Cracking the Maya Code (2008)


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Cracking the Maya Code
PBS NOVA 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.


NARRATOR: Imagine explorers arriving to find our cities deserted; our books have perished in some unknown catastrophe; all that is left to speak for us are the written words we have carved in stone. The travelers cannot make sense of our mysterious script, but if they could, would they comprehend who we were?
In the jungles of southern Mexico and Central America, the ancient ruins of the Maya posed such a mystery. They revealed a civilization of stunning achievements, created in isolation from Europe and Asia. Their cities were full of strange inscriptions, fantastic, twisting forms called hieroglyphs. They were carved on monuments and objects, painted on pottery and written in bark-paper books.
For centuries, the hieroglyphs confounded explorers. What secrets did they hold? Were they merely pictures and symbols, or, in fact, true writing, expressing an ancient language?
MICHAEL D. COE (Author, Breaking the Maya Code): People threw their hands up and said, "Nobody's ever going to crack this script. It just can't be done."
NARRATOR: The quest would obsess artists and adventurers, archeologists and linguists, and the youngest recipient ever of the MacArthur genius award.
DAVID STUART (Epigrapher, University of Texas at Austin): It became very clear to me that the real task of code-breaking was getting through this morass of the tangled visuals of the script.
NARRATOR: After centuries of struggle, the stories of the Maya scribes are coming to life.
MICHAEL COE: We began to see blood everywhere in the hieroglyphs. It was a rather darker view of the Maya that shocked a lot of people.
NARRATOR: As the hieroglyphs reveal their meaning, a history of a lost world is emerging, transforming our view of the ancient Maya.
DAVID STUART: These were literate people. They had these fantastic stories to tell. And we really got this amazing understanding of how the Maya saw their world.
NARRATOR: Up next on NOVA, Cracking the Maya Code.
Major funding for NOVA is provided by David H. Koch. And...
Discovering new knowledge: HHMI.
Major funding for Cracking the Maya Code is provided by the National Science Foundation, where discoveries begin. And by...
The National Endowment for the Humanities, because democracy demands wisdom.
Additional funding for this program is provided by the Solow Art and Architecture Foundation.
Major funding for NOVA is also provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and by PBS viewers like you. Thank you.
NARRATOR: In the 16th century, the flames of the Spanish Inquisition scorched the New World, decimating the Maya civilization. One blaze was ignited by Diego de Landa, a zealous friar, bent on destroying one of the most original writing systems ever invented, Maya hieroglyphics.
GEORGE STUART (Historian, Center for Maya Research): He looked at these writings of the Maya, and he saw them as tools of the devil. And Landa felt he had to take a firm, official political stance.
NARRATOR: Landa's mission was to convert the Maya to Catholicism in the Yucatan peninsula. Upon learning they were still making offerings to ancient gods, he arrested and tortured thousands of Maya for "crimes of devil worship."
MICHAEL COE: He inflicted a primitive inquisition on them that was incredible in its ferocity, at the same time...while destroying everything that he could find that was what he would call superstition, in other words, a good part of their culture.
GEORGE STUART: So they had a great ceremony of destruction in the plaza and burned hundreds, maybe thousands of books. We will never know. And, of course, out of all of that, only four books or partial books survived.
NARRATOR: Maya scribes were forced to learn European script.
MICHAEL COE: The writing system totally died out in the centuries that followed the Spanish conquest. I mean, people were probably burned at the stake for writing in the old system. By the 18th century, I don't think anybody could write.
NARRATOR: Knowledge of the ancient Maya script soon vanished. It would take centuries of struggle before the hieroglyphs could be read again.
Today in the highlands of Guatemala, Maya villagers still make offerings to ancient gods. They seek guidance about favorable days for planting and harvesting, business and travel, courtship and marriage. Although they hold onto their heritage, the Maya have been a people cut off from the written words of their ancestors.
Now the decipherment of the hieroglyphs is bringing their past to life.
