Yuri Knorosov

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Historians, chroniclers and history books; Historical figures

Yuri Valentinovich Knorosov (alternatively, Knorozov; in Russian: Юрий Валентинович Кнорозов; b. November 19, 1922 — d. March 31, 1999) was a Russian linguist, epigrapher and ethnographer, who is particularly renowned for the pivotal role his research played in the decipherment of the Maya script, the writing system used by the pre-Columbian Maya civilization of Mesoamerica.

Early life

Knorosov was born in a village near Kharkov in present-day Ukraine, at that time the capital of the newly-formed Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. His parents were Russian intellectuals, and his paternal grandmother had been a stage actress of national repute in Armenia.

At school, the young Yuri was a difficult and somewhat eccentric student, who made indifferent progress in a number of subjects and was almost expelled for poor and wilful behaviour. However, it became clear that he was academically bright with an inquisitive temperament; he was an accomplished violinist, wrote romantic poetry and could draw with accuracy and attention to detail.

In 1940 at the age of 17, Knorosov left Kharkov for Moscow where he commenced undergraduate studies in the newly-created Department of Ethnology at Moscow State University's faculty of History. He initially specialised in Egyptology.

Military service and the "Berlin Affair"

Knorosov's study plans were soon interrupted by the outbreak of World War II hostilities along the Eastern Front in mid-1941. From 1943 to 1945 Knorosov served his term in the Soviet Union's " Great Patriotic War" in the Red Army as an artillery spotter.

At the closing stages of the war in May of 1945, Knorosov and his unit supported the push of the Red Army vanguard into Berlin. It was here, sometime in the aftermath of the Battle of Berlin, that Knorosov is supposed to have by chance retrieved a book which would spark his later interest in and association with deciphering the Maya script. In their retelling the details of this episode have acquired a somewhat folkloric quality ("...one of the greatest legends of the history of Maya research"; Kettunen 1998b).

According to the version of the anecdote which became widely-reproduced (particularly following the 1992 publication of Michael Coe's Breaking the Maya Code ), while stationed in Berlin he came across the National Library while it was ablaze. Somehow Knorosov managed to retrieve from the burning library a book, which remarkably enough turned out to be a rare edition containing reproductions of the three Maya codices which were then known (the Dresden, Madrid and Paris codices). Knorosov is said to have taken this book back with him to Moscow at the end of the war, where its examination would form the basis for his later pioneering research into the Maya script.

However, in an interview conducted a year before his death, Knorosov provided a different version of the anecdote. He explained (Kettunen 1998a, 1998b) that:

Inner courtyard of the Preußischen Staatsbibliothek (2005)
Inner courtyard of the Preußischen Staatsbibliothek (2005)

"Unfortunately it was a misunderstanding: I told about it [finding the books in the library in Berlin] to my colleague Michael Coe, but he didn't get it right. There simply wasn't any fire in the library. And the books that were in the library, were in boxes to be sent somewhere else. The fascist command had packed them, and since they didn't have time to move them anywhere, they were simply taken to Moscow. I didn't see any fire there."

The "National Library" mentioned in these accounts is not specifically identified by name, but at the time the library then known as the Preußischen Staatsbibliothek (Prussian State Library) had that function. Situated on Unter den Linden and today known as the Berlin State Library (Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin), this was the largest scientific library of Germany. During the war, most of its collection had been dispersed over some 30 separate storage places across the country for safe-keeping. After the war much of the collection was returned to the library, however a substantial number of volumes which had been sent for storage in the eastern part of the country were never recovered, with upwards of 350,000 volumes destroyed and a further 300,000 missing. Of these, many ended up in Soviet and Polish library collections, and in particular at the Russian State Library in Moscow.

Resumption of studies

any possible system made by a man can be solved or cracked by a man.
—Yuri Knorosov (1998), St. Petersburg. Interview published in Revista Xamana (Kettunen 1998a)

In the autumn of 1945 after the war, Knorosov returned to Moscow State University to complete his undergraduate courses at the department of Ethnography. He resumed his research into Egyptology, and also undertook comparative cultural studies in other fields such as Sinology. He displayed a particular interest and aptitude for the study of ancient languages and writing systems, especially hieroglyphs, and he also read in medieval Japanese and Arabic literature.

While still an undergraduate at MSU, Knorosov found work at the N.N. Miklukho-Maklai Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology (or IEA), part of the prestigious Academy of Sciences of the USSR. Knorosov's later research findings would be published by the IEA under its imprint.

