James L. Fitzsimmons received his PhD from Harvard University in 2002. He has held writing fellowships at Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collections in Washington, D.C., and the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom. His research interests include the following: anthropology of death, rise of complex societies, and origins of writing. In addition to his articles and book chapters, Fitzsimmons is the author or editor of five books, including Death and the Classic Maya Kings (University of Texas Press, 2009) and Classic Maya Polities of the Southern Lowlands (co-edited with Damien Marken; University of Colorado Press, 2015).


A Spectrum of Literacy: Writing and the ancient Maya

Most scholars would agree that ancient Maya had the most complex, sophisticated writing system in Precolumbian Mesoamerica. From the third century BC to the Spanish Conquest, the Maya carved or painted hieroglyphics in virtually every media available. To some of us, it might seem that the Maya created a problematic system. It is impossible to write quickly or in shorthand; it refuses to express ideas rapidly.  What makes this writing system fascinating is that problems like these are intentional: for the ruling class, broad illiteracy was a key part of statecraft. The emphasis on complex, interwoven imagery and esoteric information in the inscriptions was one of the ways in which they attempted to control information. This paper will examine the degree to which that control was successful, looking at archaeological case studies that blur the line between literacy and illiteracy, from ancient Maya commoners to kings.


Rohatyn Center for Global Affairs
Robert A. Jones 59 House
148 Hillcrest Road
Middlebury, VT 05753