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.


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.



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

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