@Dumbarton Oaks

Collection MS.PC.001 - Yuri Valentinovich Knorozov Papers, 1945-1998

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Yuri Valentinovich Knorozov Papers, 1945-1998


  • 1945-1998 (Creation)

Level of description


Extent and medium

14 boxes of papers
1 oversize box of newspapers

Context area

Name of creator

Knorozov, IU. V. (1922-1999)

Biographical history

Knorozov was born in 1922 in Khar’kov, Ukraine. His parents had Russian and Armenian roots and were members of the Soviet intelligentsia. By the time Knorozov graduated from high school, he spoke Russian, Ukrainian, and some German. In 1939, he was admitted to the Khar’kov State University where he majored in history.

Knorozov met the beginning of the war of 1941-1945 in the Ukraine. The country was soon occupied by the German army. Knorozov and his mother eventually managed to cross the battle lines back to the Soviet-controlled territory in 1943. Knorozov was then able to continue his undergraduate education at the Lomonosov Moscow State University (MSU). His college friends recalled that he was fascinated with writing systems and paleography, especially with Egyptian hieroglyphs. In 1944, Knorozov entered the military service. After the end of the war in 1945, he went on to complete his undergraduate studies at the MSU. His thesis on the Shamun Nabi mausoleum and the associated oral and written tradition was based on his fieldwork in Xorazm (Khwarezm/Khorezm), Uzbekistan, as a member of the archaeological-ethnographic expedition of 1945-1948 directed by Sergei Tolstov. Knorozov’s first publication in the Sovetskaia Etnografiia journal (“Soviet Ethnography”) in 1949 was based on his undergraduate thesis.

In 1949, Knorozov moved to St. Petersburg. Thanks to the efforts of Sergei Tokarev, another of Knorozov’s mentors at MSU, he was appointed junior research fellow at the Museum of the Ethnography of the Peoples of the USSR. About that time, Knorozov became increasingly fascinated with the problem of the decipherment of Maya hieroglyphs. While studying the manuscript written by Diego de Landa, the Bishop of Yucatan, that was supposed to be the main subject of his doctoral dissertation, he realized that the so-called “Landa’s alphabet” of Maya hieroglyphs contained readings of several syllabic signs. Knorozov then turned to the published Maya codices, identified the same signs in these manuscripts, and deciphered new syllables. He discovered that Maya writing was logo-syllabic and determined basic spelling rules.

The first results of Knorozov’s decipherment were published in 1952 as an article in Sovetskaia Etnografiia. It was well-received by the Soviet academia. Tolstov and Tokarev then arranged Knorozov’s new research appointment at the Kunstkamera Museum which was affiliated with the Institute of Ethnography of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR and obtained permission for Knorozov to defend his Ph.D. dissertation on Diego de Landa’s manuscript in 1955. The initial article on the decipherment was followed by a series of publications in Russian, Spanish, and English. In 1956, Knorozov participated in the International Congress of Americanists in Copenhagen where he presented his ideas to the international academic audience for the first time. Two later monographs – Pis’mennost’ Indeitsev Maiia (The Writing of Maya Indians) published in 1963 and Ieroglificheskiie Rukopisi Maiia (Maya Hieroglyphic Manuscripts) published in 1975 – summarized Knorozov’s work on the Maya writing system. Also in 1975, he received the prestigious Gosudarstvennaia Premiia (“National Fellowship”) of the USSR for his contributions to Maya studies.

Knorozov’s decipherment of Maya writing was met with strong opposition from several prominent Mayanists, particularly J. Eric S. Thompson and his students. However, several anthropologists, art historians, and linguists including Michael D. Coe, David Kelley, Floyd Lounsbury, and Tatiana Proskouriakoff corresponded with Knorozov and encouraged him. An abridged edition of Knorozov’s Pis’mennost’ Indeitsev Maiia translated by Sophie Coe was published as Selected Chapters from the Writing of Maya Indians by the Peabody Museum of Harvard University in 1967. Epigraphers applied Knorozov’s approach to Classic Maya inscriptions and deciphered additional signs. As more inscriptions were photographed, drawn, and published, the corpus of Maya logograms and syllables with known phonetic values grew exponentially.

