Recent discovery adds to our understanding of ancient Maya civilization.

When Europeans set foot on the shores of the New World, one of the most advanced civilizations they encountered was that of the ancient Maya. With a past spanning close to three millennia, the Maya lived in what is now southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and parts of El Salvador and Honduras. Most of their descendants still live in these regions; others are now in areas further north.

The history of ancient Maya society is characterized by a multitude of ruling lineages, each controlling relatively small territories centered on their capitals. Unlike the ancient Aztecs, the Maya never had a single ruler controlling the entire Maya territory. During what is known as the Classic period a massive power struggle took place between two major Maya dynasties with Tikal and Calakmul as their respective capitals. When not deploying armies in the field, they employed alliances to encircle their foe. Inscriptions bear witness to these struggles, and to shifting alliances. It is against this backdrop that a recent discovery in Belize needs to be interpreted.

Maya MapMap showing the location of sites mentioned in this blog, among them Xunantunich, Naranjo, Caracol, Tikal and Calakmul.

On June 3, 2016 , a tomb was discovered in the ruins of an ancient Maya city called Xunantunich. The site is located in western Belize on the border with Guatemala. The tomb contained the remains of a young man. He was between 20 and 30 years of age, and muscular, judging by the features of his skeleton. He was buried with jade beads, jaguar and deer bones, and fine ceramics. His tomb was beneath the central staircase of a pyramid. Who was he? Nobody knows… Only time and the hard work of archaeologists will tell. However, only feet away from the body, at the base of the same staircase, archaeologists discovered stone panels, engraved with Maya hieroglyphs. Some dusty old Maya glyphs may not sound like much, but these are rewriting Maya history.

arch xunantunichThe tomb was found underneath this pyramid. The blue and green tarpaulins cover carved stone panels. (Image courtesy of Dr. Jaime Awe, NAU).


The pyramid and the tomb below present a rather unique building history. Said Dr. Jaime Awe, professor at Northern Arizona University, who discovered the tomb: “Most tombs in the Maya world are sort of dug into existing buildings. Not in this case! In this case, they constructed this tomb and then built the pyramid on top of it.”

One of the stone panels uncovered during the excavation, called “Panel 3”, is helping to solve a mystery that has intrigued archaeologists for over a hundred years, and is also shedding light on a period of intense competition in lowland Maya history. The panel does not belong at Xunantuncih. When archaeologists translated the text on the panel, they realized that the glyphs were part of a much larger text, originally carved into the steps of a grand staircase located 30 miles away in a city called Caracol. When Naranjo defeated Caracol in 680 A.D., the hieroglyphic stair was dismantled and most of it transported and reassembled at Naranjo. This is not totally unexpected, as portions of that stairway were recovered at Naranjo more than one hundred years ago,and also, more recently, in a city called Ucanal, which lies about halfway between Naranjo and Caracol.

arch xunantunich 2Nighttime photo of Panel 3 (Photograph by Christophe Helmke)


What happened? Why are there pieces of this staircase all over the place? The hieroglyphs on the panels of the stair record events that occurred in the period between 623 and 642 AD, during the reign of K’an II, ruler of Caracol. The text refers to Caracol’s victories over Naranjo in 626 and 631 AD. After their defeat, the people of Naranjo became the vassals of Caracol, and paid homage to that city, probably in the form of produce, luxury goods, and labor. They were also no longer allowed to erect monuments of their own.

Originally, when the first panels were discovered at Naranjo, it was believed that K’an II had the staircase erected in the middle of Naranjo to spite the inhabitants of the defeated city. But we know that in 680 AD, King K’ahk’ Xiiw Chan Chaahk of Naranjo fought back and defeated Caracol, ending years of oppression, and it is now believed that to celebrate their victory, the people of Naranjo ripped up the staircase that had been erected by K’an II and brought it back to their city as a trophy. Pieces of it probably ended up in Xunantunich and Ucanal because those cities were allies of Naranjo, and were gifted a piece of the winnings.

