David Mora-Marin was too excited to sleep.

It was late, and he was still in his office exchanging frenzied emails with other linguistic anthropologists. In front of him were a dozen sheets of paper, each covered with strange symbols and his own neon highlighter marks. For days, he’d been tracing out sequences, recurring symbols, and odd patterns. Ever since the latest issue of Science had hit newsstands, he could think of little else but the article — “A block with a hitherto unknown system of writing has been found in the Olmec heartland of Veracruz, Mexico…”

It was a huge archaeological breakthrough, the first of its kind. “I could barely sleep for ten days and ten nights,” Mora-Marin says. “From the moment it was published, I became practically obsessed with figuring out how the text was read.”

Click to read photo caption. Map by Jason Smith. ©2009 Endeavors magazine.

In 1999 road builders unearthed the tablet along with some other artifacts as they were digging fill from an ancient mound in Cascajal. (For years the workers had used the site as a gravel quarry, mining building materials from it for roads in Veracruz.) They piled the artifacts off to the side and left them there. The block stayed in the house of the land’s owner for years before archaeologists realized what it was: the oldest known piece of writing in the Western Hemisphere, and the only existing sample of the mysterious script of the Olmec people.

Click to read photo caption.

The Olmecs were the first civilization in Mesoamerica, the region of Central America where pre-Columbian civilizations flourished. “They were the Greeks of the Mesoamerican world,” Mora-Marin says; they formed the template of political and cultural ideas that the Maya would later adopt. Olmec civilization was thriving in 900 BC, around the time the tablet was carved. For decades, archaeologists suspected the Olmecs had a writing system and that they had, in fact, invented writing in Mesoamerica. But until the block was discovered, archaeologists had no solid proof.

The Science article had included photos of the tablet, which is about the size of a stack of legal pads, standing up on its short edge. The magazine also printed a breakdown of the sixty-two symbols — some shaped like vegetables and insects — that were carved into it. The authors claimed that the text orientation was clear: because the symbols were elongated, and because plant-like glyphs in Olmec imagery are generally shown sprouting from the top, they hypothesized that the tablet should be held upright and the symbols read left to right.

Click to read photo caption.

Mora-Marin wasn’t so sure. These types of rules don’t always apply in Mesoamerican writing, he says. For example, the Epi-Olmec and Teotihuacan writing systems have signs that are oriented on their side rather than standing up, and many elongated symbols in ancient Mayan writing can be rotated to either position in some cases. He suspected there was more to the reading order than anyone knew.

Click to read photo caption. Photo by Jason Smith. ©2009 Endeavors magazine.

Mora-Marin had spent over a decade studying texts, epigraphy, and pieces of ancient Mesoamerican jade before becoming one of the few specialists in his field: ancient Mayan languages from around 400 BC to 200 AD, a time from which relatively few text samples exist. “But it was all just fate, essentially,” he says. “I didn’t set out to do that.”

Throughout much of his childhood in Costa Rica, Mora-Marin sat hunched over school books and encyclopedias, soaking up all he could about science and ancient history. He still remembers reading about the ancient Maya and the hieroglyphic writing system they developed long before the Spanish arrived; the writings were a mystery, his books said, because no one could translate them.

It wasn’t until he’d left Costa Rica and had taken his first anthropology course in the United States that he found out how out-of-date his textbooks had been. The Mayan glyphs had long since been translated, he learned, and scholars were still studying them intensely.

Until then, Mora-Marin had planned to study planetary geology. “But when I first learned that that language had been deciphered and that you could in fact read what they said and reconstruct the history of the area, I was completely hooked,” he says. “That’s when I switched majors.” When the semester was over, he got to work. “I went to the library and checked out as many books as I could and spent the entire winter break memorizing all the glyphs,” he says. “I sat down and drew them over and over and over again until I memorized all the phonetic signs — the syllabograms, as they’re called. The logograms, or entire words, take longer to memorize.” After he’d memorized the symbols (and eventually entire texts), he moved on to grammar and structure.

Out of the thirty Mayan languages still spoken today, we have evidence of the ancestors of eight. By the time the Spanish arrived in the fifteenth century, the Maya had dozens of regional languages, and most had writing systems. We wouldn’t know even this much if the Spanish hadn’t so carefully chronicled their efforts to stamp out indigenous religions. To do this, they had to replace the indigenous writing systems with their own Spanish alphabet. Since Mayan priests were the most reliably literate members of the communities, the Spanish targeted them and destroyed every piece of writing they could find. Some Mayan priests, though, hid their texts and secretly practiced their rituals, Mora-Marin says.

