Media and Text

Written Media

A variety of different materials served as surfaces for writing and imagery, but due to the tropical, humid climate, most of the texts that have survived are recorded on stone, which may be free-standing (stelae or altars), incorporated into architecture (lintels, panels, or steps), or surfaces occurring naturally in the environment (caves).

In addition, there exists a large quantity of painted texts on ceramics, most of which were discovered in burial sites. Numerous texts were also engraved on artifacts created from jade, animal or human bone, and mollusk or snail shells. These latter objects were personal possessions of members of the nobility and have been primarily fond in graves and the occasional cache.

Mural paintings with scenes of daily court life and dedicatory texts in palaces, temples, and caves constitute additional source materials. These sources, which are found in both private and public spaces, provide a glimpse into the social structure of the royal court and the daily life of the nobility.

Finally, there are also the codices, or accordion-like, folded books composed of bark paper. The only three codices that have survived into the present are presently housed in various museums in Europe and date to the end of the Post-Classic.

Text Range

The signs in the hieroglyphic texts were ordered not literally, but rather in spatially distinct, square or rectangular units (so-called “blocks), which in most cases correspond to a word. A statistical investigation of the average number of hieroglyph blocks and their distribution within a text has yet to be conducted and can only be undertaken after the data have been compiled into a text database. Stelae usually display an illustration of a figure on the front side, often accompanied by short hieroglyphic texts; on the back side, the stela often features additional hieroglyphic texts, which can contain between ten to 120 glyph blocks, depending on the region.

Exact figures are available from the site of Pusilha in southern Belize, for example. On the ten extant stelae, there are a total of 553 glyph blocks, and when taking into account the additional textual media recovered at the site, the total number of glyph blocks reaches 581. A study of the monumental sculpture of Dos Pilas, Guatemala, indicates that 572 glyph blocks are found on the site’s 14 stelae, with an average of 41 blocks per monument. In contrast, Pusilha features an average of 55 blocks per stela.

Significantly longer hieroglyphic texts with up to 500 glyph blocks may be found on so-called hieroglyphic stairways, such as those discovered at Sabana Piletas, Dos Pilas, Yaxchilan, or Copan. Of these, the hieroglyphic stairway of Copan represents the longest monumental text of the Maya region, with roughly 2500 glyph blocks. The longest texts of the Maya culture are found in the three codices, in which a total of 5770 glyph blocks have been preserved.

Texts on small objects are significantly shorter, with between one and 20 blocks, yet quantitatively more frequent. The formatting of the texts on the nearly 2000 inscribed ceramic vessels that have been documented is anything but uniform. In addition to vessels that feature only a single glyph block, ceramic texts with almost 100 glyph blocks have also been found. The average number of glyph blocks per vessel is estimated to be approximately 20.

In most cases, an individual hieroglyphic block corresponds to one word and is comprised of three to four signs, whereby a stela with 40-50 blocks contains some 200-300 signs. Calculating with these generously rounded numbers gives a total of around 400,000 glyph blocks in the roughly 8,000 documented Maya hieroglyphic texts. In his catalog of Maya hieroglyphs, Eric Thompson registers about 25,000 blocks; however, his compilation is selective, many of his classifications are incorrect, and he does not take into account calendrical or astronomical passages, or texts on ceramic vessels.

A precise statistical analysis is available from the codices: there are a total of 14,150 signs in the 5,770 preserved blocks, or an average of three signs per block. Based on this number, the entire corpus of the pre-Hispanic Maya culture can be estimated to contain roughly 2.4 million hieroglyphic signs.


The lack of a comprehensive register of all known texts, as well as the fact that the corpus is continuously being expanded by archaeological excavations, make an exact assessment of the total number impossible. Sylvanus Morley’s 1948 list can be used as a starting point for compiling an inventory: it contains 115 sites with 1,313 text carriers, most of which can be dated by their calendrical references. However, Morley’s list was already incomplete even at the time it was compiled, because the author predominantly registered monumental inscriptions with calendrical information. The ceramic vessels and small finds with inscriptions that had been uncovered in the context of archaeological projects remained unaccounted for, because contemporary understanding of the Maya script held that these texts did not contain any linguistic information.

Today, 491 archaeological sites of the Maya culture with an estimated corpus totaling close to 5,000 texts carriers are known to date. In addition, there are close to 500 text carriers made of stone, several hundred small objects, as well as several thousand inscribed ceramic vessels of unknown provenience. A provisional assessment of all text carriers shows that there are close to 500 extant texts of known provenience from the Mexican state of Yucatán, around 800 from Campeche, some 100 from Quintana Roo, approximately 200 from Tabasco, and about 1,200 from the state of Chiapas, for a total of 2,800 texts of known provenience from Mexico. Furthermore, there are circa 1,300 extant texts from the central Lowlands of the Maya region in the contemporary Guatemalan Department of Petén, about 100 from the Guatemalan Highlands, and a good 200 text carriers from secure archaeological contexts in Belize. Around 600 hieroglyphic texts are current known from Honduras and El Salvador, most of which come from Copan. Approximately 500 monumental texts, 2,000 ceramic vessels with text, and some 300 texts on small objects of unknown origin can be added to this text corpus. Finally, the total 271 pages of the three extant Maya codices are taken into account, which produces a cautious estimate of some 8,000 total objects for the corpus of extant texts.

It is more difficult to estimate the number of texts that will be discovered in the coming years and decades, because numerous Maya cities remain hidden undetected in the forest, some known sites have been either only partially or not at all subjected to archaeological investigation, and new source materials are expected to be found during new excavations even in well-studied sites. However, a total quantity of texts as great as that known from pharonic Egypt or cuneiform-period Mesopotamia can certainly be ruled out. Between 1980 and 2000, around 900 new inscriptions were uncovered as part of archaeological excavations in newly discovered and previously known sites in the Maya lowlands. Over the course of this project, it is expected that another circa 900 new texts will be identified.