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The Incredible Discovery of Yuri Knorozov

By Chris Capps    3/17/10

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Yuri Knorozov is not a well known name in the field of Archaeology, unfortunately, but he made a discovery that inevitably solved one of the greatest mysteries of all time: that of the lost language of the Mayans.  Knorozov not only was a linguist himself, but a soldier and archaeologist that made the adventures of Indiana Jones look like a spring stroll around campus.

In the midst of World War II, Knorozov was drafted into the Soviet Union's Red Army as an artillery spotter, which found him eventually in Berlin during the invasion at the end of World War II.  Shortly after the battle of Berlin, Knorozov found himself running through a library as it was burning to the ground where he happened upon an old dusty book that had somehow survived the ravages of the long battle.  Always a scholar first, Knorozov reached down and dusted it off.  As his colleagues urged him to keep moving, Knorozov read the title to himself.  It was this rare manuscript that would change how we looked at Mayan language forever.

As the Preußische Staatsbibliothek, the library they had been exploring burned, Knorozov looked upon his finding and knew it would be important.  He was right.  After the war, Knorozov found himself completing his undergraduate course at the department of Ethnography.  His research in Egyptology shared time with his comparative cultural studies of several other world cultures.  One of these was Mayan language.  Years later he would recover the book once again and it would assist him in making a discovery that had vexed archaeologists for years.  What do the Mayan hieroglyphs mean?

Generally it's expected that a language, even a completely alien one, can be deciphered by counting the number of different characters that appear in the text.  If the number of glyphs or symbols ranges somewhere around 30, then it is likely a Somali language, or alphabet.  If there are thousands of symbols, it is likely an ideogram based language, such as that of ancient Chinese origin where each symbol represents an individual idea or thought.  However, the Mayan language was clearly not thousands of symbols, but also far too many to be a variation of cuneiform.  The Mayan language consisted of images, but these images held many similarities and some differences.  It was not a form of ideogram directly, but rather a pronunciation key put together from various images that were combined or slightly different from others.

For example, an image of a hand, meaning completion, would be accompanied by another seemingly vestigial symbol or adornment, but this adornment would rather be a variation on the word's pronunciation in order to create a new word.  This language was so hard to crack that when the discovery was finally made, several actually considered it a hoax for several years afterward until it was finally confirmed through extensive study.  The language of the Maya had finally been decoded.  What followed would be messages thought to have been lost hundreds of years prior as texts were burned and destroyed.

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