WILLIAM FASH (Archeologist, Harvard University): The hieroglyphic records have so many stories to tell about just who the actors were on the stage of Maya history and what the major events were.
LINDA SCHELE (Epigrapher, University of Texas, Austin/Deceased 1998): Those glyphs give the Maya 1,500 years of history, written in the words of their ancestors, not in the words of white people from Europe.
SIMON MARTIN (Epigrapher, University of Pennsylvania Museum): This is our one and only opportunity to peer into the Americas before the arrival of Europeans and hear these people speaking to us.
NARRATOR: Since ancient times, the Maya have lived in a region that extends from southern Mexico through much of Central America. The heart of their civilization lay between the highlands of Guatemala and the plains of the Yucatan, much of it a vast region of dense jungle.
Here, around A.D. 200, they began building their great cities: Tikal, Copán and Palenque.
They were renowned for their monumental architecture. Pyramids and temples towered over plazas and ball courts, where kings ascended to the throne and warrior athletes competed for their lives.
WILLIAM FASH: There were dramatic kinds of ceremonies and public events for public consumption, the exercise of power in its most dramatic forms.
NARRATOR: Maya civilization thrived for over 2,000 years, distinguished by a sophisticated culture.
LINDA SCHELE: The art involves a level of graphic imagination and expertise that is unparalleled.
NARRATOR: As Europe entered the Dark Ages, these city-states reached the height of their glory, some supporting hundreds of thousands of people.
MICHAEL COE: They were the greatest of all new civilizations, and it's the only fully literate society in the New World.
NARRATOR: Yet mysteriously, in the ninth century, the Maya abandoned many of their cities. The temples and pyramids in the central lowlands were swallowed by the forest and forgotten.
Almost 1,000 years later, a Spanish explorer named Jose Calderon stumbled upon the jungle city of Palenque. Inside its abandoned temples, Calderon and his men found huge stone tablets carved with figures and hieroglyphic writing.
DAVID STUART: It's really clear that they're looking at something that's totally alien to them, and they're wrestling with this idea, whether it's picture writing or whether it's something more than that.
NARRATOR: As news of the strange texts spread, French artist Jean-Frederick Waldeck traveled to Palenque, in 1832, to sketch its hieroglyphs. Believing that Babylonians, Phoenicians or Hindus had built the Maya cities, Waldeck's drawings even included Indian elephants.
DAVID STUART: We now know that the Maya weren't even writing anything that visually looked like an elephant. He was not understanding the forms of the signs. This is the theme that you see time and time again with artists trying to record Maya inscriptions, up until the 20th century.
NARRATOR: As more sites were discovered, explorers did their best to draw the unfamiliar glyphs, but their work lacked the detail needed for decipherment.
Everything would change in the 1880s, when Alfred Maudslay arrived with a glass-plate camera.
GEORGE STUART: Maudslay was taking full advantage of the new developments in photography. He had gone into all the sites, fully equipped with large format glass-plate negatives—an immense effort, these caravans of equipment.
WILLIAM FASH: You see these lovely photographs with the entire great plaza cleared. Well, it wasn't that way when he got there. He had to set a lot of people to work, clearing these areas, so that he could get decent photographs.
NARRATOR: Maudslay's photos captured the hieroglyphs in exquisite detail.
MICHAEL COE: If you're going to deal with an ancient body of inscriptions and try to crack an unknown script, you have to have a really good record. And he was the first one to make it.
NARRATOR: But unknown to many scholars poring over Maudslay's photos, the work of decipherment had already begun, with the rediscovery of Maya books that had survived the Spanish conquest.
Three surfaced in Madrid, Paris and Mexico, but the most exquisite manuscript made its way to the Royal Library of Dresden, Germany. It is called the Dresden Codex.
It was forgotten until 1810, when a massive volume on the Americas was published in Paris and included five of its pages. Its strange hieroglyphs pushed an eccentric scholar, Constantine Rafinesque to attempt to try and crack the Maya code.