Such was the life of a Maya city in the Classic Period. It’s important to remember that the Maya were not an empire, but a series of city-states, fiercely competing for new territory and access to trade routes. The Maya Classic Period, which ran from about 250 AD to about 950 AD was what some consider the apex of lowland Maya splendor. The majority of the beautiful glyphic texts and some of the greatest Pre-Columbian architectural achievements date to this period. The cities of the lowlands were not the jungle-choked ruins that we see today, they were alive, vibrant, and colorful. Vast areas of forest were cleared for agricultural purposes, and beyond the Maya capitals, with their mountainous temples and palaces, open fields blanketed the countryside, dotted with little hamlets inhabited by farmers.

Thank you to Dr. Teurenhout and Dr. Awe for their assistance in putting this blog together

Further reading:
Sharer, Robert J. and Loa P. Traxler, 2006. The Ancient Maya. Stanford University Press, Stanford.

Learn Hieroglyphics When You Become a Volunteer Docent at HMNS!

by Gillian Callan

Egyptian hieroglyphs. Once thought to be magic writings that contained the secrets to life, they were deciphered by Thomas Young and Jean Francois Champollion in the early 1800’s. What mysteries did they contain? For the majority of the visitors to the Hall of Ancient Egypt, the glyphs are still a mystery – a bunch of squiggles with pictures of animals interspersed. But for the HMNS Hieroglyph Study Group, they are a chance to learn and practice the language of ancient Egypt.

hieroglyphs at the louvre

Egypt fascinated me from early childhood, but I thought I would never get to study or visit Egypt (I did visit nine years ago, and it was fantastic!). So I thought about what I could learn about Egypt without a degree or a plane ticket. I decided that I would learn hieroglyphs. Mark Collier and Bill Manley wrote a book called How to read Egyptian Hieroglyphs. From them, I learned the basics. Then about four years ago, I met a fellow HMNS volunteer who was also interested in hieroglyphs. Another year passed and another volunteer joined HMNS and mentioned that he was also interested in hieroglyphs and asked if we could start a study group. And that’s how we got started.

In order to make our study time worthwhile to the museum, we tasked ourselves with translating as many of the inscriptions in the Egypt hall as we could. To date, we have completed seven of the longer inscriptions and started on several more. The inscriptions fall into two categories: formulaic writings and hymns. The formulaic writings are offerings to the gods. While they follow a set format, we usually find something different in each of them. The hymns are much more difficult. Poetry in any language is harder to interpret than prose, and Egyptian hymns are no different. It also helps if you understand something of the culture of ancient Egypt.


Hieroglyphs on the coffin of Ankh-Hap. His name appears in the lower left-hand corner of this photo.

While our translations have not been published to the volunteer website, we did create a flip book with useful translations from objects in the hall. In the flip book, we included a translation of Ankh-Hap’s name on his coffin. Ankh-Hap is the mummy owned by HMNS. We found the name of Gemshuankh (aka the Jolly Green Giant) on his coffin, but then he got renamed to Ankhemma’at, so we revised his translation. We located Ptolemy’s cartouche on the replica Rosetta Stone. (We even located it in Demotic and Greek!) By the way, all the cartouches on the Rosetta Stone belong to Ptolemy V, Epiphanes – no Cleopatra, no wives’ names, just Ptolemy. The idea behind the flip book is that someone working or giving a tour in the hall can take the flip book out of the touchcart (there is one book in each cart) and take it to an object in the hall and show visitors appropriate glyphs and what they mean. One of my favorites is to show the bird in Bakenrenes’ name, followed by the rest of her name. It is repeated several times on the cartonnage coffin and visitors get a kick out of being able to recognize the glyphs.


The coffin of Bakenrenes. Hieroglyphs appear in the yellow bands across the coffin.


A close-up of the bottom band.