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Scientists have long thought that ancient Mayan languages may have been influenced by and have significant similarities to Mixe-Zoquean, the Olmec language. So when the article in Science came out, Mora-Marin began asking questions. Ancient Mayan writing is generally constructed in columns, he says, and some of it uses a complicated zigzag reading pattern. Was Mixe-Zoquean meant to be read from top to bottom or bottom to top? Left to right or right to left? Was it in rows or columns?

“Basically, the way you know how people write is by looking at the margins,” he says. “In Arabic, for example, it’s the right margin that’s vertically aligned, perfectly. The left margin is not, and so you get all these gaps on the left side that tells you they are writing from right to left. In Japanese, you have the opposite orientation.” He looked for these kinds of clues on the Olmec text. But reading a stone tablet isn’t easy. The glyphs themselves were scratched out in sloping, wandering lines, which made it difficult to make sense of the margins. Seemingly random gaps separate some of the symbols, probably where the carver had to work around weak or crumbly spots in the stone.

The block itself is important, Mora-Marin says, because it’s made of a pale-green stone called serpentinite. “Green stones — especially jade or jadeite — were the most sacred and valuable materials in all of ancient Mesoamerica,” he says. That, combined with the fact that some of the glyphs on the tablet are the same as those that represent political titles in Olmec art, gives Mora-Marin some theories about what the writing on the Olmec tablet is about.

“Some people would argue that in the very beginning of writing, the writers didn’t know what the difference was between art and script,” he says. Artists painted or carved scenes and portraits that incorporated certain symbols, and the symbols eventually took on meanings of their own. “So just like when you graduate and you go to the big ceremony with your gown and your hat, if you drew somebody on the wall who was wearing that hat, you would know that it was some sort of graduation ceremony,” he says. For example, one symbol that appears on the Olmec tablet is one that a real-life Olmec ruler wore as an insignia to show his or her office; archaeologists have seen it before in Olmec art. Over time, the symbol was isolated and became a Mixe-Zoquean word. Its presence on the block from Cascajal suggests the writing has to do with some piece of political history, possibly the details of a new ruler coming to power.

Click to read photo caption. Photo by Jason Smith. ©2009 Endeavors magazine.

“One of the interesting things about the Olmecs is this — ” Mora-Marin pulls his office door closed to show a poster on the back, an imposing line-up of gigantic stone heads. The Olmecs are famous for the colossal sculptures, and some archaeologists have proposed they may actually be portraits of Olmec rulers. “It could be about one of these people!” he says.

It took some long hours and close scrutiny, but Mora-Marin finally made sense of the gaps in the Olmec tablet. But even when he was confident he’d found the margins, he was still left with the question of whether to read from the tops or bottoms of the columns. It took several more sleep-deprived days for him to figure it out, he says, but the key lay in the sequences.

Sequence is the term Mora-Marin uses for a combination of glyphs that occurs more than once on the Olmec tablet. He points to his computer screen, where this sentence appears:

William Shakespeare was
the son of John Shakes-
peare, a successful glover
and alderman originally
from Snitterfield.

“The important thing here is that the first time it appears, ‘Shakespeare’ is all contained within one line,” he says. “But the second time it appears, it’s broken up in two.” A reader doesn’t have to know English to see that the letters that make up the first ‘Shakespeare’ appear together, and that the same combination of symbols appears again, only separated onto different lines. “You can tell the direction of reading and writing from how it’s broken up,” Mora-Marin says. And it’s the same with the Olmec glyphs.

So the authors of the Science article may be wrong about the orientation of the Olmec block, he says. “It seems to be written just like other Mesoamerican writing system, in columns — you just have to orient it ninety degrees to the right.” The Olmecs glyphs are actually meant to lie on their side. Then, beginning with the ant-shaped glyph in the top left corner, you would read down the column, then start the next column at the top, and so on.

Of course, reading order is just the first step in decoding any script. Right now there is no way to translate the symbols on the tablet, Mora-Marin says. Linguists will need more than just sixty-two glyphs — which is how many are carved into the Cascajal block — to begin piecing together grammatical structures and, eventually, to make a translation. But it would only take a couple more blocks of similar size and length to know more.

The second step is to establish patterns of sign relationships. “Which signs are found with what other signs, how often, in what patterns of variation?” Mora-Marin says. An evolved form of Mixe-Zoquean is still spoken today, and linguists will use it as a starting point.

A paper about his reading-order theory will be published later this year. Meanwhile, he’ll continue to study the tablet until another one is discovered. Archaeologists are now doing reconnaissance and excavation at Cascajal, but discoveries like the one made in 1999 are rare. “It could happen tomorrow, or it could happen fifty years from now,” Mora-Marin says. “But at least now it is possible to imagine that one day we’ll know what the ancient Olmecs had to say about themselves.”end of story

David Mora-Marin is an assistant professor of linguistics in the College of Arts and Sciences. His paper on the Olmec tablet will appear in the journal Latin American Antiquity in 2009.