MICHAEL COE: He looked at these bar and dot numbers, and he said, "You never get more than four dots...a bar probably stands for five."
One would be one dot; two would be two dots; three would be three dots; four, four dots; then you'd have a bar. And then a dot would make it six; two dots and a bar, a seven.
And that was the first time anyone had ever deciphered a Maya hieroglyph. That is the beginning of the decipherment.
NARRATOR: The quest would move to Dresden Germany, when Ernst Forstemann, a librarian, stumbled upon the Dresden Codex. The priceless book had sat in the library, overlooked, for decades.
GEORGE STUART: Can you imagine being able to pull out one of the most important primary sources in the prehistory of the New World and to have it there in front of you and just look at it and work with it?
NARRATOR: Forstemann discovered the Maya had developed a calendar to mark time and even pursued astronomy. In the Dresden Codex, he found precise predictions for the dates of lunar and solar eclipses. And there were tables tracking the cycles of the planet Venus, which was linked with warfare.
But Forstemann's greatest feat came when he figured out that very large numbers in the Dresden Codex were counts back in time to a specific date, to a date the Maya believed the universe was created: 4 Ahau 8 Cumku.
By correlating this to the Western calendar date of August 13th, 3114 B.C., archaeologists could now date the carvings on stone monuments, called "stelae."
One expert in dating Maya glyphs was J. Eric Thompson, a brilliant British archeologist and epigrapher.
DAVID STUART: Thompson dominated Maya glyph studies from the 1930s up until the 1960s. He was the figure. No one else at that time had any idea what Maya writing really was.
NARRATOR: Thompson created a meticulous classification system, assigning what scholars called Thompson- or T-numbers to over 800 Maya signs.
After living among the Maya in Mexico and Belize, he came to deeply admire their culture.
GEORGE STUART: He created a kind of a picture of the Maya as a gentle folk, rather unlike anybody else that ever lived in the world, who were constantly gazing toward the skies and obsessed with astronomy and time.
NARRATOR: Thompson's view of the Maya was influenced by his experiences in World War I.
MICHAEL COE: Anybody who had actually been in the trenches in the First World War never really wanted to hear anything but peace after that. So he had a mindset that was looking for a peaceful people.
NARRATOR: Thompson concluded that the focus of the Maya civilization was time, and that their stelae were built to commemorate its passage. The figures in their art were priests and gods, and their glyphs were symbols recording the mysteries of the heavens.
MICHAEL COE: Thompson tries to convince us that there isn't any system here at all, other than the dates and other than the astronomy, that, basically, it's a kind of a mystic exercise on the part of the Maya for getting in touch with their gods.
NARRATOR: Most scholars accepted Thompson's theory and presumed that, beyond dates, the glyphs were simply inscrutable.
MICHAEL COE: People sort of threw their hands up and said, "Nobody's ever going to crack this script. It's basically too much of a hodgepodge, and it just can't be done."
NARRATOR: The woman who would challenge Thompson's vision entered the field of Maya studies by chance. Tatiana Proskouriakoff had studied to be an architect, but when she graduated in 1930, the country was in the grip of the Great Depression.
MICHAEL COE: She had no real job ahead of her. She wandered into the museum of the University of Pennsylvania and saw that there was an advertisement for an artist to go and do drawings, or reconstructions, and so forth of the ruins at Piedras Negras, a major, major classic Maya site.
And Tanya began her work there, in the field. And she started to do reconstructions of what it would have looked like in the past.
NARRATOR: She was a skilled surveyor and draftswoman. Her reconstruction drawings were so architecturally precise they brought the ancient Maya city to life.
WILLIAM FASH: It's almost as if she had some sort of x-ray vision built into her brain, so that she could look at a ruined temple and guess how many terraces there were supporting the superstructure at the top. And she turned out to be remarkably prescient.
NARRATOR: For nearly 20 years, Proskouriakoff toiled as a lone woman archaeologist in a field dominated by men. She left fieldwork in 1958 to join Harvard's Peabody Museum, spending her time in the basement, where the Maya files were stored.
