Skip to comments.Secrets of old mask still hidden, duo say
Posted on 01/26/2004 12:55:39 PM PST by nickcarraway
BYU-Yale duo disputes decipherment claim for words on old mask They dispute claim that words were deciphered
A mysterious ancient stone mask from Mexico has spoken but apparently only to say that its people's written language remains undeciphered.
A study by Brigham Young University archaeologist Stephen Houston and his colleague from Yale University, Michael D. Coe, say the mask disproves earlier claims that the language had been cracked.
Their paper is to be published in "Mexicon," a journal about news and research from Mesoamerica. The title is "Has Isthmian Writing Been Deciphered?"
The "Teo Mask" may be about 1,600 to 1,900 years old. It was carved in a hard, greenish stone. The inside surface is covered with mysterious hieroglyphs.
In 1993, two researchers John S. Justeson of the State University of New York, Albany, and Terrence Kaufman of the University of Pittsburgh, both anthropology professors claimed in the journal Science that they had deciphered that written language.
Kaufman and Justeson call the writing "epi-Olmec script." However, Houston and Coe term it "Isthmian" because it was written by people who lived on and around Mexico's Isthmus of Tehuantepec. They date to within five centuries before and after A.D. 1.
Kaufman and Justeson said they had deciphered the writings based on semantic clues associated with known cultural practices and a similarity of the hieroglyphs to other writings in the region that had been deciphered.
They claimed to be able to read the earliest writings known from North America, inscriptions on large stone carvings called stela found in Veracruz, Mexico. The dates on the stones, they added, were A.D. 159 and A.D. 162.
The announcement made international headlines. But Houston and Coe doubt anyone can read the script.
Houston, an anthropology professor who is an expert on ancient Mesoamerica, won a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship in 2002. When he attended Yale, he was a student of Coe's.
Coe, a retired anthropology professor from Yale, was author of the 1992 book, "Breaking the Maya Code." The book details the work of Coe and colleagues in deciphering the written Mayan language. Houston had a role in that effort.
They write in their new paper that Justeson and Kaufman are respected scholars, but they disagree that the writings have been deciphered.
The writing is "immensely complex. That is, it's very well developed with a large number of signs," Houston told the Deseret Morning News.
If it really were readable, he said, "it would open the window to a big chunk of the past."
The mask turned up about 15 years ago. Its extensive number of symbols means it is an important addition to the tiny canon of writings in the script. In a private collection, the mask was brought to the attention of Houston and Coe by a colleague of theirs.
"It's one of the very few well-preserved examples that's ever come to light of this writing system," Houston said.
The find allowed scientists to check the supposed meaning of hieroglyphs as published by Justeson and Kaufman.
Coe has outlined factors that need to be in place before a persuasive decipherment can be made of an ancient written language. Some sort of parallel script should be available from a language that has been deciphered. The unknown script should represent a language that is well-understood, with cross-ties to imagery that allow scientists to check the meanings.
"The fact of the matter is, that none of these were in place for this proposed decipherment," Houston said.
A huge problem, as he sees it, is that few examples of this writing system are known. Writings by the Maya may number 10,000 examples. With this script, however, the number may be just over 10, he said.
When the mask became available, it presented a new opportunity to evaluate Kaufman and Justeson's claims.
"Mike and I diligently plugged in the values" that were cited for the hieroglyphs in the earlier research, he said.
The results? The message would be an odd series of words like "Blood . . . mouth . . . take he take . . . "
Houston and Coe write in their paper that the "decipherment" carried out on the mask's symbols "tells us nothing new, unexpected or even expected about this Isthmian text and the mask that displays it.
"Instead, the inserted values yield a semantic mishmash."
Justeson's and Kaufman's purported decipherment "is, in our view, unlikely to be valid," they concluded.
Despite repeated attempts to reach them by telephone and e-mail, Justeson and Kaufman did not agree to an interview.
But Justeson sent a one-sentence comment by e-mail concerning Houston and Coe's study: "Their arguments against our methods and results are easily answered, and we will answer them in an appropriate scientific outlet." The statement is signed by both Justeson and Kaufman.
