(First published as a Special Supplement to Number 15, May 1988.)

This brief essay is designed to aid those who wish to realize the maximum benefit from the content of the ongoing series, Research Reports on Ancient Maya Writing, or those who might wish to submit papers to be considered for publication. In virtually every field of scientific or scholarly endeavor, the printed results of research most often contain conventions of style and usage that are all but incomprehensible to those outside the field in question. The present series is no exception, for the use of highly-specialized terms of communication is almost as necessary to the Maya epigrapher as are the hieroglyphs themselves. We who edit the series and bear the ultimate responsibility for its integrity seek that elusive blend of clarity and scholarly presentation advocated by the late Margaret W. Harrison, whose 1945 essay on "The Writing of American Archaeology," which appeared in American Antiquity (Vol. 10, pages 331-339) should be required reading by everyone who would put the results of his or her work to paper.

A. Some Preliminary Definitions

In dealing with the subject of Maya hieroglyphic writing, an understanding of the precise definitions of terms used to discuss the topic is essential. Among the terms which occur over and over in the Research Reports are many that are essential to a proper understanding of the way in which the ancient writing system works. The definitions we use are derived from the works of many scholars of Mesoamerica and the Maya — among them, Michael D. Coe, James A. Fox, John S. Justeson, David H. Kelley, Yuri V. Knorozov, and Gordon Whittaker.

The basic unit of Maya hieroglyphic writing is the sign, which may be defined as the smallest graphic element of pertinence in rendering either a word or a sound. A sign that represents a word is a logograph. A sign which stands for a sound only — and not necessarily having intrinsic meaning — usually appears in the hieroglyphic script as in the form of a consonant-plus-vowel (CV) syllable. A sign may occur alone or in combination with other signs (See endnote).

The terms hieroglyph and glyph are, for all practical purposes, interchangeable. By the definitions we prefer, they both stand for either an individual sign — one, for example, which stands for a word — or a compound (or a collocation), which is nothing more than a combination of two or more signs. By our definitions, then, all signs may be referred to as "glyphs," but not all glyphs are signs.

All of this makes more sense when one considers the manner in which the Maya themselves arranged their hieroglyphic (or glyphic) texts (which are also referred to as inscriptions). In brief, Maya inscriptions are arranged within a grid-like matrix of horizontal rows (numbered on drawings) and vertical columns (lettered). Other arrangements include single rows or columns, L- or T-shaped configurations, and even mat-weave patterns. Whatever the layout, the individual unit "squares" are termed glyph blocks. Most often, these are to be read from top to bottom and/or left to right. In the case of a lengthy text covering, say, a lintel, this means that the reading order progressed downward through one pair of columns at a time.

The same general rule of order applies to the signs within a glyph block. There, depending on size, shape and arrangement, the component signs of a glyph may be referred to as main signs or affixes. The distinction between the two is best considered as based on graphic aspect: Main signs are the larger of the two, and generally squarish; affixes, narrow and elongated. While the history of the development of these two forms is obscure, it appears that, in general, the dichotomy does not necessarily relate to function. Affixes include prefixes and suffixes, or — if more specificity is desirable — superfixes, subfixes, and even infixes, all of which are more or less self-explanatory.

Often, a coherent combination of signs or an individual sign possessing meaning as a unit will correspond to an individual glyph block. The scribe, however, always had the option, it appears, of arranging his sequence of signs or glyphic compounds over a varying number of glyph blocks. The matter was often complicated by such conventions as conflation, by which two signs could be merged into one with the salient characteristics of both; or personification, by which a sign or glyph could be rendered as the head (or even the full figure) of a distinctive personage, animal, or "god."

Analysis of the Maya script has revealed that, in addition to forming words or syllables in the "spellings" of words, signs may occasionally function as phonetic complements. These are placed as prefixes or suffixes to glyphs simply as phonetic indicators of pronunciation, and do not actually function in the formation of the word in question.

The Maya system possesses at least 800 different signs — there has yet to be an accurate count — and often many stand for the same word or syllable, a circumstance that at once complicates the effort of decipherment and helps the epigrapher by providing the opportunity for recovering such synonyms by the structural analysis of sign substitution patterns.

B. Hieroglyphic designations

The "T-numbers" which frequently appear in the reports are those numerical designations for various hieroglyphic signs as they appear in A Catalog of Maya Hieroglyphs by J. Eric S. Thompson (University of Oklahoma Press, 1962). A thorough guide to that system appears in a prefatory section of the work itself. Briefly, it involves the use of a number for each sign. In the chains of numbers which result when a hieroglyph is composed of, say, four different signs, periods (.) are used to denote horizontal succession; colons (:), for vertical sequences. Thus the transcription T528:528.528 indicates the configuration of three cauac signs in the form of a pyramid. In the Thompson system, numerical coefficients of calendrical or other hieroglyphs are designated by Roman numerals. In the event a contributor to the series insists upon using another system, such as that of Zimmermann (1956), or Gates (1931), that will be clearly stated, and the numbers preceded by either "Z" or "G". We prefer, however, to use the Thompson catalog, imperfect though it may be, as a standard for presentation in the series, at least for the present.