WILLIAM FASH: One of her projects was to piece back together all the fragments of jade that had been shattered into various bits and pieces. And it was at that point in time, when she was laboring away, almost anonymously, that she came up with her great breakthrough.
NARRATOR: Proskouriakoff had photographs of dozens of stelae at Piedras Negras. When she arranged them by the dedication dates, she began to notice a pattern. The Maya would set up a series of stelae in front of a temple, one every five years. The first stela in each series always showed a figure seated in a carved niche. At the bottom of the stela was a sacrificial victim. A ladder ascended to a seated figure above. Proskouriakoff resolved to make sense of the scene.
Each stela in a series stated the date of its dedication. Several stelae also had another mysterious date. It was followed by a glyph of bird head wrapped in a cloth.
Thompson nicknamed it the "toothache glyph." But what did it mean?
Proskouriakoff found a clue when she discovered another date that fell anywhere from 12 to 31 years before the "toothache" event. The glyph following this earliest date was always the up-ended head of an iguana.
MICHAEL COE: And what she hypothesized was that the first one was a birth glyph and then the next glyph might be this is the date on which he acceded to the throne.
NARRATOR: The dates fit her theory perfectly. The time from the birth of one king to the accession of the next was never more than 60 years, a reasonable human lifetime.
MICHAEL COE: Her hypothesis, then, was that each one of these series were the life story of a particular ruler. It was a dynasty she was dealing with. It was history, for the first time.
NARRATOR: Suddenly, Proskouriakoff's brilliant insight transformed the images on the stelae. The alcoves were thrones. The figures were not gods and priests, as Thompson believed, but kings and queens. This was a family history.
Ruler One ascends the throne in 603. Five years later, he is a warrior, with prisoners at his feet. Fifteen years later, Ruler Two takes the throne. He is 12 years old; his mother stands beside him. At age 26, he is dressed for battle. Ten years later he is still a warrior, but considerably heavier. He reigns for 47 years.
Proskouriakoff's story followed the reigns of seven kings.
MICHAEL COE: She laid it out, all the dates, with all the sequences for each series. And I looked at it, my knees went weak. I said, "Tanya, you've done it. It's the most important discovery of all time."
PETER MATHEWS (Epigrapher, La Trobe University): She presented the paper to Eric Thompson, and Eric Thompson said, "Oh Tanya, you know that can't possibly be true. There's no history in the inscriptions." And she said that the next morning she came back to work to be greeted by Eric Thompson who said, "You are absolutely right."
MICHAEL COE: Which is amazing for somebody like that who had been a lifelong opponent of the idea that this was history. And that was it. That just changed everything. We now knew that we were dealing with history on these monuments.
NARRATOR: The next advance in breaking the code came in May of 1945, when the Russian Army marched into Berlin. In the ranks was a young officer named Yuri Valentinovich Knorosov.
MICHAEL COE: He told me once that, in the ruins of the national library, he found a book lying there that had survived the fires and all the rest of it, that he picked up, which was a very good black and white reproduction of the three then known codices, the Dresden, the Madrid Codex and the one in Paris.
NARRATOR: Knorosov's fascination with the book grew when he read an article concluding that Maya glyphs were undecipherable. He took it as a challenge and obtained a degree in linguistics to become a lone Russian Mayanist in a field dominated by Eric Thompson.
STEPHEN HOUSTON (Archeologist, Brown University): Because he was behind the Iron Curtain during the Stalinist period, he also was, intrinsically, very isolated. He didn't have a lot of ideas floating around that he had inherited from other people, ideas that, in Thompson's case, were quite simply wrong. It gave him a fresh perspective. He was kind of a clean slate, you might say.
NARRATOR: As a linguist, Knorosov knew the first step in analyzing an unknown writing system is to count the signs. If a script has 20 to 35 signs, it is probably alphabetic, representing simple sounds. If there are 80 to 100 signs, it is probably based on syllables. But if a script has several hundred signs, it is surely logographic, or based on signs for whole words.
