Saturday, May 28, 2022

Texts as Objects

Sarah E. Jackson has a PhD from Harvard. She is on the anthropology faculty at the University of Cincinnati. She and Linda Brown co-direct fieldwork at Say Kah, a Classic Maya site in NW Belize. Jackson recently published a brilliant article entitled "Hieroglyphic Texting: Ideologies and Practices of Classic Maya Written Evidence" in Cambridge Archaeological Journal Volume 30, Number 4 (2020). She explores the ontology (nature of being) of Maya texts by looking closely at depictions of glyphs on Maya painted ceramic vessels. She is interested in how the ancient Maya perceived and experienced texts, what they understood as the inherent capabilities of written content. Jackson's piece reminds me of a series of 3 articles Stephen Houston (Brown University) and Marc Zender (Tulane University) wrote in the blog Maya Decipherment in June 2018 entitled "Touching Text in Ancient Mexican Writing", "The Ugly Writing", and "What Writing Looks Like". It should come as no surprise that Houston is her most cited source, appearing 13 times in her bibliography. With one exception, her illustrations come from the inimitable Justin Kerr, with most artifacts in the Dumbarton Oaks or Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) collections.

I found Jackson's insights into the nature of texts as understood by the Classic Maya absolutely fascinating. Numerous parallels with the Book of Mormon text ("Mormon's Codex" per John L. Sorenson) are undeniable. I was also impressed with the number of Jackson's illustrations that depict scribes and other elite individuals with beards.

Jackson refers to this painted ceramic vase in the Dumbarton Oaks collection several times. The glyph that floats in the air between the 2 central individuals signifies "holiness". As with all images on this blog, click to enlarge.

K512 Gesturing Individuals in Discourse

For the significance of hand gestures in the Book of Mormon and ancient Mesoamerica, see the blog article "Mesoamerican Speech Gesture" and the Evidence Central Evidence Summary #0036 "Book of Mormon Evidence: Hand Gestures (Mesoamerica)".

In the list below, Jackson's characterization of Maya texts (and in a few cases, texts in general) precedes the Book of Mormon corollary.

1. Maya scribes recorded lived experiences. Book of Mormon authors wrote about things they had seen and heard (Omni 1:23-24).

2. Maya scribes wrote in different voices. Book of Mormon authors recognized multiple voices (3 Nephi 11:3-6).

3. Maya scribes recorded local history. Book of Mormon scribes recorded local history (Jacob 1:2-3).

4. Maya texts suffer from fragmentary data sets. Book of Mormon authors explain that they cannot record even the hundredth part of what they know (Helaman 3:14).

5. Maya texts suffer from interpretive lacunae. The Book of Mormon records many instances where people do not understand the meaning of texts (Mosiah 26:1-3).

6. Maya texts exhibit bias. Nephite texts are often biased (Enos 1:20).

7. Maya texts have layered interpretations. Nephite texts can have layers of meaning (1 Nephi 22:1).

8. Maya texts were primarily elite objects. Among the Nephites, elites had superior access to education (3 Nephi 6:12).

9. Maya glyphs are logosyllabic, combining phonetic syllables and word signs. Egyptian hieroglyphs also contain both phonetic and symbolic word elements. The Book of Mormon script had a strong Egyptian affinity (Mormon 9:32).

10. Maya scribes wrote on large carved stone monuments. The Book of Mormon describes a large engraved stone stela (Omni 1:20).

11. Maya scribes painted murals on walls. The Book of Mormon records an instance of writing on a temple wall (Alma 10:2).

12. Maya scribes recorded texts on portable personal objects. The Nephites wrote texts on portable personal objects (Mosiah 2:8).

13. Maya scribes wrote on perishable objects. The Nephites wrote on flammable objects (Alma 14:8).

14. Maya literacy was limited in extent. Literacy among the Nephites and Lamanites was limited in extent (Mosiah 24:6).

15. Maya texts were the domain of royalty. The large plates of Nephi were controlled by kings (Omni 1:11).

16. The Maya had trained scribes. The Nephites had trained scribes (Mormon 1:4).

17. Maya scribes recorded regal personal histories. Nephite scribes wrote about the reigns of their kings (Jacob 3:13).

18. Maya scribes recorded important political events. Nephite scribes recorded important political events (Alma 61:5).

19. Maya scribes recorded religious observances. Nephite scribes recorded religious observances (Alma 4:4-5).

20. Maya texts name people. Nephite texts name people (Jacob 1:1).

21. Maya texts name objects. Nephite texts name objects (Alma 37:38).

22. Maya texts contain narratives. Nephite texts contain narratives (Mosiah 28:9).

23. Maya texts contain discourses. Nephite texts contain discourses (Alma 32:12).

24. Maya texts must be deciphered. The Book of Mormon describes texts awaiting decipherment (Mosiah 8:11).

25. Maya texts get translated into other languages. The Book of Mormon describes texts getting translated into other languages (Mosiah 28:11).