As part of his ethnographic curriculum Knorosov spent several months as a member of a field expedition to the Central Asian Russian republics of the Uzbek and Turkmen SSRs (what had formerly been the Khorezm SSR, and would much later become the independent nations of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan following the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union). On this expedition his ostensible focus was to study the effects of Russian expansionary activities and "modern" developments upon the nomadic ethnic groups, of what was a far-flung frontier world of the Soviet state.

At this point the focus of his research had not yet been drawn on the Maya script. This would change in 1947, when at the instigation of his professor, Knorosov wrote his dissertation on the " de Landa alphabet", a record produced by the 16th Century Spanish Bishop Diego de Landa in which he claimed to have transliterated the Spanish alphabet into corresponding Maya hieroglyphs, based on input from Maya informants. De Landa, who during his posting to Yucatán had overseen the destruction of all the codices from the Maya civilization he could find, reproduced his alphabet in a work (Relación de las Cosas de Yucatán) intended to justify his actions once he had been placed on trial when recalled to Spain. The original document had disappeared, and this work was unknown until 1862 when an abridged copy was discovered in the archives of the Spanish Royal Academy by the French scholar, Charles Etienne Brasseur de Bourbourg.

Since de Landa's "alphabet" seemed to be contradictory and unclear (e.g., multiple variations were given for some of the letters, and some of the symbols were not known in the surviving inscriptions), previous attempts to use this as a key for deciphering the Maya writing system had not been successful.

Key research

the page from Diego de Landa's Relación de las Cosas de Yucatán (1853 edition by Brasseur de Bourbourg), which contained description of the de Landa alphabet which Knorosov relied upon for his breakthrough.
the page from Diego de Landa's Relación de las Cosas de Yucatán (1853 edition by Brasseur de Bourbourg), which contained description of the de Landa alphabet which Knorosov relied upon for his breakthrough.

In 1952 Knorosov published a paper which was later to prove to be a seminal work in the field (Drevnyaya pis’mennost’ Tsentral’noy Ameriki, or "Ancient Writing of Central America".) The general thesis of this paper put forward the observation that early scripts such as ancient Egyptian and Cuneiform which were generally or formerly thought to be predominantly logographic or even purely ideographic in nature, in fact contained a significant phonetic component. That is to say, rather than the symbols representing only or mainly whole words or concepts, many symbols in fact represented the sound elements of the language in which they were written, and had alphabetic or syllabic elements as well, which if understood could further their decipherment. By this time, this was largely known and accepted for several of these, such as Egyptian hieroglyphs (the decipherment of which was famously commenced by Jean-François Champollion in 1822 using the tri-lingual Rosetta Stone artefact); however the prevailing view was that Mayan did not have such features. Knorosov's studies in comparative linguistics drew him to the conclusion that the Mayan script should be no different from the others, and that purely logographic or ideographic scripts were not actually so.

Knorosov's key insight was to treat the Maya glyphs represented in de Landa's alphabet not as an alphabet, but rather as a syllabary. He was perhaps not the first to propose a syllabic basis for the script, but his arguments and evidence were the most compelling to date. He maintained that when de Landa had commanded of his informant to write the equivalent of the Spanish letter "b" (for example), the Maya scribe actually produced the glyph which corresponded to the syllable, /bay/, as spoken by de Landa. Knorosov did not actually put forward many new transcriptions based on his analysis, nevertheless he maintained that this approach was the key to understanding the script. In effect, the de Landa "alphabet" was to become almost the "Rosetta stone" of Mayan decipherment.

A further critical principle put forward by Knorosov was that of synharmony. According to this, Mayan words or syllables which had the form consonant-vowel-consonant (CVC) were often to be represented by two glyphs, each representing a CV-syllable (i.e., CV-CV). In the reading, the vowel of the second was meant to be ignored, leaving the reading (CVC) as intended. The principle also stated that when choosing the second CV glyph, it would be one where the vowel sound matched that of the first glyph syllable. Later analysis has proved this to be largely correct.

Critical reactions to his work

Upon the publication of this work from a then hardly-known scholar, Knorosov and his thesis came under some severe and at times dismissive criticism. J. Eric S. Thompson, the noted British scholar regarded by all as the leading Mayanist of his day, led the attack. Thompson's views at that time were solidly anti-phonetic, and his own large body of detailed research had already fleshed-out a view that the Maya inscriptions did not record their actual history, and that the glyphs were founded on ideographic principles. His view was the prevailing one in the field, and many other scholars followed suit.