A logographic system like Chinese has thousands of signs for thousands of words. The Maya script has about 800 signs, too many to represent an alphabet and far too few to have signs for each word of a language. So scholars assumed that it was a limited, logographic system, with signs for only a few hundred words.
But Knorosov knew that no writing system consists purely of one kind of sign. Our own alphabet uses numerals and logograms.
Knorosov realized the Maya script was also a mixed system, combining word signs and phonetic signs. With this insight, he turned to the Madrid Codex, where the glyphs for the four directions had been identified.
He focused on the glyph for west, searching for syllables. It was made up of two signs. On the bottom was the sun sign, depicted in all its variations by four spokes or petals. On the top was a hand, with thumb and forefinger touching.
Eric Thompson had argued that the hand sign meant "completion" and read the glyph as "completion of sun," or sunset, therefore, west. For Thompson, glyphs represented ideas not sounds.
DAVID STUART: Eric was kind of bullheaded about things like this. He had determined, to his own satisfaction, that the hieroglyphs were not phonetic and could not be phonetic, and he stuck with that.
NARRATOR: But Knorosov disagreed. He suspected that the glyphs might, in fact, be tied to the sounds of spoken Maya. He knew that in Maya the word for west is chik'in, and the word for sun is k'in. So he suggested that the hand sign should be read, not as the concept, completion, but as the syllable, chi.
When combined with the logogram for sun, it forms chik'in.
To rule out coincidence, Knorosov identified syllables in other glyphs, proving that at least some corresponded to the sounds of spoken Maya.
MICHAEL COE: And, of course, the Soviet propaganda apparatus jumped on this and said, "Look, inspired by the wonders of Marxism-Leninism, this young scholar has done what none of the imperialist scholars in Britain or the United States or Germany could ever do. He's shown how the Maya wrote." And Thompson, a lifelong anti-communist, decided that this was a total fraud and that the world should be straightened out about this.
NARRATOR: Some of Knorosov's specific readings were questionable. Seizing upon them, Thompson discredited his entire method.
Tragically, Knorosov's priceless insights went unrecognized in the West. But the era of lone scholars, scattered across the world, was coming to an end.
The change began in Palenque, driven by Merle Greene Robertson. She had spent years documenting the site's art for future generations. While she was working, an art professor named Linda Schele visited.
LINDA SCHELE: When I walked among Palenque's buildings, I saw a culture where the art was central, and I really was driven to understand who had done it and why and how.
NARRATOR: Schele began to help Robertson. As they worked, she gained an intimate knowledge of the site. It would be put to use in 1973, when Robertson hosted a conference at Palenque.
There, Schele met Peter Mathews who had spent the past winter analyzing books of Palenque's glyphs.
PETER MATHEWS: Basically, by the end of that process, I had three huge notebooks filled up with transcriptions, in Thompson's wretched T-numbers, of all the signs of every single inscription from Palenque.
NARRATOR: Mathews teamed up with Schele to reconstruct Palenque's dynastic history. They knew that some royal names at Palenque are accompanied by a title, a winged-sun sign.
LINDA SCHELE: And so what we did is we went through and found every example of this title and wrote down the nearest date.
NARRATOR: Poring over Palenque's inscriptions, they found over 40 names with the royal title. Each was accompanied by a date and glyph describing the event on that date, for example, a birth shown by the up-ended head of an iguana.
As Schele and Mathews arranged the births, deaths and ceremonies by date, the patterns emerged. One ruler stood out, whom they dubbed "Lord Shield." He was born on the 23rd of March 603. His name glyph featured a warrior's shield. It led them to Palenque's most dominant building, the Temple of the Inscriptions.
The meaning of its hieroglyphic tablets had been an enigma for centuries. Schele and Mathews now saw that the panels were filled with references to "Lord Shield" and key events in his life.
Suddenly, a discovery made in 1948 took on new meaning. A hidden staircase was found in the temple's inner chamber, leading to a crypt with a limestone sarcophagus. Inside was a human skeleton, masked in jade. Schele and Mathews realized that this must be the body of Lord Shield.