Given the state of the field at the time of the publication of the Thompson catalog, one will naturally find some signs which were unknown at the time, and consequently have no T-numbers. In such instances, parentheses may be use to enclose whatever convenient designation is employed by the author.

C. Names and Nicknames

Nicknames are rampant in the literature for the obvious reason that it is often easier to remember them than the T-numbers. Among the examples that often appear are the "toothache" glyph (the head variant of T684), and "jog", a blend of "jaguar" and "dog" (for T757). Other names have been used to designate parts of glyphs, such as the "bunch of grapes" in T528, or the "propeller" in the center of T624.

Nowhere are nicknames more prevalent than in the matter of nominals — names and titles of individuals who appear in the texts — and here the potential for future problems is great, for there is neither consistency nor logic to the practice. "Stormy Sky" of Tikal has this designation based on an iconographic interpretation of the elements of the name. "Shield Jaguar" and "Bird Jaguar" of Yaxchilan have nicknames based on the pictures which appear in their respective name glyphs. "Pacal" of Palenque is that rarest of cases (so far) in which the ancient Maya name seems secure, based on substantial phonetic evidence. The phonetic reading of "Pacal," incidentally, appears to have effectively stopped the use of the nickname "propeller glyph," now that the pictogram of the object in question is known to represent a shield. For the name of Pacal's successor, the state of knowledge has forced a return to a name based on the elements in the hieroglyph — but in Chol Maya — yielding "Chan Bahlum," which in English would be "Snake Jaguar," paralleling the Yaxchilan derivation type noted above. At Copan, the problem of royal names is particularly acute. One important ruler appears in the literature as "Sun at Horizon" (based on the early nickname derived from what the component signs of the name glyph represent); "Yax Pac" ("Yax Pasah") (based on a possible phonetic reading of certain glyphic "spellings" of the name), which means "dawn" in one Mayan language, and thus reinforces the pictographic interpretation; or "Madrugada" ("dawn" in Spanish). Likewise, his antecedent appears as "18 Rabbit" or "18 Jog," depending upon the preferred identification of the animal head in the name which appears as XVIII.T757 (which has also been seen as a yellow pocket gopher or, by some, simply as a rodent).

Earlier scholarly practice utilized a seemingly foolproof (and value-free) system in which numbers or letters were used. Thus, at Piedras Negras, Ruler 1 was succeeded by Ruler 2, etc.; at Tikal Rulers A, B, and C represent part of the succession. As experience has proven, this practice, laudable as it might seem, creates still another sort of problem — the continuing discovery of other members of a king list sometimes reveals rulers preceding the "Ruler 1" or the "Ruler A" already named and published. Clearly, there is no satisfactory solution to this problem.

Our preference in this matter lies in the use of names to numbers or letters for the simple reason that they are easier to remember. As a matter of style, however, we place all nicknames (which we define as mere terms of convenience, in whatever language they appear, to suffice for the yet-unknown Mayan phonetic rendering) within quotation marks. As for consistency in this, we will give priority to the historical literature, and when that is inconsistent, we will simply make a choice. The overriding rule in all considerations is, as it must be, that we don't particularly care what the name, nickname, or even "nicknumber" is, so long as we (and our readers) know that the author has made a consistent and considered judgment and knows what is meant by its use. In the coining of whatever new designations might be deemed necessary, we ask for primary consideration of the Maya ruler (or whomever) as a human individual due the avoidance of flippant, whimsical, or derogatory labeling.

D. Hieroglyphic transliteration

For the rendering of Mayan words, we prefer the orthography used in the Diccionario Cordemex of Alfredo Barrera Vásquez et al (Merida, Yucatán, 1980).

In general, we will follow the method outlined in Fox and Justeson's "Conventions for the Transliteration of Mayan Hieroglyphs," which appeared as Appendix C of the important anthology titled Phoneticism in Mayan Hieroglyphic Writing, edited by John S. Justeson and Lyle Campbell (Institute for Mesoamerican Studies, State University of New York at Albany, 1984) as a consensus among prominent linguists and epigraphers. For various reasons, we find it difficult to adhere consistently and strictly to all the points of rule listed in that excellent treatment of the problem. Therefore, our conventions in the matter of proceeding from hieroglyphic to linguistic or other forms will emphasize the following adaptation of the Fox-Justeson scheme until further notice:

1. Transliterations which reflect the Mayan value of a sign or a combination of signs will appear in boldface type, with hyphens connecting those elements which are graphically part of the same sign combination, or hieroglyph.

2. Hieroglyphic signs used as logograms (words) will appear in capital letters; those used purely as phonetic syllables, in lower case. Thus the transliteration of T624 would be PAKAL; of T602:25.534, pa-ka-l(a). In cases where the logographic-or-phonetic nature of a sign is not determinable — say, in some uses of T1, u — lower-case transliteration will suffice, and the problem should be noted in the text of the discussion.

