America down to Equator cannot have been the
    birthplace of the Mayas because of a much crisper style and, as far
    as I can recall offhand, they wouldn’t portray people or faces the way
    the Mayans did, but yes they would personify sky events.


    I archived your extensive book sources amounting to a treasure chest!
    Thank you Tim.

    • malagabay says:

      It’s important to remember the transmission of thoughts and technology doesn’t depend upon the transmission of genes. Historically, the transmission of genes was impossible in single-sex encounters. Whether academia still support that historical caveat is another question 🙂
      Take care

  3. CW says:

    For reasons of style, Yry doubts that Mayans came from northwestern South America. Others agree. Someone, perhaps William Prescott in his brilliant mid-19th century “History of the Conquest of Mexico,” and his later “Conquest of Peru,” made the point that for Europeans the two most valuable food crops imported from the Americas were maize and potatoes. These foods would have been equally valuable to native Americans, and yet the pre-Columbian people of Mexico did not have potatoes, and the Incan peoples of South America did not grow maize. Had there been any contact between these populations, each would have cultivated the other’s most valuable crops.

    • Re CW says: One needs to be careful on such interpretations. When the potato was introduced in my country by a British colonial master to help avert periodic famines, at first it was refused, its use was only for animal feed. Now its a staple. It is a question of mental belief and mind set. The same is happening now with the sweet potato. There were times when fish was the poor man’s food; now its expensive and is also being farmed. Same with pork, for religious beliefs.

      • CW says:

        Maize and potatoes were staples in their native regions of Central and South America. Their food and trade value had been proven through centuries of cultivation. If there had been contact between the Incas and Aztecs, these nourishing foods would have spread from one to the other.

  4. Yry says:

    @ CW

    1- Interesting point there regarding the absence of potatoes in Mexico,
    I wasn’t aware of this! & vice versa for maize absence in SthAm!
    I’ll have to re-read the big book “1491” from Charles C. Mann which
    deals extensively with these matters amongst other topics relating
    to both Americas.

    2- As another teaser, Equator, Colombia & Venezuela (I don’t know
    about Panama) share another vitally important staple aka rice and
    we have in northern Santander and Cordoba lying next to the
    Atlantic coastline an important number of Chinese placenames
    associated with chinese populations turned suntanned cultivating

    I did research in the libraries and couldn’t find any hint about the
    origin time-wise of this staple. I often questioned these Chinese
    but they all couldn’t remember their own descendency!
    Gavin Menzies would be shocked…

    3- Another point worth mentioning: on an ancient world map I have,
    the isthm between the 2 Americas was broken between Panama
    and ancient Colombia, there was free flow between the 2 oceans.


    @ melitamegalithic

    1- Nice quotes about mindsets and staples. I’ll introduce another one
    regarding the french Sun-king Louis XIV who deliberately closed off
    the first potato fields in France initiated by himself and closely guarded
    by soldiers but in plain sight of the surrounding populations left
    wondering as to what kind of food or plant would justify such
    precautionary measures. You can guess what happened thereafter!

    Off topic
    2- I’ve downloaded the document you recommended me in another
    recent post on malagabay, heavy on maths and equations but well
    presented for once, it’ll be useful, thank you.

    • Re staple foods: I ‘heard?’ recently I don’t recall where (possibly a local tv on agro) the tomato also had a bad start in europe.

      “…most Europeans thought that the tomato was poisonous because of the way plates and flatware were made in the 1500’s.” from https://www.tomato-cages.com/tomato-history.html
      A favorite of mine to grow, and hand squeeze to paste, it removes months of suntan from my hands, to a ‘deathly white’.

  5. Pingback: Harold Sterling Gladwin: The Minoan Maze | MalagaBay

  6. CW says:

    On a related topic… with thanks to the “Myths Are History” Facebook page… “South America is filled with mammals of North American origin but not vice versa…” https://theconversation.com/south-america-is-filled-with-mammals-of-north-american-origin-but-not-vice-versa-and-scientists-have-figured-out-why-147483?fbclid=IwAR2OgscwkzdCEsGznAYm3VuvfQhwQOPIX96QOC4rbka_u2TLJa-lOl1_-sI

  7. Pingback: African Crocodiles | MalagaBay

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