As early as the mid-1950s, Knorozov also became interested in the decipherment of the Easter Island (Rongorongo) script. This work resulted in a number of articles, some of them written jointly with Nikolai Butinov and later with Irina Fedorova. Knorozov also contributed to the study of the Indus Script and published several reports and articles on this subject between 1965 and 1995. Nikolai Gurov was Knorozov’s main collaborator in this research until the late 1970s. Subsequent publications on the Indus script were co-authored by Margarita Al’bedil’. During the 1960s-1970s, Knorozov’s research interests extended into signaling theory and semiotics as he participated in the Linguistics section of the Research Council on Cybernetics of the National Academy of Sciences of the USSR. Beginning in 1963, Knorozov headed a special research group dedicated to the decipherment of ancient scripts.

Knorozov’s research on Maya writing in the 1980s and 1990s was shaped by collaboration with Galina Ershova, who co-authored a number of publications on Classic Maya inscriptions. In addition, he became fascinated with the topic of the peopling of the Americas. Knorozov took part in archaeological and ethnographic expeditions to the Kuril Islands. This research resulted in several publications on Ainu ethnography and archaeology.

In the 1990s, the Guatemalan and Mexican governments acknowledged Knorozov’s contributions to Maya studies. He was presented with an honorary medal by the Guatemalan government during the 1990’s and in 1994, the government of Mexico awarded him the Order of the Aztec Eagle. The 1990s was also the first time when Knorozov traveled to Mexico and Guatemala and visited several important Maya sites.

Knorozov died of pneumonia in St. Petersburg in 1999. He was survived by his daughter Ekaterina and granddaughter Anna.

Archival history

Immediate source of acquisition or transfer

The Knorozov Papers were acquired from his estate in 2007.

Content and structure area

Scope and content

The Knorozov Papers contain correspondence, manuscripts, notes, journal offprints, and photographs from the personal papers of Iurii Valentinovich Knorozov (1922-1999), a Russian anthropologist and linguist, famous for his breakthrough in the decipherment of Maya writing, who also made important contributions to the study of other ancient scripts, signaling theory, and semiotics. Most of the papers are in Russian, with other languages including Spanish, Dutch, English and German. There are oversized Russian language newspapers in a box at the end of the collection.

Appraisal, destruction and scheduling


System of arrangement

The collection is organized into four (4) series: biographical, correspondence, writings, and research files. The series divisions do not reflect the original organization of the papers because by the time the papers arrived at Dumbarton Oaks, original order had been lost. The series and many file names were created to facilitate scholarship.

Conditions of access and use area

Conditions governing access

Access to the collection is unrestricted. It is available for research purposes. Appointment is required for access because researcher space is limited: http://www.doaks.org/icfa-appointment-request-form. For research queries, contact the staff of Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives (icfa@doaks.org).

Conditions governing reproduction

Duplication of materials in the collection may be governed by copyright and other restrictions.

Language of material

  • Dutch
  • English
  • German
  • Russian
  • Spanish

Script of material

Language and script notes

Physical characteristics and technical requirements

Allied materials area

Existence and location of originals

Further Ainu files and materials are at the Library of Congress. Other Knorozov materials exist at the institutions where he worked.

Existence and location of copies

Digital copies of selected materials from the collection are stored on CDs in ICFA's audiovisual collection (Accession numbers 2013.0010.0868 - 2013.0010.0874).

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Describing Archives: A Content Standard (DACS)



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Archivist's note

Processed by Alexander Tokovinine, July 2008.

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Rights note(s)

Preferred Citation: Yuri Valentinovich Knorozov Papers, 1945-1998, MS.PC.001, Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives, Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, D.C.



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Materials are for research and study purposes only.



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203 KiB


October 24, 2016 7:37 AM

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