Mark Van Stone, Epigrapher

In 2011, I traveled by bus through the Yucatan and Belize with a number of American scholars. One of them understood the language of the Maya.  Mark Van Stone is an author, calligrapher, designer and illustrator. He is also a world-class Maya epigrapher, meaning he can read and write Maya glyphs.

Mark Van Stone astride the great Pyramid at Lamanai, Belize.

He came to calligraphy late in life after finding his computer engineering degree led to rather boring jobs. He studied the Book of Kells at Trinity College in Ireland. He mastered medieval European letterforms and Egyptian hieroglyphics. He also studied Arabic and Japanese calligraphy, but his favorite writing system is that of the ancient Maya. He studied with the legendary Linda Schele at University of Texas. He currently teaches art history at Southwestern College in California.

Dr. Van Stone was one of my favorite colleagues and traveling companions on my Maya world tour. He explained to me that many Maya glyphs are ideograms, compact illustrations, like the apple on my computer, but others are phonetic devices representing sounds or syllables. It is only in the last thirty years that experts, like his late mentor Linda Schele, figured out the sounds and meanings for most of the glyphs.

Dr. Van Stone humored me and wrote Kutztown in Maya glyphs. As we know, there is more than one way to pronounce ‘Kootztown’, so he came up with two variants.

Using a flash light to increase readability of glyphs at Lamanai.

Mark Van Stone has an amazing amount of energy, both intellectual and physical. At more than one of the archaeological sites we visited, we were told we wouldn’t have time to see all the glyphs. He didn’t accept that. He would race up and down pyramids and jungle trails to document every known glyph at the site. I’ve read his two books pictured above. Reading Maya Glyphs, which he co-authored with Michael Coe is the best introduction to the subject. His latest book,(which he was good enough to send me in electronic form) is a lively collection of illustrated essays about the so-called Maya prophecies about 2012.

In the PBS NOVA documentary, Cracking the Maya Code, it is Mark Van Stone’s hand that draws the glyphs that appear on-screen. One of his most amazing calligraphy jobs was drawing the scribbled pages for the giant pirate’s book in Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean. You never know where calligraphy might lead you!

4 thoughts on “Mark Van Stone, Epigrapher

    1. Thanks for the comment, Julie. I concur. He is brilliant, and I am glad I got to know him.
      Oddly enough, I am reading a book at the moment called This Recruit by Kieran Lalor. about the Marines.
      Best, Kevin

  1. Very interesting. Makes me wonder what the evolution of Mayan pictographs would look like if they’d been allowed to evolve over time, such as Chinese, Korean and Phonetian symbols have.

  2. Hi Jeff. It is fascinating. If you ever get to the U Penn Museum in Philadelphia, check out their Maya stuff.
    They have a great collection of ceramic vessels with glyphs, much more that the Met in NY. I haven’t seen the collection at the Field in Chicago, that is also supposed to be good.

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