For the first time, hieroglyphs were connected to the remains of a Maya ruler. The glyphs, Schele and Mathews grasped, traced the life stories of Lord Shield and five of his successors.
GEORGE STUART: And they came out and literally announced that they had sort of cracked the dynasty of Palenque, and they had names of the rulers and the times when they ruled.
LINDA SCHELE: We had them with funny names like Sun Shield and Lord Toothache.
GILLETT GRIFFIN (Art Historian, Princeton University): At that point, Moises Morales, a local guide, jumped up and said, "Why is it that when important discoveries like this are made, the name was given in English, "Lord Shield," or "Escudo," Spanish?" He said, "These people spoke Maya."
NARRATOR: So they called the king Pakal, a Mayan word, later confirmed, phonetically, to mean shield.
GEORGE STUART: It was just a giddy sort of feeling, and I'll never forget it. It was a real turning point in Maya studies.
NARRATOR: After years of work, the cracking of the Maya code was within reach. But one big hurdle remained: to read the hieroglyphs aloud in the language in which they were written, the phonetic decipherment, begun by Knorosov, had to be completed. Despite decades of effort, fewer than 30 syllabic signs could be read with confidence.
The final key to the sounds of the glyphs would be found by David Stuart, whose education as a Mayanist began at an early age. His father George often brought him along on his field trips to Mesoamerica. One of David's most memorable expeditions was to Coba, in the Yucatan.
DAVID STUART: It was just kind of an incredible place to wander around as a kid. What really got me, though, was, while we were at Coba, there were a couple of monuments that were actually discovered. My dad would drop everything and work on drawing the monument. And I would just sort of look over his shoulder while he was doing that. And I thought, "Gee, this is pretty amazing."
GEORGE STUART: He decided he would go out and draw some himself. So he would take his crayons and paper and everything, and go out, and started drawing hieroglyphs.
DAVID STUART: By the time we got back to the States, my inner soul had been so affected by that experience that I just wanted to keep going back.
NARRATOR: Two years later, George took David to meet Linda Schele.
DAVID STUART: I remember kind of sitting there quietly in the office while she was drawing a glyph, and I don't know why I blurted this out, but I said, "Oh, that's a fire glyph." And so Linda kind of paused, and I remember she sort of looked behind her shoulder and over at me and said, "Yeah, you're right, kid. That's a fire glyph."
LINDA SCHELE: George said that they would really appreciate it if there was ever a chance that David could study with me or something. And so on the spur of the moment, I said, "Why doesn't he come down to Palenque this summer?"
DAVID STUART: And the next summer was one of the most amazing times of my life. She allowed me to help her check her drawings. We were in the temples, with flashlights, with her drawings on clipboards, making corrections. I remember Linda was saying, "Okay, kid, you know, if you want to learn Maya glyphs, you've got to do it on your own."
LINDA SCHELE: I gave him the Tablet of the Cross, told him to go out on the back porch and figure out as much as he could about it. He came back a couple of days later, and had the same amount of structural understanding of the text that had taken me three years to do. And so I figured then that he was really quite good.
NARRATOR: At age 12, David presented his first scholarly paper on Maya hieroglyphs.
KATHRYN JOSSERAND (Linguist, Florida State University): And he gives a paper that was certainly beyond the abilities of about two-thirds or three-quarters of the audience to follow. It was a scholarly paper. And mostly people were just amazed.
NARRATOR: Then, after his high school graduation, Stuart received an unexpected call. He had won a MacArthur Fellowship, popularly known as the "genius award." At age 18, he was the youngest recipient ever of the prestigious prize.
Stuart delayed college to work on the glyphs full-time. It was then that he made his great discovery. It came when he focused on a pair of signs already believed to have been deciphered. Eric Thompson had pointed out that one of these signs signaled a count forward to a new date, the other, a count backward to a prior date.
