Time Line of Decipherment

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16th century

16th century
Surviving texts

The quest to decipher Maya hieroglyphs began with the very Spanish invaders whose hegemonic rule did so much to wipe out the ancient Maya script. Among them was the conquistador Hernando Cortes, who led massacres in Mexico but who also, some scholars believe, had the famous Dresden Codex—one of just four Maya illustrated books surviving today—shipped back to Spain. Another was Diego de Landa, a friar bent on replacing indigenous with Christian beliefs. In what amounts to a crime against the cultural heritage of humanity, Landa orchestrated the burning in 1562 of hundreds if not thousands of Maya bark-paper books, which he deemed heretical. Yet four years later, Landa wrote a manuscript about the Maya world called "Relation of the Things of Yucatan" (above). Together, this manuscript and the Dresden Codex proved essential in the later decoding of the Maya's calendar system and their advanced understanding of astronomy and mathematics.

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