The situation was further complicated by Knorosov's paper appearing during the height of the Cold War, and many were able to dismiss his paper as being founded on misguided Marxist- Leninist ideology and polemic. Indeed, in keeping with the mandatory practices of the time, Knorosov's paper was prefaced by a foreword written by the journal's editor which contained digressions and propagandist comments extolling the State-sponsored approach by which Knorosov had succeeded where Western scholarship had failed. However, despite claims to the contrary by several of Knorosov's detractors, Knorosov himself never did include such polemic in his writings.

Knorosov persisted with his publications in spite of the criticism and rejection of many Mayanists of the time. He was perhaps shielded to some extent from the ramifications of peer disputation, since his position and standing at the institute was not adversely influenced by criticism from Western academics.

Progress of decipherment

During the 1960s, other Mayanists and researchers began to expand upon Knorosov's ideas. Their further field-work and examination of the extant inscriptions began to indicate that actual Maya history was recorded in the stelae inscriptions, and not just calendric and astronomical information. The Russian-born but American-resident scholar Tatiana Proskouriakoff was foremost in this work, eventually convincing Thompson and other doubters that historical events were recorded in the script.

Other early supporters of the phonetic approach championed by Knorosov included Michael D. Coe and David Kelley, and whilst initially they were in a clear minority, more and more supporters came to this view as further evidence and research progressed.

Through the rest of the decade and into the next, Proskouriakoff and others continued to develop the theme, and utilising Knorosov's results and other approaches began to piece together some decipherments of the script. A major breakthrough came during the first round table or Mesa Redonda conference at the Maya site of Palenque in 1973, when using the syllabic approach those present (mostly) deciphered what turned out to be a list of former rulers of that particular Maya city-state.

Subsequent decades saw many further such advances, to the point now where quite a significant portion of the surviving inscriptions can be read. Most Mayanists and accounts of the decipherment history apportion much of the credit to the impetus and insight provided by Knorosov's contributions, to a man who had not as yet set foot outside of his native Russia, but had still been able to make important contributions to the understanding of this distant, ancient civilisation.

Later life

As his theories became more widely known, Knorosov was in 1956 granted leave to attend an international convention of Mesoamerican scholars in Copenhagen. This was to be his one and only venture outside the Soviet Union for quite some time, since as a Soviet academic, Knorosov was subject to the usual restrictions placed on travel outside of the Soviet Union. Over subsequent years western Mayanists needed to travel to Leningrad to meet up with him. It was not until 1990 that he was eventually able to leave Russia again and finally visit the ancient Maya homelands and archaeological sites in Mexico and Guatemala. This was at the invitation of the Guatemalan President Marco Vinicio Cerezo Arévalo, at a time of improved diplomatic relations between the two countries. Cerezo presented him with an honorary medal, and Knorosov was able to extend his stay in the region, visiting several of the important Maya sites such as Tikal. However, shortly after Vinicio Cerezo left office, Knorosov received threats from suspected right-wing militarist groups who were antagonistic to the indigenous Mayan peoples, and was forced to go into hiding and then leave the country.

Knorosov had broad interest in, and contributed to, other investigative fields such as archaeology, semiotics, human migration to the Americas and the evolution of the mind. However, it is his contributions to the field of Maya studies for which he is best remembered.

In his very last years, Knorosov is also known to have pointed to a place in the United States as the likely location of Chicomoztoc, the ancestral land from which --according to ancient documents and accounts considered mythical by a sizable number of scholars-- Indian peoples now living in Mexico are said to have come.

Knorosov died in St. Petersburg on March 31, 1999, of pneumonia in the corridors of a city hospital, just before he was due to receive the honorary Proskouriakoff Award from Harvard University.

List of publications

An incomplete listing of Knorosov's papers, conference reports and other publications, divided by subject area and type. Note that several of those listed are re-editions and/or translations of earlier papers.


