24 March 2012, 10:45

The person who revealed the Maya script to the world

The person who revealed the Maya script to the world

This year Yuri Knorozov would have turned 80. The Russian scientist proved false the hypothesis that the Maya script is impossible to decipher. The Moscow based Center of Mesoamerican Studies is named after him.

This year Yuri Knorozov would have turned 80. The Russian scientist proved false the hypothesis that the Maya script is impossible to decipher. The Moscow based Center of Mesoamerican Studies is named after him. The interest in Knorozov's personality is stirred by the predictions of the 2012  end of the word that was supposedly written in the Maya calendar.

The article of the German scientist Paul Schellhas entitled «The Deciphering of the Mayan Writings - an unsolvable problem?» Knorozov who was studying shamanism decided to prove that statement false.

As the legend goes, Yuri Knorozov obtained the key to deciphering the script in Berlin in 1945. Reportedly, in the capital of the Nazi Reich just seized by the Soviet troops he discovered two trophy books – «The announcement about state of affairs in Yucatan» by Diego De Landa and «The Maya Codex». In his work Knorozov really used those books, but he was never in Berlin. When the war ended he was in military service near Moscow. In 1947 Yuri Knorozov finished his dissertation on the «De Landa alphabet». It was put together in the XVI century by a Spanish bishop Diego De Landa who was infamous for burning the real Maya texts. Researchers tried to decipher the system of Maya script based on the «De Landa alphabet», but all in vain.

In 1952 Knorozov published an article called «The ancient writing system of Central America», in which he proved that the «De Landa alphabet» in its Mayan part contained syllable symbols but not an alphabet. The scientist put together a catalogue of Maya glyphs, after which he managed to determine the phonetic pronunciation of some of them. By that Knorozov proved false the hypothesis of the leading American specialist in Maya Eric Thompson who refused to accept the phonetic component of the Maya script.

According to Galina Ershova, the director of the Knorozov Center and his student, in order to perform the task Knorozov had to study the theory of deciphering ancient scripts. The discovery made by Knorozov is often compared to the achievements of Jean Champollion who deciphered the Egyptian hieroglyphs back in 1822. But the French scientist worked on a much more simple task, Ershova believes. That scientist had a key in the form of the Greek translation.

Tatiana Proskuriakoff, a researcher of Russian origin working at Harvard also worked on deciphering the Maya mysteries. She visited Russia once only to meet Knorozov. Proskuriakoff made her valuable contribution to the deciphering of ancient scripts, and also worked hard on making Knorozov's discovery accepted in the West.

The scientist's heritage is preserved in Moscow in the Center for Mesoamerican studies, where education programs are geared towards studying and teaching the history and culture of the civilizations of pre-Columbus America. Already during Knorozov's life in 1998 the Russian State Humanitarian University opened a study program «The cultures of ancient Mesoamerica in the context of epigraphic heritage». Its aim was to preserve and develop the Russian school of the Maya epigraphic, as well as to prepare specialists in America's history and culture. In 2000 the University started enrolling history students. «The enrollment takes place every three years. Over the course of the Center's existence there were three graduation years of historians and one of political scientists. On average we take in about ten people», says the teacher of the Mesoamerican Center Elena Ostrirova, a graduate of the second enrollment.

The first graduate enrollment of 2011 specializes in epigraphic and early colonial sources on the history of Latin America. Besides studying Mesoamerica itself, the students study the history of Latin America and the modern political processes in the region.

Some graduates stay to work at the Center as specialists or teachers, work on their PhD degrees, attend graduate programs in Russia and Mexico.

The Mexican Embassy in Moscow presented books in history, written languages and culture of Latin America to the Mesoamerican Center, which became basis for a specialized scientific library. One of the joint projects is the replenishment of the University's Museum with replicas of ancient American art from the National Museum of Anthropology and History in Mexico City. The Center's researches participated in the archeological project of examining Mistek-Alta in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. With their help a three-volume edition of Yuri Knorozov's works was published in Mexico.

«The Center's main achievement is the fact that in 2010 we opened Yuri Knorozov Center in Xcaret, an archaeological park in Mexico. It is a scientific center where undergraduate and graduate students of the Center can do field work», Ostrirova points out.

In the year of the 60th anniversary of the deciphering of the Maya script the Mesoamerican Center announced a contest for school students of the 9-11 grades. The top prize will be a two-week trip to Xcaret. The winner will be able to see how the Knorozov Center works and take part in filming a documentary film.

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