The two glyphs shared a common sign, what Thompson called either a water sign or the head of a shark, or xo'oc in Maya. Xo'oc can also mean "to count."
But Stuart discovered that several other signs also substituted for the shark: a human head, a monkey, and, in one instance, a bracket-shaped sign. Did all these signs stand for the word "count?"
Stuart thought there was a simpler explanation. The bracket symbol was also the phonetic sign for the syllable "u." Suddenly he realized that all these signs simply stood for the syllable u. The proof? Each sign freely substituted for the u bracket in contexts that had nothing to do with counting.
PETER MATHEWS: What Dave Stuart did was show us that many of these substitutions are purely phonetic substitutions that are spelling exactly the same word in slightly different ways.
NARRATOR: The backward and forward counting glyphs were phonetically spelled phrases: i, u, ti and u, ti, ya.
In Maya, i ut means "and then it happened," and ut iy means "since it happened."
The words that Thompson had viewed as mere dates were in fact telling a story.
MAYA VOICE: I ut / hun kibin / canlahun uniu / nawah / ix katun ahau / ix naman ahau / yichnal Kinich Yo'onal Ac / buluc lahun / uinalihy hun habiy / hun katun / I ut / kan kimi / kanlahum ikat / siyah / ix huntan ac / ix k'in ahau.
TRANSLATION VOICE: ...and then it happened, on the day 1 Kib 14 K'ank'in, that she was adorned in marriage, Lady K'atun Ahau, lady of Naman. And after 10 days, 11 months, one year and one score of years, then it happened, on the day 4 Kimi 14 Uo, that their daughter was born, the royal sun lady."
NARRATOR: The implications were revolutionary. Epigraphers had been searching for a single sign for each syllabic sound, but if u was represented by more than one sign, then other syllables might be, as well.
SIMON MARTIN: One of the things about Maya writing which makes it so complicated is their love of substitutions. One sound can have 13, 14, 15 different versions. They hated repeating themselves and loved showing new things. And the recognition of those substitution patterns was what began to break down the complexity of Maya writing into something which was a manageable, comprehensible system.
NARRATOR: Each time a Maya scribe wrote a given word or phrase, he could choose from a variety of signs and combine them in new ways. A sign could be written abstractly, or as the head of a human, animal or god. One sign could be slipped inside another, or partly overlapped. Two signs could join, merging their attributes. Glyphs even included figures of monsters and gods.
LINDA SCHELE: The art of the system is the genius within which they combine these different possibilities. The graphic component of Maya writing is absolutely overwhelming.
DAVID STUART: There was an artistry and a playfulness that was as much a part of the system as the recording of language. So, visually, it was complicated, but once you organized that visual material into the system that existed, it made perfect sense, and you could predict things. You could really crack the code that way.
NARRATOR: An image of the ancient Maya was suddenly coming to life, gleaned from their own words.
Some glyphs simply described personal possessions: u tu pa, "u tup," his ear ornament; u ba ki, "u b'ak," his bone; "u lak," his plate; "yuk'ib," his drinking vessel.
STEVE HOUSTON: They're describing particularly important objects belonging to the royal court. They're probably gifts, they're received, they're given, they're part of a social process that helps to bond these societies together.
BARBARA MACLEOD (Linguist and Anthropologist): It's like having a time machine to be able to read these texts. And to me, it's a rare privilege to be able to read them out loud in the language in which they were written. Maybe sometimes I'm the first person to actually say them out loud in a thousand years.
NARRATOR: Soon, more esoteric ideas emerged in the writing. There were glyphs describing frightening otherworldly beings.
DAVID STUART: These glyphs were appearing with scenes of these fantastic animals and creatures and spooky-looking, walking skeletons. And this was a different kind of thing from what we were used to reading about in Maya glyphs. They weren't talking about monuments. They weren't talking warfare. They were talking about, kind of, the inner souls of people.
NARRATOR: As the readings poured out, a more complex view of the Maya began to emerge.
