When the Spanish conquered the Americas, they destroyed most of the written records of the civilization that preceded them. There are only three Mayan codices that have survived from the pre-Columbian era—the only books researchers have to study the written language of the Maya.
Now researchers from the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland are trying to make those documents more easily available to researchers. They’re analyzing thousands of symbols found in the codices to create a digital online catalog of Mayan hieroglyphics. It will detail the meanings of different symbols, other common symbols a glyph is often found near in text, and information about different variations of that glyph from various regions and time periods.
The hieroglyphs in Mayan writings are usually written in blocks that contain one or more symbols representing sounds or meanings. The researchers are working with people who still speak the Mayan language to decipher the historical documents and sift through the variations in how pre-Columbian writers drew their hieroglyphs.
The resulting online catalog, developed with the University of Geneva, will be kind of like a Google Translate for the ancient world.