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Analysis of Olmec Hieroglyphs


Version 1, 2006-09-18; 1.1, 2006-09-19; 1.2, 2006-09-20

  The recent discovery of the Cascajal Block in Veracruz, announced on 2006-09-14, is a cause for both delight and despair for people interested in writing systems. We rejoice to learn that writing was known in the Americas some four centuries earlier than previously believed. But we do not know the Olmec language, and although it is believed that it was related to the Mixe and Zoque languages which today have some 150,000 speakers, nevertheless the new text is very short, and offers no context as to content. With no guarantee that anyone will find a Mesoamerican Rosetta Stone, it is uncertain that we shall ever know what the document says.
  But that doesn’t mean that it has nothing to tell us. For more than a decade my work has been involved with the analysis and encoding of characters belonging to more than 50 writing systems in the Universal Character Set (ISO/IEC 10646 and Unicode). If anyone is qualified to look at a set of never-before-seen glyphs and make an analysis of the entities it contains, I suppose I am.
  This is not an attempt at decipherment. It is simply an analysis of the content of the document. I think that since we don’t know the Olmec language, it is extremely unlikely that anyone will decipher the text of this document in the absence of additional finds (and probably an extensive bilingual text), which would be the only way of really comparing the text with any of the living Mixe and Zoque languages. All I am attempting to do here is to organize the 62 glyphs on the Cascajal Block so that the text can be analysed.
  Now, to start with, I have had to deal with some limitations. I do not have access to the Cascajal Block myself, and have so far only seen the low-resolution greyscale image published by Science and re-published by a number of other news providers, such as the National Geographic. I printed this out, and then went over the outlines with a darker pen in an attempt to make the text more legible. I scanned that text and made a font of the characters which I found. I give here on the left the photo of the Block, in the centre the original scan, and on the right my sharpening of it. I am certain that there will be errors in my own tracing, but then, I did the best with what I had, and this is just a start. I am hopeful that it will soon be possible to get a look at a higher-quality image.
Cascajal BlockCascajal transcriptionCascajal text

The term “Olmec Hieroglyphs”

 Although some Mayanists prefer the term “Maya script” to the term “Maya Hieroglyphs” which was more common previous to the decipherment, I don’t see any particular reason to eschew the term as it identifies the pictographic nature of the glyphs. Accordingly, I use the term “Olmec Hieroglyphs” alongside Anatolian, Cretan, Egyptian, and Míkmaq Hieroglyphs. Time will tell as to whether this term will be accepted generally.

