Friday, July 2, 2010

Computer program to help decipher Mayan script

The Golden Age of the Mayas was between the 3rd and the 4th centuries. Their script was considered the most advanced in the Americas, and was used for writing medical, botanical and astronomy texts. This script used a sign called a glyph to indicate each word or each syllable.

Ramzy Barrois, a French archaeologist, has brought a series of hyroglyphics back from South America to Paris in order to study them. But Mayan cities weren’t always in contact with each other so scripts evolved differently. Today, around 80% of the glyphs used have been deciphered, but the rest remain a mystery.

He said “If you take account of both distance and chronology, you get large variations in the glyphs. Sometimes you look at two symbols which are really similar, but a beginner will think that they aren’t at all alike, that they have nothing in common. But they have! They are the same glyph – just with 500 years of evolution between them.”

With new technologies like the internet, Mayan script specialists from all over the world have made a giant leap forward. They now have software to help them decipher the glyphs.

Dr Daniel Gatica-Perez, (from the IDIAP Research Institute, in Martigny, Switzerland): “People who are exploring ancient Maya culture – in order to try to find glyphs, they usually use catalogues and this is a classic catalogue. It’s like a telephone book. Instead of names what we have are essentially glyphs and this is a very large collection. And, essentially, if you don’t have computational means to find a glyph you don’t know or a glyph you are learning about, you probably have to parse all of these manually. And this can be time consuming.”

These three engineers have built a search engine which can decipher Mayan script.

Edgar Francisco Roman Rangel, a research assistant at IDIAP said: “You can manually select a part of this inscription, as you can see here. Then the system – the “glyphfinder” – looks for the most similar glyphs that it can find. So based on the glyphs that it already knows it tries to recognize the others.”

Dr Daniel Gatica-Perez said: “Well the content is very challenging; the variation of shape that one finds in the glyphs is really really astonishing. And even though the research recently has made a lot of progress, it is still quite challenging trying to teach a computer to identify or to discriminate between shapes that are very similar.”

To build a search engine you have to assemble a data base. So archaeologists in the field photograph each glyph in relief. Then a designer reproduces them before they’re sent to Switzerland. It’s a Titanic task, but archaeologists hope it will help them decipher the 100 or so symbols which are still unknown.

Carlos Pallan Gayol, an archaeologist at the National Institute of Anthropology and History said: “We are very excited that the new technology can help us to tackle this problem. One of the main conditions of decipherment is to isolate a set of occurrences of any given problematic sign within the script. So we think that with this technology we can do that job more efficiently. So we are very excited by that potential as well.”

Thanks to this new technology, research is taking great leaps forward and archaeologists hope to illuminate the remaining mysteries of this great civilization.

Euronews. 2010. "Computer program to help decipher Mayan script". Euronews. Posted: June 22, 2010. Available online:

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