Conference papers
  • (1955) "A brief summary of the studies of the ancient Maya hieroglyphic writing in the Soviet Union". Reports of the Soviet Delegations at the 10th International Congress of Historical Science in Rome, (Authorized English translation), Moscow: Akademia Nauk SSSR.
  • (1956) "Kratkie itogi izucheniia drevnei pis'mennosti malia v Sovetskom Soiuze". Proceedings of the International Congress of Historical Sciences (Rome, 1955), pp.343–364.
  • (1958) "New data on the Maya written language". Proc. 32nd International Congress of Americanists, (Copenhagen, 1956), pp.467–475.
  • (1959) "La lengua de los textos jeroglificos mayas". Proceedings of the International Congress of Americanists (33rd session, San José, 1958), pp.573–579.
  • (1970) "Le Panthéon des anciens Maya". Proceedings of the International Congress of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences (7th session, Moscow, 1964)., pp.126–232.
Journal articles
  • (1952) "Drevnyaya pis’mennost’ Tsentral’noy Ameriki. (Ancient Writings of Central America)". Sovetskaya Etnografiya 3 (2): pp.100–118.
  • (1955) "Pis'mennost drevnikh maiia. (Written Language of the Ancient Maya)". Sovetskaya Etnografiya 1: pp.94–125.
  • (1956) "New data on the Maya written language". Journal de la Société des Américanistes de Paris 45: pp.209–217.
  • (1958) "Estudio de los jeroglíficos mayas en la U.R.S.S. (The Study of Maya hieroglyphics in the USSR)". Khana, Revista municipal de artes y letras (La Paz, Bolivia) 2 (17-18): pp.183–189.
  • (1958) "The problem of the study of the Maya hieroglyphic writing". American Antiquity 23 (3): pp.248–291.
  • (1962) "Problem of deciphering Mayan writing". Diogènes (Montreal) 40: pp.122-128.
  • (1963) "Machine decipherment of Maya script". Soviet Anthropology and Archeology 1 (3): pp.43-50.
  • (1963) "Aplicación de las matematicas al estudio lingüistico (Application of mathematics to linguistic studies)". Estudios de Cultura Maya (Mexico City) 3: pp.169-185.
  • (1965) "Principios para descifrar los escritos mayas. (Principles for deciphering Maya writing)". Estudios de Cultura Maya (Mexico City) 5: pp.153-188.
  • (1968) "Investigación formal de los textos jeroglíficos mayas. (Formal investigations of Maya hieroglyphic texts)". Estudios de Cultura Maya (Mexico City) 7: pp.153-188.
  • (1973) "Zametki o kaldare Maia: 365-dnevnyi god". Sovetskaya Etnografiya 1: pp.70–80.
  • (1974) "Notas sobre el calendario maya; el monumento E de Tres Zapotes". América Latina; estudios de científicos soviéticos 3: pp.125–140.
  • (1986) "Acerca de las relaciones precolombinas entre América y el Viejo Mundo". América Latina; estudios de científicos soviéticos 1: pp.84–98.
  • (1954) La antigua escritura de los pueblos de America Central. Fondo de Cultura Popular.
  • (1955) Sistema Pis'ma Drevnikh Maiia. Moscow: Institut Etnografii, Akademia Nauk USSR.
  • (1956) Diego de Landa: Soobshchenie o delakh v Yukatani, 1566. Moscow: Akademia Nauk USSR. (Knorosov's doctoral dissertation)
  • (1963) Pis'mennost Indeitsev Maiia. Moscow-Leningrad: Institut Etnografii, Akademia Nauk USSR.
  • (1967) “The Writing of the Maya Indians”, Tatiana Proskouriakoff (Ed.): Russian Translation Series 4, Sophie Coe (trans.), Cambridge MA.: Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.
  • (1975) Ieroglificheskie Rukopisi Maiia. Leningrad: Institut Etnografii, Akademia Nauk USSR.
  • (1982) Maya Hieroglyphic Codices, Sophie Coe (trans.), Albany NY.: Institute for Mesoamerican Studies.
  • (1999) “Comendio Xcaret de la escritura jeroglifica maya descifrada por Yuri V. Knorosov”, Promotora Xcaret. Mexico City: Universidad de Quintana Roo.
  • (2001) “New data on the Maya written language”, Stephen Houston, Oswaldo Chinchilla Mazariegos and David Stuart, eds: The Decipherment of Ancient Maya Writing. Norman OK.: University of Oklahoma Press, pp.144-152.


  • (1957) "Preliminary Report on the Study of the Written Language of Easter Island". Journal of the Polynesian Society 66 (1): pp.5–17. (on the Rongorongo script, with N.A. Butinov)
  • (1965) Yuri Knorosov (ed.): Predvaritel’noe soobshchenie ob issledovanii protoindiyskikh textov. Moscow: Institut Etnografii, Akademia Nauk USSR. (Collated results of a research team under Knorosov investigating the Harappan script, with the use of computers)
  • (1981) "Protoindiyskie nadpisi (k probleme deshifrovki)". Sovetskaya Etnografiya 5 (2): pp.47–71. (on the Harappan script of the Indus Valley civilization)

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