Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Lonely Mayanist



Yuri Knorozov was more than just a noted ethnographer with a passion for the Mayan language.  He was also a cat lover.  While a soldier in the Soviet Army in WWII, he had stumbled upon a rare collection of Mayan codices in the Berlin library, which he brought back with him to Moscow.  This apparently life-changing event inspired to devote his energies to "Mayanology" in virtual isolation from all the other work being done by Eric Thompson and others.  Michael Coe in his book, Breaking the Mayan Code, said this gave Knorozov fresh eyes, as up to this point the elaborate Mayan hieroglyphs had been primarily seen as a graphic language, not a written one.  It seemed the Knorozov had largely been forgotten at the time of the writing of this book in 1992.

Knorozov, who had previously focused on Egyptology, wrote a paper, Ancient Writing of Central America, in 1952 in which he made the case for the hieroglyphs being phonetic, not logographic as widely believed.  He used the "alphabet" produced by a 16th century Spanish priest, Diego de Landa, to help unlock the code.  De Landa's "alphabet" had similarly been dismissed by Mayanists.  It took some time before there was acceptance of Knorozov's insights, which in turn inspired a young David Stuart who eventually unlocked much of the language, as shown in the Nova television special, based on Coe's book.

Yuri became a hero not only in the Soviet Union, but was awarded the Order of the Aztec Eagle by the Mexican government for his breakthrough studies.  He was the subject of a 2000 documentary, released shortly after his death in 1999.

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