Between text and image: An analysis of pseudo-glyphs on Late Classic Maya pottery from Guatemala

Inga E. Calvin
Dept. of Anthropology, University of Colorado at Boulder
July, 2006


To explore the parameters of literacy for members of Late Classic Period Maya society (A.D. 550--950), this dissertation focuses on the morphology and provenience of pseudo-glyphs on pottery recovered from government sanctioned archaeological projects in the Southern Lowlands of Guatemala. As defined by Longyear (1944, 1952), the term 'pseudo-glyph' describes elements or signs that resemble hieroglyphs in terms of placement on the vessel and general physical appearance but that do not conform to the established canons of Maya hieroglyphic inscription. Pseudo-glyphs mimic writing but do not form coherent phrases. To define the nature of pseudo-glyphs, this research integrates data from epigraphy, archaeology, art history and statistical analysis. This dissertation examines 121 pseudo-glyph decorated sherds and whole vessels from Altar de Sacrificios, Motul de San JosĂ©, Arroyo de Piedra, Dos Pilas, Tamarindito, Piedras Negras, PoptĂșn, Seibal, Tikal and Uaxactun. Epigraphic analysis led to the creation of a Maya Pseudo-glyph Catalogue illustrating the 314 individual elements not included in the corpus of recognized Maya hieroglyphic signs. Few of these elements appear on more than a single ceramic vessel. The majority of pseudo-glyphs derive from undecorated, small bowls recovered from middens and construction fill. Comparison of the corpus of vessels with pseudo-glyphs and a sample of 100 Classic Period Maya ceramics embellished with legitimate hieroglyphic texts indicates that greater resources, labor investment, artistic expertise and esoteric knowledge are displayed on pottery with real glyphs. However, examination reveals that the burials of Maya rulers and elites contain more pseudo- glyph decorated vessels than ceramics with real glyphs. Legible writing was not the only criterion employed in deciding which objects to include as grave goods. Although pseudo-glyphs do not represent a script tradition, archaeological provenience, iconographic motifs and resource costs identify these vessels as a valued component of Classic Period Maya culture.