A previously unknown ancient mask from southern Mexico contains an inscription that shows the language used there prior to the Maya civilization remains undecipherable, according to a new study by Brigham Young University archaeologist Stephen Houston and Yale University professor emeritus Michael Coe.
Translating the Isthmian script, the written form of one of the languages used in Mesoamerica from about 500 B.C. to A.D. 500, would be a tantalizing key to unlocking the mysteries of ancient American societies before the Maya. In 1993, two other scholars reported in the journal Science that they had deciphered the writing system, an assertion disputed in the new study, published in the new issue of the journal Mexicon.
"This study subjects a claimed decipherment of an ancient New World script to rigid standards of proof, and shows that this script remains undeciphered," said Coe, author of the bestselling book "Breaking the Maya Code," in which he documented how he and others deciphered Maya hieroglyphs. "The inscriptions found on the mask amount to a 'test case' for the validity of the claimed decipherment," allowing researchers to apply purported meanings of symbols to a new inscription and see if the results make sense.
Controversy remains about the people who populated what is now Mexico and northern Guatemala prior to the Maya. Little is known about their way of life and system of government, areas that an understanding of a writing system of the period would illuminate.
"This is one of a very small class of undeciphered writing systems," said Houston. "They tend to be windows into ancient mentalities and ancient worlds, so if you could just open the veil you could see through to a level of detail about these people that just wouldn't have been possible before."
Although many thousands of languages were spoken in antiquity, the number of writing systems is much smaller -- roughly 100. Some of those remain undecipherable, like Rongorongo, found on Easter Island, and Indus, the writing of the ancient people of what is now Pakistan and India.
In order to decipher or translate a dead writing system, scholars need what they call a "bi-script," or a known writing system that is roughly equivalent to the unknown. The famed Rosetta stone offered such a key for ancient Egyptian, and Coe and other scholars of Maya used colonial Spanish writings that gave hints to the meaning of Maya glyphs. Maya writing also was often accompanied by images, so researchers could compare the actions depicted in the images with their translation.
The researchers who claimed to decipher the Isthmian script call it "epi-Olmec," based on their belief that it is an ancestor to the family of languages spoken from Maya times to the present. Their decipherment is derived from inscriptions on the La Mojarra stela, a stone monument discovered in 1986 and dated to A.D. 159. Its roughly 400 characters, which make it one of the longest Native American inscriptions known, are accompanied by only one image, that of a ruler holding something that might be a flower.
"Maya glyphs tend to be in relatively short phrases," explained Houston. "The jaw-dropping attribute of the Isthmian writing system is how lengthy it is. That makes it all the more difficult to link it to any kind of imagery because you don't have a one-to-one correspondence."
In addition to the problems Houston and Coe noted with the previous attempt at decipherment, they said the mask they analyzed further highlights the implausibility of a current translation of the Isthmian script. Since there are roughly 10,000 Mayan texts, but Isthmian is attested in only five to 10 samples, each new context provides invaluable opportunity for testing.
"We have just found another inscription, which allows us to plug in some of the supposed readings, and it comes up with a nonsensical pattern," Houston said. "We evaluate earlier ideas and find them wanting."
In the previous study, the scholars concluded that the Isthmian signs on the La Mojarra stela corresponded to syllables rather than words, Houston said. But the newly analyzed mask adds another 25 signs to the Isthmian "alphabet," showing that there is still much scholars don't understand about the script and that it probably contains a combination of syllable and word signs.
The mask is part of a private collection and the exact location and context of its unearthing are unknown, but Houston is confident it was written sometime between A.D. 300 and 500, since these types of masks were only made after that period.
"This new mask is important because it adds significantly to the total corpus of texts in the Isthmian script," Coe said. "If someday a far larger body of texts should be discovered, or if a bilingual inscription in Maya and Isthmian should turn up -- which is highly unlikely -- then the text on the rear of the mask should tell us something significant about this lost civilization."