Cracking the code of an ancient culture

After Simon Martin left a successful design career to spend his days deciphering Mayan hieroglyphics, some of his colleagues thought he was “bonkers.” But for the British-born Martin, now a research specialist in Mayan epigraphy at Penn Museum and an internationally renowned Mayan hieroglyphics expert, the career move made perfect sense—and it was a long time coming.

Ever since Martin was 11 years old, he’d been hooked on the Maya, but when it came to picking a career path, he chose design, earning a Masters degree from London’s Royal College of Art. Specializing in television work—title sequences, commercials, eventually the re-design of a Dutch public television network—Martin’s work took him around the world. But his interest in the ancient Mayan culture persisted.

When his work hit a quiet spell in the late ’80s, Martin found himself searching around for something to fill up long lunchtimes. “I ended up going to the British Museum ethnography library,” he says, “and I’m not even quite sure why now, but I just started reading. I was like a sponge … and by the late ’80s and early ’90s I started disagreeing with some of the things I was reading in books. People proposed certain decipherments [of hieroglyphic symbols] and I knew counterexamples.”

That was when Martin decided to get more serious about his boyhood hobby, traveling to Central America and attending conferences and workshops. In 1993, Martin joined forces with another Maya expert, Nikolai Grube, to propose a new model of ancient Maya political organization, which was featured in the journal Science the following year and led to the publication of “Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens.” That discovery, and the book that accompanied it, proved to be the big breakthrough for Martin. “It allowed me to meet a lot of people and get access to a lot of material,” he says. It also led to a lot of late nights, since Martin was still pursuing his design career during working hours. A fellowship at Washington, DC’s Dumbarton Oaks Research Library allowed him to “put a big toe in the water” before finally cutting ties with his first career.

When the research position at Penn opened up two years ago, Martin jumped at it. “Penn has some of best archival records anywhere in the U.S.,” he says, “and some of the major sites in Guatemala and Mexico have been excavated by the Museum.” Lately Martin has been busy organizing “Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya,” a major exhibit that started out at Washington, DC’s National Gallery and is now at the DeYoung Museum of San Francisco through January.

At Penn, Martin spends his time writing articles and papers, doing research and spreading the word about Mayan hieroglyphics through the Museum’s education program. Since the study of this ancient writing system is relatively young, says Martin, this is an exciting time. “It’s like working on Egyptian hieroglyphics in the mid 19th century. There’s a tremendous amount of material still to be deciphered.” And that won’t be a walk in the park, says Martin, since as a New World language, Mayan hieroglyphics have almost nothing in common with other forms of language. “It’s easily the most complex writing system ever devised,” he says. “It beats the pants off anything else. The Mayans grew up knowing nothing [of the old world], so their idea of what writing constitutes very often is strange and difficult to understand.” Graphically, it’s very different, too, in the way symbols overlap or combine. Though some of the symbols resemble objects—a claw, for example, or a bone—the pictorials are deceptive, says Martin. “The common view of pictographic writing just doesn’t exist. It’s all about taking visual elements and relating them to sound.”

Now that he’s settled into his second career, Martin says that, “in a weird way the impetus for doing both things was surprisingly similar.” Design, he says, is about organization of data and problem solving. So is epigraphy. “But it’s the other way around. It’s about deconstructing and showing how thing were designed, trying to work out the principles of how this thing works.”

On an aesthetic level, he confesses, he was bewitched the first time he saw a Mayan hieroglyphic. “It’s the complexity and the forms. They’re just beautiful—it’s almost like you can’t get enough of it.”

Simon Martin is one of three scholars participating in “Ancient Writing 101,” a day-long program at Penn Museum Nov. 13 that will explore the development of Sumerian cuneiform and Mayan and Egyptian hieroglyphs. For more information, call 215-292-4890 or go to www.museum.upenn.edu/new/events/calitem.php?which=504

Originally published on November 4, 2004