The repertoire of Olmec Hieroglyphs

  The first order of business is to look at the text and see what is there. In the image published by the discoverers, the 62 glyphs on the block are tagged with numbers 1 to 62. These comprise what appears to me to be 30 unique characters. A few of these characters represent easily-identifiable everyday things. The third-to last characters (number 60) may be surmounted by three sets of scratches which may or may not have significance.
  Giving each of the glyphs in the text an individual tag-number has a certain utility. One can say that the “insect” glyph appears at positions 1, 23, and 50, but those tag-numbers do not tell us much about the structure of the script. The relation of glyphs to other glyphs does mean something, however—but to make the relation meaningful, each glyph has to have a unique character identity. I have grouped the glyphs into characters and have assigned the 30 characters numbers from 01 to 30.
  I have also assigned names to the characters. The reason for this was so that they can be talked about. Louis Godart did the same in his book on the Phaistos Disc. Apart from INSECT, EAR OF CORN, and perhaps HOUSE, most of the characters could be described in any number of ways. But I prefer FLOWER to *POPSICLE, FENCE to *ENVELOPE, and CACAO POD to *OCTOPUS (I admit that it is not very cacao-podlike). I have no illusions that I have identified most or all of the glyphs correctly. I would be grateful to learn from experts in Mesoamerican iconography if any of the less obvious shapes are reminiscent of anything in particular. The list could certainly be improved.
  One other thing I did was to make a preliminary group classification: A "Animals", B "Vegetables", C "Points", D "Squares", E "Circles", F "Oblongs", and G "Overlays". This classification is crude and arbitrary, and it would be surprising if after some discussion it did not change. But in the short term, I think that the names and the classification here, however crude, will assist in discussion of the characters in this script.
  Because this proposal is a preliminary analysis, it has not been reviewed, and my classification has no authority. I am adopting the following convention. The first character is A-01 INSECT. Should review approve this name and class, the hyphen can be deleted and the form A01 INSECT can be adopted.
  In the table below, I give first the number I have assigned to each sign, then a representative glyph, then the name I have assigned, then a description giving a rationale for the choice of the name, then a count of the number of times each character occurs in the text, then the tag-numbers assigned on the original published drawing, and finally I column for remarks.
  In the remarks I give a few references to the relative positions of a few characters in the text. Also, to satisfy my own curiosity, I looked for and came across a Mixe dictionary, so I put in the Mixe terms for ‘fish’, ‘corn‘ and ‘house’. (It’s a pity that the dictionary didn’t list terms for ‘insect’, ‘ant’, or ‘ear of corn’.) I don’t think that this is necessarily useful or meaningful, and I don’t know what the corresponding Zoque terms are, though it would be interesting to know. I have also noted two instances where characters have a superficial resemblance to two glyphs in the "Isthmian script. Again, I include these not because I suggest the resemblance is significant, but only because I noticed it.
SignCASCAJAL BLOCK SIGNDescriptionCountTagsRemarks
A-0101INSECTAntennae and six legs31 23 50Could be “word”-initial.
Twice followed by B-08.
A-0202BEETLEAntennae and wing covers226 51 
A-0303FISHSomewhat fishlike213 42Mixe akx ‘fish’.
A-0404ANIMAL SKINA cleaned pelt39 27 54 
A-0505TUNICAn animal skin with belt and skirt38 41 62Twice followed by B-07.
B-0606GOURDHas a bent neck334 44 61 
B-0707EAR OF CORNStem below, kernels, silk27 40Could be “word”-initial.
Twice followed by A-05.
Mixe mook ‘corn’,
yoow ‘kernel of corn’.
B-0808FLOWERStem below, two leaves above42 24 38 52Twice preceded by A-01.
B-0909PINEAPPLEFruit below, three leaves above416 45 53 59 
B-1010BROMELIADThree leaves above13?Could be B-09 or E-23.
B-1111PALMTrunk below, three leaves above14 
C-1212KNIFEGrip above, blade below233 56 
C-1313CLUBOr chilli pepper?414 17 47 49Twice followed by C-14.
C-1414CLUB AND BATA club bound to a bat.
Or chilli pepper and gourd?
218 48Twice preceded by C-13.
D-1515HOUSEA roof and two doors219 35Mixe tëjk ‘house’.
D-1616FENCEOr a wall? Or a brick?120 
D-1717POUCHA leather pouch with flap121 
D-1818BUILDINGLower and upper floor236 43 
E-1919BALLA circle with an X122Resembles Isthmian Isthmian glyph.
E-2020BALL WITH BLADEE-19 with a blade below212 60 
E-2121CACAO PODOr a shell?130 
E-2222CACAO POD WITH BARE-21 with bar211 55 
E-2323BAGA bag with tie310 25 39 
F-2424PLANKA rectangle with belt15?Could be F-26.
F-2525BUNDLECloth wrapped in a string36 29? 37Resembles Isthmian Isthmian glyph.
Tag 29 could be unique.
F-2626AXEHEADOblong stone with belt tie215 46 
F-27 27HILTSome sort of grip228 58 
F-2828MACEMacehead and staff157 
G-2929PLANKS WITH OVERLAYOr a dragonfly?131 
G-3030PLANK WITH OVERLAYOr a butterfly?132 
  The frequency distribution of the Cascajal Block signs is: 4-4-4-3-3-3-3-3-3-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1

Inscription text

  It is hardly possible to describe whether or not there are "words" in the text, though some groupings and gaps or shifts in level in do appear; I have inserted a space into the text where such a break occurs, and marked that in the numeric transcription below with a solidus /. These breaks may or may not be significant. The discoverers' transcription tags the glyphs with right-to-left directionality as follows:
Row 1010810 112425 0705
Row 20423 2220 0313
Row 326091314 15161719 0108230204
Row 4272521 29301206
Row 515 18 250823
Row 607050318060926131413
Row 70102080904 2212282709 200605
  In numerical transcription:

A-01 B-08 B-10 / B-11 F-24 F-25 / B-07 A005
A-04 E-23 / E-22 E-20 / A-03 C-13
F-26 B-09 C-13 C-14 / D-15 D-16 D-17 E-19 / A-01 B-08 E-23 A-02 A-04
F-27 F-25 E-21 / G-29 G-30 C-12 B-06
D-15 D-18 / F-25 B-08 E-23
B-07-A-05 A-03 D-18 B-06 B-09 F-26 C-13 C-14 C-13
A-01 A-02 B-08 B-09 A-04 E-22 C-12 F-28 F-27 B-09 E-20 B-06 A-05

Directionality and patterns

  It is not entirely clear whether strict left-to-right directionality can be assumed for the text. Vertical directionality appears to be a feature of Isthmian writing, and a mixed horizontal/vertical directionality is used in Maya writing. The following patterns are interesting; two of the configurations (the first and the fourth) involve horizontal/vertical directionality.
1 2 3 / 9 100108100423
23 24 25 26 270108230204
50 51 52 53 540102080904
7 8 / 13 1407050313
40 41 42 4307050318
15 16 17 1826091314
45 46 47 48 490926131413
HTML Michael Everson, Evertype, Cnoc na Sceiche, Leac an Anfa, Cathair na Mart, Co. Mhaigh Eo, Éire, 2006-09-20

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