Egyptian hieroglyphs are not a phonetic script, nor are they picture writing. They are a complex combination of phonetics, picture writing and “syllables”. They can be written left to right, right to left and in columns that also have either a left/right or right/left orientation. The favored direction was right to left. But on coffins, the glyphs were written from head to foot. Writers of hieroglyphs also, on occasion, used shortcuts. They fitted the message into the space available and left out what they could, making it difficult at times to read the message correctly. Kind of like today’s usage of text shortcuts like LOL (laugh out loud) or BTW (by the way).


The HMNS Hieroglyph Study Group meets every Sunday in the Volunteer Library around noon. Our current members are Gillian Callen, John Cochran, David Santana and Scott Brown, all HMNS volunteers. I also teach basic hieroglyphs to willing volunteers. Last summer I taught a three-day session on glyphs including grammar and sentence structure. While I am self-taught and by no means an expert, I can introduce you to the basics and give you a feel for the ancient Egyptian language. These classes are only open to HMNS volunteers and staff. So, if you are interested, find out about becoming a volunteer and then you can sign up for a class. Then when you walk through the Hall of Ancient Egypt, those squiggles will jump out at you and make at least a little bit of sense. Happy translating!

Editor’s Note: Gillian is an HMNS volunteer docent.

Chiddingstone Castle curator Maria Esain lays out her all-time favorite objects

Editor’s Note: Today’s blog post comes to us from Chiddingstone Castle curator Maria Esain. Chiddingstone, located in Edenbridge, Kent in the United Kingdom, loaned significant artifacts to HMNS’ Hall of Ancient Egypt.

Many visitors to Chiddingstone ask me the same question: what is your favorite object? I find it the most difficult question to answer, and I can’t choose just one. I tend to like objects that bring plenty of historical information about the people behind them. Particularly in the case of archaeological objects, such as the Ancient Egyptian ones on loan to HMNS.

The selection below is a good example of this. I believe each artifact is an incredible source of information; some with the bonus of being breathtakingly beautiful.

Ibis figure in alabaster and bronze.  Late Period 661-332 BC

Chiddingstone curator Maria Esain shares her favorite ancient Egyptian objects on Beyond Bones

The Ibis was a sacred animal in Ancient Egypt, associated with the god Thoth, who was responsible for writing, mathematics and time. I find it quite impressive that more than 3,000 years ago the Egyptians were such a developed society. They became aware of the importance of recording things and developed hieroglyphics. Other objects demonstrate that their knowledge of mathematics was also incredibly developed.

Monkey khol pot in basalt. Middle Kingdom, ca 2,000BC – 1,750BC

Chiddingstone curator Maria Esain shares her favorite ancient Egyptian objects on Beyond Bones

Another characteristic about Ancient Egyptians that astonishes me is how conscious they were about their personal grooming. This is visible in the many different shaped kohl containers in our collection. Both men and women wore eye make-up for several reasons, including to protect their eyes from the sun’s glare. Wearing make-up also had magical purposes. Animal-shaped containers are recurrent, the most common animals featured being monkeys.

Painted pottery vessel. Predynastic Period, ca 4,500BC – 3,000BC

Chiddingstone curator Maria Esain shares her favorite ancient Egyptian objects on Beyond Bones

This vessel is full of information. As all pre-dynastic objects, it is an invitation to reflect on the length of the Ancient Egyptian civilization. I always explain to our visitors standing in front of our timeline of Ancient Egypt that Cleopatra was as unfamiliar with the Great Pyramids as we are with her.

Shabti of Tamit. Painted wood. New Kingdom. 1550-1086 BC

Chiddingstone curator Maria Esain shares her favorite ancient Egyptian objects on Beyond Bones

The work on this figure is so delicate and intricate, even the eyebrows are carved. This object became very mouldy back in 2008 when the castle had to close for two years, and the Egyptian collection was left with no environmental control. Luckily it was conserved and brought back to all its splendor. Shabtis were funerary figures placed by hundreds inside tombs so that they could undertake agricultural works on behalf of the dead.

Visit our permanent Hall of Ancient Egypt and pick your own favorite artifacts!

