Cracking the Maya Code

TV Program Description
Original PBS Broadcast Date: April 8, 2008

The ancient Maya civilization of Central America left behind an intricate and mysterious hieroglyphic script, carved on monuments, painted on pottery, and drawn in handmade bark-paper books. For centuries, scholars considered it too complex ever to understand—until recently, when an ingenious series of breakthroughs finally cracked the code and unleashed a torrent of new insights into the Mayas' turbulent past. For the first time, NOVA presents the epic inside story of how the decoding was done—traveling to the remote jungles of southern Mexico and Central America to investigate how the code was broken and what Maya writings now reveal. (Get your bearings with our Map of the Maya World.)

The Maya script is the New World's most highly developed ancient writing system, and it is "our one and only opportunity to peer into the Americas before the arrival of Europeans and hear these people speaking to us," says Simon Martin, a specialist in Maya inscriptions at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Yet records of this written language were all but destroyed by European conquerors, who burned an untold number of Maya books. Today, only four known, partial examples survive.

Unlike the Rosetta Stone, which unlocked the secrets of Egyptian hieroglyphs in practically one fell swoop, deciphering the Maya script involved a long series of hunches and tantalizing insights as well as false leads, blind alleys, and heated disagreements among scholars (see Time Line of Decipherment).

A significant breakthrough came with a brilliant discovery by David Stuart, now at the University of Texas at Austin but then just out of high school and the youngest-ever recipient of a MacArthur "genius" grant. Gradually, the glyphs began to speak again, a process that accelerated enormously in the second half of the 20th century and continues to yield new information.

Along with Stuart and Martin, NOVA interviews other experts at the epicenter of perhaps the greatest of all archeological detective stories, including the late Linda Schele of the University of Texas at Austin, Peter Mathews of the University of Calgary, and Michael D. Coe of Yale University.

The program also covers an earlier generation of scholars, such as English archeologist J. Eric Thompson, who dominated Maya studies in the mid-20th century with his interpretation of the glyphs as a limited system of signs and concepts, nearly all relating to calendrical and astronomical affairs. Thompson depicted the Maya as an empire of peaceful people ruled by wise astronomer-priests. (See mythological figures in a newly discovered Maya mural.)

But this orthodoxy was challenged in the 1950s by the Soviet linguist Yuri Knorosov, who showed that Maya writing was a combination of signs for complete words and symbols for syllables, and was, in theory, capable of conveying any word in the Maya language and therefore a rich range of content. (Read and hear ancient Maya from an eighth-century carved stone monument.)

As Mayan inscriptions have been slowly deciphered, it has become clear that this was an empire of divine rule and blood sacrifice, with warrior-kings waging constant battles, conquests, and power struggles with rival lords. Today, the decoders are working with the descendants of the ancient Maya to link their spoken language with the deciphered glyphs, and modern Maya are reclaiming the rich and complicated history that has finally been unlocked.


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Parthenon

Glyphs on a carved stone bench at the Maya site of Copan in Honduras

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