26. Different Maya languages have varying linguistic traits. The Book of Mormon describes languages with varying linguistic traits (Omni 1:17).

27. Some Maya texts are propaganda advancing specific agendas. Some Book of Mormon texts are propaganda advancing specific agendas (3 Nephi 3:7).

28. The Maya had specialized language schools where scribes learned their craft. The Nephites had specialized language schools (Mosiah 1:2).

29. Maya texts can be seen as entities in and of themselves. The Book of Mormon can be seen as an entity in and of itself (Moroni 10:28).

30. Maya texts have internally consistent patterns. The Book of Mormon has internally consistent patterns, what linguist Royal Skousen calls "systematic phraseology". Royal Skousen, editor, 2009, The Book of Mormon: The Earliest Text, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, Editor's Preface.

31. There is a close intersection between Maya text and iconography. Charles Anthon, who saw a copy of Nephite script at Columbia College in 1828, described it as having letters in "perpendicular columns" and a "rude representation of the Mexican zodiac". Richard E. Bennett, "Martin Harris's 1828 Visit to Luther Bradish, Charles Anthon, and Samuel Mitchill" in Dennis L. Largey, Andrew H. Hedges, John Hilton III, and Kerry Hull, Editors, 2015, The Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon: A Marvelous Work and a Wonder, Provo: BYU Religious Study Center.

32. Maya texts could change over time. Painted ceramic vessels could be repainted. The Book of Mormon plates changed over time (Moroni 1:4).

33. Maya texts are accompanied by beliefs and practices. Nephite texts are accompanied by beliefs and practices (Moroni 4:2-3).

34. Maya texts can be invisible or hard to see. The Book of Mormon was hidden for 1,400 years. Book of Mormon, 2013 Edition, "Brief Explanation about the Book of Mormon". Even though it has been available to the public since March 26, 1830, the Book of Mormon is routinely ignored by the vast majority of people on the planet.

35. We now have a large volume of Maya texts available for study. The Book of Mormon in English translation (2013 edition) has 531 pages, 15 books, 239 chapters, 6,604 verses, and 268,158 words counting ancient apparatus such as colophons but not counting modern accretions such as chapter headings. So, we have a large volume of Nephite texts available for study.

36. In their cultural area, Maya texts are seemingly ubiquitous. In the Mormon corridor, SE Idaho to SE Arizona, the Book of Mormon can seem ubiquitous as with toponyms named Ammon, Bountiful, Lehi, Manti, Mormon Lake, Moroni, and Nephi.

37. Many aspects of Maya texts are repetitive. The Book of Mormon has hundreds of repetitions and parallelisms. Many parallelisms are part of formal literary structures such as chiasmus. See Book of Mormon Central 2018 KnoWhy #415, "Why Did Nephite Authors Use Repetitive Resumption?"

38. Anthropologists recognize transformations in the Maya world associated with the use of writing. The Book of Mormon records an instance of societal transformation associated with the use of writing (Mosiah 24:6-7).

39. Some Maya texts are conflictual narratives. The Book of Mormon records many instances of conflictual narrative (Alma 50:26).

40. Maya texts were owned, gifted, and exchanged. Book of Mormon texts were owned, gifted, and exchanged (Alma 37:1).

41. Maya texts have expectations related to their creation and consumption. The Book of Mormon has expectations related to its consumption (Moroni 10:4).

42. Maya texts may enter into a person. The Book of Mormon describes the word as a seed that may be planted in one's heart (Alma 32:28).

43. Maya texts may have a moral dimension. The Book of Mormon has a moral dimension (Mormon 6:21).

44. Maya texts may involve personal callings. The Book of Mormon describes personal callings (Alma 13:6).

45. Maya texts can contain rules, knowledge and practices for organizations. The Book of Mormon is a repository of rules, knowledge and practices for the church (Moroni 6:2-9).