Houston said the definite way in which the original findings were posted hampered scientific discussion. It "has made it more difficult to discuss, because now it has become an uglier issue, disagreeing with these two fellows," he said.
"I really believe, on our present evidence, it's impossible to decipher this writing system," Houston said. "We just don't have the elements in place to make it happen."
BYU's Stephen Houston holds a copy of ancient script from Mexico. He disagrees with claims that "Teo Mask" words have been deciphered.
"Teo Mask" writings appear on the inside of the mask. In 1993, two researchers asserted that they had deciphered the language.
The mask may be between 1,600 and 1,900 years old.
Sounds about right for the Meso-American culture.
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SO! Here is the reason, one calls it "epi-Olmec script" Houston and Coe term it "Isthmian". Obviously, different languages. - Nothing has been written in the last 11 years in either language and all languages change.
2,500 Years Before Columbus[W]hen the last Shang king was defeated and killed by rivals in 1122 B.C., his loyalists were forced to flee to the "East Ocean" or Pacific, notes Xu in his new book, Origin of the Olmec Civilization (University of Central Oklahoma Press, 1996)... Numerous notable Chinese scholars have confirmed Xu's readings of the Olmec inscriptions, including Han Ping Chen, a scholar of ancient Chinese from the Historical Research Institute at the China Social Science Academy. After examining 146 characters and symbols from the Olmec culture, Chen reported: "These symbols, if found or excavated in China (except rock art and carving), would certainly be regarded as prehistoric Chinese characters or symbols. Of 146 symbols, many are 100 percent identical to ancient Chinese characters. Some, I am afraid, can be easily recognized by Chinese first graders in elementary schools..." ...William Boltz of the University of Washington and Robert Bagley of Princeton dismissed as "rubbish" the notion that the characters could be Chinese. The criticism infuriates Xu -- and rightly so, we might add. "Most experts in Olmec studies do not have any idea about ancient Chinese writings and Asian cultures or tradition," says Xu, who was educated in both China and the United States. "How on Earth could they comment on top Chinese scholars reading Chinese as 'rubbish'?"
by Patrick HuygheChinatown, 1000 B.C.Mike Xu, a linguist at Texas Christian University... has spent years analyzing jade, stone, and pottery relics from the Olmec, an ancient people that inhabited the American Southwest and Central America 3,000 years ago. He was struck by how closely the symbols on the artifacts resembled Chinese inscriptions from the Shang dynasty in China. "There are hundreds of these symbols that occur again and again, throughout the entire Olmec territory," Xu says. The Shang writings date from 1600 to 1100 b.c. Traces of the Olmec civilization abruptly appear during this span, around 1200 to 1100 B.C. Olmec and Shang artistic styles look much alike, and the two cultures followed related religious practices. For instance, both used cinnabar, a red pigment, to decorate ceremonial objects, and both put jade beads in the mouths of the dead to ward off evil. "The similarities are just too striking to be a coincidence," he says.
by Jocelyn SelimA tale of two culturesThe Smithsonian's Meggers says that Chen's analysis of the colors "makes sense. But his reading of the text is the clincher. Writing systems are too arbitrary and complex. They cannot be independently reinvented."
by Charles FenyvesiThe Olmec and the ShangLast year, in a book entitled Origin of the Olmec Civilization, Professor Mike Xu, a Chinese who teaches in the foreign languages department at the University of Central Oklahoma, proposed a hypothesis which aroused a storm of controversy in archeological circles. In Xu's view, the first complex culture in Mesoamerica may have come into existence with the help of a group of Chinese who fled across the seas as refugees at the end of the Shang dynasty. The Olmec civilization arose around 1200 BC, which coincides with the time when King Wu of Zhou attacked and defeated King Zhou, the last Shang ruler, bringing his dynasty to a close.
by Claire Liu
tr. by Robert Taylor
Origin of the Olmec civilization
by H. Mike Xu
An Inquiry into the Origin
of Pre-Columbian Civilization
by James Gruener
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