The Maya writing system (often called hieroglyphics from a vague superficial resemblance to the Egyptian writing, to which it is not related) was a combination of phonetic symbols and ideograms.
There are only about 30 phonetic sounds in the Maya language so a purely phonetic alphabet could in theory be written with 30 signs. It was originally thought that Maya writing was purely logographic because of the many hundreds of different glyphs.
It is believed that the Maya book of creation was first written in hieroglyphics. After the Spanish conquest of the Yucatan, indigenous people were persecuted and most Mayan books were burned. But the stories were passed along orally.
Ancient Mayan Hieroglyphic Carving
Mayan hieroglyphics were carved into stone monuments or pieces of bone, painted on pottery, and written on books (codices) of bark paper. Mayan texts describe religious rituals, astronomy, and divination, and are the most valuable source of information on the ancient civilization.
Many of them were destroyed by the Spanish because of their pagan religious content, but three main codices have survived. Named for the cities in which they are now kept, these are the Dresden, Madrid, and Paris codices.
In about 1566, the first bishop of Yucatan, Diego de Landa, compiled a key to the Mayan syllabary consisting of 27 Spanish letters and the Mayan glyphs with similar sounds. This became known as the Landa Alphabet and helped with the decipherment of the script, even though it was based on the false premise that the script was alphabetic.
Ancient Mayan Glyphs Signs
Maya writing is difficult to interpret for a number of reasons. First, glyphs do not represent just sounds or ideas, they can represent both, making it difficult to know how each glyph or cartouche should be read. In addition, many Maya glyphs can have more than one meaning, and many Maya concepts can be written in more than one way.
Twenty-six signs versus hundreds of signs? Sounds impossible? Not really. As can be seen in the Syllabary below, while one sign of our alphabet can represent only one sound, Maya writers could select from many different signs to represent one sound. For example, there are at least five different signs that could be chosen to represent the Maya syllable ba.
They had a standard way of expressing numbers as well as a method that was not so standard: Since they associated some of their deities with certain numbers, the symbols of these deities came to represent numbers.
The order to read Maya glyphs is also not as straightforward as it would seem. Since glyph blocks are arranged in a grid, one would think that the reading order is either in rows or columns.