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Deciphering Maya: A Time Line

  • By Rima Chaddha
  • Posted 04.08.08
  • NOVA

When the Spanish conquered the Maya empire in the 16th century, they forced their new subjects to convert to Christianity and speak and write in Spanish. But long before the Maya used the Roman alphabet, they had created their own rich and elegant script, featuring more than 800 hieroglyphs. Sadly, the glyphs' meanings were lost in the decades following the Conquest. Ever since, scholars have struggled to decode these symbols, pronounce the words they form, and understand the stories they tell. In this time line, follow the centuries-long decipherment, which has only recently reached the point where scholars can read more than 90 percent of the glyphs.

Launch Interactive Printable Version

Trace key discoveries in the effort to understand the Maya script.

Sources

For a more detailed history on the decipherment, see Michael Coe's Breaking the Maya Code (Thames & Hudson, 1999), on which NOVA's "Cracking the Maya Code" was based.

Credits

Images

(16th century, 1832, 1880, 1881, 1930s)
© 2008 WGBH Educational Foundation
(1952)
Courtesy Michael Coe
(1958)
Courtesy University of Pennsylvania Museum
(1973)
Courtesy Gillett Griffin
(1981)
Courtesy David Stuart
(Present)
Courtesy Night Fire Films

Related Links

  • Decode Stela 3

    Read Maya hieroglyphs carved on an eighth-century stone monument, and hear them spoken aloud.

  • Cracking the Maya Code

    The story behind the centuries-long decipherment of ancient Maya hieroglyphs

  • Speaking Ancient Maya

    Anthropologist Barbara MacLeod says that studying the ancient Maya language offers a unique window into the past.

  • Maya

    NASA archeologists use satellites to pinpoint ancient ruins buried deep in the jungle.

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