Cracking the code: Deciphering ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs with the Rosetta Stone

As you walk through our new Hall of Ancient Egypt, you might wonder how we know so much today about a civilization that thrived thousands of years ago. Here is how we got there: For most of the Middle Ages and even during the Renaissance, ancient Egypt was a vague concept in the Western world, most often associated with Biblical history. All of that changed in 1798.

Napoleon in Egypt and the discovery of the Rosetta Stone

Less than 10 years after the French revolution, Napoleon invaded Egypt. His army was accompanied by scientists, scholars and artists, who collected artifacts and mapped a good number of sites. With the support of Napoleon, this group of people known as the “Savants” started a center for the study of ancient Egypt, the Institut d’ Égypte. Sadly, in 2011, the Institut was severely damaged and most of its library destroyed.

The work by the French scholars culminated in a magnificent and monumental multiple-volume publication, the Description de l’Égypte, which appeared between 1809 and 1828. These volumes unleashed a wave of Egypt-o-mania in European art and design. This wave eventually reached American shores.

The month of July 1799 was of utmost importance in the history of deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphic writing. Sometime around the middle of that month, Pierre François Xavier Bouchard, an officer of the Engineers, found what we now call the Rosetta stone. He was working on reinforcing the defenses of a small fort on the west bank of the Nile, near the small port of el-Rashid (the ancient Rosetta).

Cracking the code: the Rosetta Stone and the decipherment of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic writing
Map of the Nile Delta, identifying the location of Rosetta, where the famous inscription was found. Image courtesy of

Bouchard realized that the stone slab he had found was part of a larger stela inscribed in three scripts. The stone was cleaned, and the ancient Greek text of the inscription translated. Among other things, the Greek text conveyed the order that the inscription be recorded in three different scripts: ancient Greek on the bottom portion, ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs in the top portion. The middle portion was initially thought to have been ancient Syriac; we now know that it is demotic.

News of the Stone’s discovery spread fast. By August 1799, the inscription was in Cairo, at the Institut d’ Égypte. Copies of the text reached Paris by the fall of 1800. We should not forget, however, that there was still a war being fought in Egypt. French forces, initially successful in the conquest of Egypt, were slowly being defeated by an Anglo-Turkish army. After Admiral Nelson destroyed the French fleet at anchor in the bay of Aboukir, and after Napoleon ignominiously slipped through a British blockade on one of the few surviving French ships, a French defeat was inevitable.

By August 31, 1801, the last French units to offer resistance surrendered in Alexandria. By then, the Rosetta Stone had been transported from Cairo to Alexandria to keep it in the hands of French explorers and out of the hands of anyone else. But it was not to be. The victorious British forces took possession of the Stone, after allowing the French scholars to make a cast of the monument. A British warship carrying the Rosetta Stone arrived in Portsmouth in February 1802. It was placed in the London-based Society of Antiquaries, where several plaster casts were made. Engravings made of the inscription were made and widely distributed throughout Europe and even the United States.

The easiest portion of the inscription to translate and publish was the ancient Greek text. The translation, made in 1802 and presented as a paper, was published 10 years later in 1812. The Stone itself was officially donated to the British Museum by King George III in 1802; a painted text on one of the stela’s sides commemorates this act. With only two exceptions, it has remained in the British Museum ever since. Towards the end of the First World War, in 1917, when the Museum was concerned about heavy bombing in London, they moved it to safety along with other portable, ‘important’ objects. The Rosetta Stone spent the next two years in a station on the Postal Tube Railway 50 feet below the ground. Other than during wartime, the Rosetta Stone has left the British Museum only once. In October 1972, it was displayed at the Louvre in Paris alongside Champollion’s Lettre to mark the 150th anniversary of its publication (p. 23).**

Cracking the code: the Rosetta Stone and the decipherment of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic writing
 Cover of Champollion’s Lettre a M. Dacier. Image courtesy of Wikimedia

Even though the inscription is known as the Rosetta Stone, referring to the ancient settlement of Rosetta, it is most likely that the stela fragment was brought to Rosetta as construction material from a more ancient site further inland. It is also probable that it was already broken by the time it was moved to the site of its discovery (p. 26).**

Cracking the code: the Rosetta Stone and the decipherment of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic writing
Reconstruction of the Rosetta Stone. Image courtesy of Wikimedia

Based on similar decrees of the same period, it is likely that the original shape of the Rosetta Stone included a rounded top, as can be seen in the reconstruction drawing (p.26).** The shape of the monument can also be seen toward the end of the last line of the hieroglyphic text.