46. Texts can be emotionally-charged letters. The Book of Mormon has several instances of emotionally-charged letters (Alma 60).

47. Containers can preserve valuable documents. The Book of Mormon plates were preserved in a stone box (Book of Mormon Testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith).

48. Texts can act as mediators. The Book of Mormon records instances of treaties between polities (Mosiah 7:21).

49. Texts can become alive to the reader. The Book of Mormon explicitly describes words that grow and are alive (Alma 32:41).

50. Maya texts can speak to supernaturals as part of ritual communications. The Book of Mormon includes prayers addressed to God as part of ritual communications (Moroni 4:3).

51. Texts can be tool-like, able to do work and cause action. The Book of Mormon explicitly describes divine words endowed with vast power (Mormon 9:17).

52. Maya texts are often attached to locations in the landscape. The Nephite record repository was located at hill Shim (Mormon 4:23) and later hill Cumorah (Mormon 6:6).

53. Maya texts, the hieroglyphs themselves, appear to be real things with presence and solidity. They are concrete, have weight, and take up space. Book of Mormon plates were real, tangible objects (1 Nephi 19:1).

54. Maya images depict glyphs being picked up, held, and moved. The Book of Mormon plates could be picked up, held, and moved (Mormon 6:6).

55. One Maya glyph reads "holiness". The term "holiness" appears 10 times in the Book of Mormon (2 Nephi 8:11). The term "holy" appears hundreds more.

56. Maya texts frequently reference temporal periods, units of time. The Book of Mormon frequently references temporal periods, units of time (Alma 16:1).

57. Maya iconography depicts many instances of human-text interaction. The Book of Mormon has many instances of human-word of God interaction (Alma 31:5).

58. In Maya iconography, humans are caretakers of texts. In the Book of Mormon, humans are caretakers of plates (Jacob 1:3).

59. In Maya iconography, humans can also have violent relationships with texts. The Book of Mormon contemplates violence against Nephite records (Mormon 6:6).

60. Maya texts affirmed genealogy and identity. Book of Mormon records affirmed genealogy and identity (1 Nephi 5:14).

61. Maya texts provided a relationship with deceased ancestors. Book of Mormon records provided a link with deceased ancestors (Alma 37:9).

62. Maya texts describe an official act of "seating" that marked entry into political office. The Book of Mormon uses the word "sat" to mark entry into political office (Alma 4:17).

63. Maya texts could be objects of tribute. The Book of Mormon describes the plates of brass as highly coveted objects of great value (Mosiah 10:16, Alma 20:13).

64. Maya texts and iconography depict authority figures as seated. The Book of Mormon describes authority figures as seated (Helaman 6:15).

65. Maya texts have strength and power. The Book of Mormon characterizes the word of God as quick and powerful (Helaman 3:29).

66. Maya texts could be buried or cached. The Book of Mormon plates were buried or cached (Mormon 8:4).

67. Maya texts were authored or re-authored by multiple humans. The Book of Mormon was authored by multiple humans (Omni 1:8-10).

68. Maya texts were constructed in different episodes, separated by time and space. The Book of Mormon was compiled in different episodes, separated by time and space (Words of Mormon 1:1).

69. Subsequent readers were understood to take part in Maya text construction or revision. In the Book of Mormon, future readers were understood to take part in text construction (Mormon 8:35-36).

70. Ownership of Maya texts seems to have been a weighty responsibility. Ownership of Book of Mormon texts was clearly a weighty responsibility (Alma 37).


There are 70 ways the Book of Mormon is similar to ancient Maya texts and/or texts in general. I view this list as a powerful witness of the authenticity of the Nephite record. It is also of interest to note the artistic representations of bearded Maya scribes and nobles that illustrate Jackson's article.

 Justin Kerr K4340

Justin Kerr K5450

Justin Kerr K2697

At European contact, few native Americans could grow beards. Most had no facial hair at all or only sparse, thin, wispy chin whiskers. This is in marked contrast to the naturalistic portrayals of bearded individuals we find throughout the repertoire of Mesoamerican art. In general, heavier beards appear earlier in the iconographic record and fake costume beards begin to appear at later dates. The most parsimonious explanation for this phenomenon is a genetic bottleneck event such as the ethnic cleansing at hill Cumorah ca. AD 384.