3. In cases such as in the final syllable of pa-ka-l(a), where, according to Mayan usage, the final vowel was left unpronounced, it is to be set apart by parentheses. Likewise, phonetic complements are to be treated in the same manner, as in the example of TS'IB-(ba).

4. In the actual transliterations reflecting Mayan values, a phonemically precise orthography will be employed which follows that used in Justeson and Campbell 1984 (i.e., ahaw, pa-ka-l(a), pakal, etc.).

5. Signs of unknown reading are transliterated by boldface ?.

6. Unidentified signs are transliterated as simple Roman x.

7. Reconstructed forms within a text — either missing by illegibility or scribal suppression in the original — may utilize a preceding asterisk (i.e., *bu-lu-k(u)).

8. Names or designations of hieroglyphs or signs which occur in contexts where they are simply mentioned, but not necessarily as Mayan values, are shown in lower-case italics (i.e., "The phrase ended with a bacab glyph"; or "The fragment has what appears to be a katun sign with the coefficient 6"), at least in the first instance of use. This parallels the general rule for the use of foreign words or phrases used in written English context. In cases of terms such as names of months, days, rulers, and gods, each should be capitalized as well. Note that the italicized words need not follow the strict orthography noted above for formal transliterations, but may follow the more traditional forms of the historical literature (i.e., ahau, Pacal, etc., vs. ahau, pakal, etc.).

E. Names of Sites

These will follow the lead of the current literature, with any ambiguous cases resolved by means of the list of sites appearing in Volume 3 Number 3 of the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Writing (Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1982) — a welcome and useful standardization developed by Ian Graham.

F. Abbreviations

In general, we try to avoid abbreviations in the main text of any of the Research Reports, for the danger of lapsing into incomprehensible jargon is ever-present (i.e., ISIG for Initial Series Introductory Glyph; DN for Distance Number; PSS for Primary Standard Sequence; etc.) Again, however, we will permit the case in point to dictate the rules: If the material remains clear and readable by the method of spelling out all standard terms in the first appearance, then using abbreviations afterward (with the intention to do so stated), it will be so done in the interests of space.

In the illustration key lists which appear with each figure in the Research Reports, we purposely use abbreviations, for these lists are made clearer by a "formula" approach that indicates the source of the text, glyph, or whatever, by 1) key letter, 2) site, 3) monument, 4) position on monument; and 5) source of illustration. Here, in the cases of site designations, Ian Graham (in the 1982 Corpus volume cited above, pages 185-88) is again the definitive source for the standard triliteral code (i.e., RAZ = Rio Azul, YXP = Yaxcopoil; etc.). With regard to the citation of pieces which lack provenance, the abbreviation COL (for "collection") suffices, followed by its location or source, such as a museum, a private collection (anonymous or named), or an accessible archive of illustrated material such as those compiled by Nicholas Hellmuth of the Foundation for Latin American Anthropological Research, or Justin Kerr of New York City.

G. Lists of References

Our fundamental style source for the List of References which appears at the end of each Research Report is the series of publications issued by the Middle American Research Institute, Tulane University. In the compilation of these lists, we tend to err in favor of completeness, and thus often put more than the basic information in each entry, particularly in cases of the rarer, seldom-seen publications which may be inaccessible to many of our readers. In addition, the List of References contains not only those works cited in the main text, but also the various published sources for all illustrations and any point of interest which appears in the Notes at the end of the main text.

H. Illustrations

With regard to the visual images which appear in the Research Reports, we strive for the greatest accuracy possible. Line drawings in black, permanent ink are deemed best for the representation of glyphs, texts, etc. Photographs will be used as well, provided they serve to clarify the issue or issues treated. In all illustrations, we strongly prefer primary sources (images from the Förstemann chromolithographs of the Dresden Codex [1880;1892], for example, as opposed to the drafted versions of Villacorta and Villacorta [1930;1933;1976]).

I. The Use of Unprovenanced Artifacts

Unfortunately, many of the objects — ceramics, monuments, etc. — used as evidence in points of epigraphic or iconographic argument are without secure archaeological context — a state of affairs which parallels that of other areas of the world (Classical Greek vases immediately come to mind). In the use and citation of unprovenanced pieces, their status as such must be stated, along with a comment — if such is known by the author — on the situation regarding the presence and degree of modern restorative repainting or recarving.

The utilization of the points noted above — many of them obvious — will be evident from a perusal of the Research Reports published so far. Doubtless they will be modified to some extent as we progress toward consistency.


A trivial but useful example of logographic usage occurs in frequently seen examples in our own everyday world. An example that immediately comes to mind is the automobile bumper sticker which reads I VERMONT, in which the stands for the word "love." Now, to carry the analogy further, let us suppose that our writing system possesses two signs, and , that stand, respectively, for the phonetic CV syllables lo and ve. With these, we might therefore "spell" our word as or simply use the logograph to do the job. If the context of our "glyph," for some reason, makes its intended pronunciation uncertain or ambiguous, we might be forced to use a syllable as phonetic complement in order to clarify the situation and signal the pronunciation "love." Thus, either or both of the sign and might then appear as follows: or or .