Cracking the code: the Rosetta Stone and the decipherment of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic writing
Black and white drawing of the Rosetta Stone. The original shape of the monument is shown in the final portion of the last sentence written in hieroglyphs. Image courtesy of Wikimedia

The original shape of the monument is shown in the final portion of the last sentence written in hieroglyphs.

Deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphic writing and the role of the Rosetta Stone.

The decipherment of the Rosetta stone involved the contributions of many individuals. Among these were Swedish scholar Åkerblad; two British men, Bankes, a collector of antiquities, and a linguist, Young. Across the Channel, there were two Frenchmen, the orientalist de Sacy and a fellow by the name of Champollion.

An initial step towards reading ancient Egyptian texts came when de Sacy, working on the demotic portion of the text, identified the name of Ptolemy. In 1802, Åkerblad identified the demotic equivalents of “Egypt”, “temples”, “king”, and “Greek.” Unfortunately, both men were hampered in their attempts to crack the hieroglyphic portion by firmly believing that this script was alphabetical, a premise that proved to be false (p.31).**

In 1816, the British scholar Thomas Young, identified the name Ptolemy inside a cartouche on the hieroglyphic section of the stone. Using insights from the demotic text, he assigned the correct values of p, t, ma/m, i, s to five hieroglyphic signs (p.31).** In 1821, in a similar exercise, Bankes correctly translated the name “Cleopatra” inside a cartouche on an obelisk from Philae.**

It was a French scholar, Champollion, who by 1822 truly broke the code. Working with an engraving of the stone and a rendering of it in the Description, Champollion managed to go further than other researchers of his time. By 1822, he was aware of the work done by Young and Bankes. Working with a total of fourteen signs, he deciphered cartouches of other members of the Ptolemaic dynasty and even some Roman emperors. All of this led to Champollion writing his report, the Lettre à M. Dacier, which was read at the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres in Paris on September 27, 1822 (p.35).** In 1824, Champollion’s letter was published. Subsequent application of Champollion’s insights on Egyptian texts in the British Museum collections proved that he was correct(p. 38 – 39).**

Champollion did not live long to savor his achievement. He was appointed curator at the Louvre in 1830. He held this position until 1832, when he died from a stroke (p.40).**

We all benefit from the hard work of these pioneers and those who came after them. They made it possible to read a vast corpus of ancient Egyptian texts. Texts carved in stone, like the Rosetta text, as well as those painted on pottery shards and shell, or carved in wood, are on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Each in their own way lift the veil of this distant past. Their messages vary from prayers on a papyrus to a medal issued to a soldier; all help us to understand what it must have been like to walk and talk like an ancient Egyptian.

What did the text on the Rosetta Stone say?

The inscription dates to 196 BC. It is an official document, with a message of thanks – in triplicate – from some priests to the ruler of Egypt, Ptolemy V. Its content is interesting for those who like Hellenistic history; others might think that reading a part of the IRS code is equally interesting. A translation of the demotic portion of the inscription can be read here.

At the end of each text portion, we read that “the decree should be written on a stela of hard stone, in sacred writing, document writing, and Greek writing, and [that] it should be set up in the first-class temples, the second-class temples and the third-class temples, next to the statue of the King, living forever.” It is therefore very likely that several copies of the Rosetta Stone exist, as yet undiscovered.

**Dates and other factual information sourced here, for further reading: Parkinson, Richard, 1999. Cracking Codes. The Rosetta Stone and Decipherment. University of California Press, Berkeley.