Hieroglyphic Texting: Ideologies and Practices of Written Evidence in Classic Maya Epigraphic Landscapes

A Lecture by Sarah E. Jackson, University of Cincinnati


This paper approaches the topic of ancient epigraphic landscapes by playing with concepts of spatiality and writing technologies. My case study is the Classic Maya (ca. AD 250-900, in Mexico and Central America), who used a logosyllabic hieroglyphic writing system. In this paper, I explore social contextualization of their writing, understanding texts as embedded not only within their physical or built environments, but also within their cultural settings, pointing towards distinctive, local landscapes of literacy ideologies – that is, beliefs about texts. Such spatially defined experiences of textual engagement are coupled with a need to examine specific, local technologies of writing, framed here as texts’ abilities to accomplish cultural work. In order to understand how texts were experienced and understood in a particular time and place, I use Maya textual and iconographic evidence to investigate: What can texts do? What are the meanings and capabilities of texts? What roles do texts play, and what relationships occur between humans and texts? Intriguingly, in reconstructing elements of Classic Maya literary ideologies and practices, we see that the Maya conceived of hieroglyphs as materialized and real, capable of sustaining social ties, and notably tenacious in their efficacy, even in textually adverse circumstances. These observations challenge and enrich our understandings of an ancient Maya textual landscape. Furthermore, they also impact our modern methodological stance by pointing towards ways that we must engage differently with ancient textual evidence, shifting our understandings of key ideas related to written evidence such as authorship, literacy, and textual control.