Knorosov, Yuri (1922–1999)

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Knorosov, Yuri (1922–1999)

Yuri Valentinovich Knorosov was a Russian-Ukranian linguist, epigrapher, and ethnographer who carried out groundbreaking work in the decipherment of Maya hieroglyphic writing. He was born on November 19, 1922, of Russian parents in Pivdenne near the city of Kharkiv (Kharkov in Russian) in eastern Ukraine. Knorosov's upbringing in Ukraine (his grandmother was Armenian) exposed him to different languages. Perhaps his background explains why Knorosov, who initially studied medicine, eventually turned to cultural anthropology and linguistics at Moscow State University. Later he joined the Institute of Ethnography in Leningrad, which was part of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, and received his Doctorate of Science. Knorosov's publications on languages and ancient scripts began to appear in 1949.

Over the years Knorosov worked with decipherments in Egyptian, Harrapan, and Easter Island scripts, but it is for his contributions to the decipherment of Maya hieroglyphs that he is best known. The story has been widely circulated that Knorosov, who was in the Red Army during World War II, saved a copy of the Maya Dresden Codex from a burning library in Berlin in 1945. However, people close to Knorosov state that he was a military communications engineer behind the lines and that the tale of his library rescue was partially conjured by himself. What did happen was that various books on the Maya were confiscated by the Red Army from a national library in Germany and sent to Moscow, where Knorosov accessed them, including a copy of the Dresden Codex and studies in Maya language and writing.

Knorosov's contributions to Maya hieroglyphic writing are enormous. Until the late 1970s the general interpretation of Maya writing was that it consisted of numbers, calendars, pictographs, and undecipherable signs. Scholars believed that Maya calendar hieroglyphs and astronomy could be studied from their writing, but not their language, culture, or history. Knorosov and others challenged this assumption. As a linguist and anthropologist, Knorosov realized that writing, and particularly ancient scripts, are often syllabic in nature; consonant-vowel combinations (CV, CV-CV, or CVC) are commonly represented in writing, as in Egyptian hieroglyphs. Equipped with these insights and the Dresden Codex, Knorosov went to work deciphering the ancient Maya script.

Knorosov's breakthrough was derived from his utilization of "Landa's alphabet," which many previous epigraphers had dismissed as being inaccurate. This bilingual text (an important tool for deciphering unknown writing) is part of Bishop Diego de Landa's Relación de las cosas de Yucatán (c. 1566), which covers Yucatec Maya culture. Landa, and possibly other priests, attempted to extract the Spanish alphabet from a Maya informant writing Maya signs for Spanish syllables (ah, be, se, and so forth). Fortunately, Spanish vowel-consonant combinations are represented in Mayan languages (Spanish "hey" vs. English "gee" for the letter g, for instance). Knorosov worked with the entire Landa alphabet and not merely a few signs as others had done.

Another advantage of Knorosov's research was that he examined the Dresden Codex for his decipherments. This codex, containing writing together with paintings on stuccoed paper, was probably created in Yucatán just before the Spanish Conquest. The book exhibits a large corpus of Maya hieroglyphs with patterned substitutions (also necessary for making decipherments). Additional advantages of using the Dresden Codex are that it presents linguistic elements found in Yucatec Mayan, which was familiar to Knorosov, and its texts describe the painted scenes. Thus, he was able to discern Landa's "cu" sign placed over what Knorosov suspected to be a "chu" sign to make cuch or "burden." This hieroglyph is associated with images of people carrying burdens. Similarly, "ku" and "tzu" make kutz or "turkey," and "ku" alongside its twin render kuk, which is "quetzal bird." These signs also appear next to their corresponding avian images. Knorosov also picked out linguistic details in Mayan languages, including the verb ending "ah" in chukah ("capture/captured," written as "chu + ka + ah").

Subsequent work in Maya epigraphy has shown that Knorosov was largely correct in his findings regarding the nature of the script. Yet his decipherments were challenged for decades because of East-West antagonisms, Knorosov's peripheral position in Maya studies, and the inaccuracy of some of his proposed readings. However, Knorosov's pivotal work led him to decipher many Maya hieroglyphs, and he opened the door for future research in ancient Maya writing.

Knorosov's contributions made it possible for scholars to examine phonetic elements, attain additional decipherments, and have a greater understanding of the structure of Maya hieroglyphs. The study of syllables and vowel length in Maya writing in the early twenty-first century is based upon Knorosov's advancements. Additionally, a crucial finding stemming from Knorosov's work is that Maya writing contains historical information about ancient Maya elites and events in their lives, including their names and titles, births, wars, coronations, marriages, rituals, and deaths. Students of Maya culture can now read texts about the dedication of buildings and monuments, ownership of objects, and qualities of material culture. Without Yuri Knorosov, it is possible that little would have been currently known about Maya writing beyond calendars, mathematics, and basic life histories of Maya rulers.

See alsoMaya, The; Mayan Epigraphy.


Coe, Michael D. Breaking the Maya Code. London: Thames and Hudson, 1992.

Knorosov, Yuri V. Selected Chapters from "The Writing of the Maya Indians," ed. T. Proskouriakoff; trans. Sophie Coe. Cambridge, MA: Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, 1967.

                                                Joel Palka

                                     Yuriy Polyukhovych