Secrets of old mask still hidden, duo say

They dispute claim that words were deciphered

By Joe Bauman


A mysterious ancient stone mask from Mexico has spoken — but apparently only to say that its people's written language remains undeciphered.BYU's Stephen Houston holds a copy of ancient script from Mexico. He disagrees with claims that "Teo Mask" words have been deciphered.

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."Teo Mask" writings appear on the inside of the mask. In 1993, two researchers asserted that they had deciphered the language.

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."