Hieroglyphs and Maya History

May 25, 2003

Arthur Nead

Victoria R. Bricker, professor of anthropology, has been awarded the Tatiana Proskouriakoff Award of the Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology of Harvard University. The Peabody Museum presents the award to recognize outstanding contributions to the field of Maya studies.

Bricker, who has been on the Tulane faculty since 1969, is a specialist in Maya hieroglyphic writing and in the history and literature of the Maya Indians. The Maya, who live in large areas of Mexico and Central America, developed a grand, complex and, for researchers, often puzzling civilization centuries before the arrival of Europeans to the New World. Bricker became interested in anthropology as an undergraduate at Stanford University, and went on to earn her master's and doctorate in anthropology at Harvard.

Starting out as an ethnographer--someone who studies modern people--Bricker did field research in the highlands of Chiapas, Mexico, studying the role that humor plays in modern Maya communities. She published her research in 1973 as Ritual Humor in Highland Chiapas. Moving from ethnology to ethnohistory and linguistics, Bricker launched into Maya hieroglyphic studies in the early '80s.

Bricker, who speaks (and teaches) several modern Maya languages, became interested in the grammar of pre-Columbian texts, and in 1986 contributed a book called A Grammar of Maya Hieroglyphs.

"I'm not an archaeologist, but I am aware of what's going on in the field," says Bricker. The early days of Maya archaeology were marked by discoveries of ruins of fabulous "lost cities" in the jungles of Mexico and Central America. This was followed by rigorous and scientific archeological exploration, together with attempts at understanding the history of Maya civilization. A major change in Maya archaeology came with the possibility of deciphering hieroglyphs, says Bricker.

"Because then it wasn't prehistory, it was history," she says. "So you have archaeological sites and hieroglyphic texts, and the possibility of putting things together, of fleshing out the stones and the bones, and learning something about the lives of the rulers, their marriages and wars."

Working with Maya hieroglyphic codices, or ancient folding books, is one of Bricker's specialties. While much hieroglyphic scholarship has focused on pre-Columbian stone monuments, Bricker, in collaboration with her husband, Harvey Bricker, an archaeologist and Tulane professor of anthropology, has been working on the codices.

"Much less has been done on them," she says. "I would say that he and I, and our students as well, are doing much of the work on them."

Bricker is also using colonial texts from Mexico and Central America to illuminate pre-Columbian history. One of her current projects is to use colonial records, including wills, to establish a chronology of El Nino drought cycles that might be projected into pre-Columbian times, perhaps to explain why certain Maya centers lost their viability.

Most recently, Bricker and a colleague in Germany, Helga-Maria Miram, have published a translation of a Maya book written during colonial times, not in hieroglyphs, but in the Yucatec Maya language. The book, An Encounter of Two Worlds: The Book of Chilam Balam of Kaua, is a patchwork of literary material, including such items as a story from the Arabian Nights, herbal remedies, and a 365-day church calendar listing saints' days, paired with the equivalent days from the traditional Maya calendar.

"The book is an assemblage of European and Maya knowledge," Bricker says. "It tells us something about what the Maya thought was important about European views of the world."

Bricker is optimistic that Tulane, which has a distinguished history of Maya research, will continue to play a leading role in the field, pointing to the annual Maya Symposium sponsored by the Center for Latin American Studies, which debuted in November 2002. The second symposium will be held this fall and will focus on the northern Maya lowlands of the Yucatan peninsula.

Arthur Nead can be reached at

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