WILLIAM FASH: Instead of these peaceful stargazing astronomer priests, the Maya were shown to be like any other civilization with a great deal of conflict. One of their great claims to fame was how many captives they had taken as offerings to their gods and ancestors. They would also periodically engage in the most precious offering of all, which was in offering their own blood.
NARRATOR: The importance of self-sacrifice can be seen in this ceremony. A royal lady conjures a vision of a serpent with an offering of her own blood. She has perforated her tongue with a stingray spine to draw a rope imbedded with thorns through the incision. In front of her, slips of paper soaked in her own blood burn in a ceramic bowl. Out of the rising smoke forms the vision of a serpent. From its mouth emerges the figure of an ancestor. The upper text describes the ceremony.
TRANSLATION VOICE: On March 28th, 755, a vision was conjured of the serpent Yax Chit Noj Chan, the animal spirit of the god K'awil. And then a vision was conjured of the ancestor, Yax Ts'Aw Heen.
NARRATOR: The glyph for "conjure" shows a hand grasping a fish.
DAVID STUART: It's this idea of grabbing something that's elusive, reaching into another realm, in a way, or even into the underworld, and wrenching something out of that and bringing it into your own world, that is, conjuring.
NARRATOR: From glyphs and art, the psyche of the ancient Maya was emerging.
MICHAEL COE: We now saw the Maya people as a whole. You could look at a piece of Maya art and the inscriptions on the tops of the vases and understand what the heck these people were doing.
NARRATOR: One myth, painted repeatedly on Maya vases, echoes a surviving 16th century manuscript, the Popol Vuh. It tells the saga of twin brothers summoned to the underworld.
MICHAEL COE: They play a ball game against the lords of the underworld in which they are finally defeated, and they are sacrificed. The head of the main brother, there, is cut off and hung up in a tree. And a young lady comes by who is the daughter of one of the lords of the underworld. And she talks to the head and it spits into her hand. Naturally, she becomes pregnant.
NARRATOR: Banished from the underworld, she eventually gives birth to a second set of twins. They become skilled warriors, and return to the underworld to fight its lords. After a series of clever tricks, they resurrect the body of their father, the maize god, and bring food back to their people. Then they rise up to become the sun and moon.
MICHAEL COE: This is the single most important myth that we have from the entire New World, probably the most important piece of literature ever produced in the Western Hemisphere.
NARRATOR: The decipherment was not only illuminating the inner world of the Maya, but also casting new light on the power struggles tearing apart their great city-states. It became clear that from the third to the ninth centuries, the Maya world was dominated by warring superpowers.
MICHAEL COE: We began to see blood everywhere in the iconography and in the hieroglyphs. They were not a peaceful people but involved with absolutely bloody sacrifice.
NARRATOR: In this sculpture, a captive has been scalped, disemboweled and crippled. Wood is tied to his back to set him on fire.
DAVID STUART: There were well-defined groups that were really at each other's throat, battling each other and causing havoc on the landscape.
NARRATOR: The glyphs reveal the mayhem: "chuk," to capture; "jub," to take down a city; "pul," to burn; "chak," to decapitate.
One scribe grimly wrote, "Mountains of skulls were piled up and blood flowed."
On the last dated monument of Copán, the great king Yax Pasaj hands his scepter to his successor, signaling the dawn of a new dynasty. But this new reign never began. The scribe telling its story fled, leaving the monument unfinished.
The kingdom could no longer sustain either rulers or artists. As political upheaval engulfed the region, the great cities of the southern lowlands finally collapsed.
Over 1,000 years later, in the 1980s, Maya villages were again under siege. As civil war ravaged Central America, the Maya made a desperate effort to save their culture.
LOLMAY GARCÍA MATZAR (Linguist, Oxlajuuj Keej Maya' Ajtz'iib' Language Center): Many times we identify with the glorious past. We say, "I'm Maya." I see Tikal, Copán, and various monuments, and we identify ourselves as Maya. But many of us don't speak our language now. Every day it is slipping away.
NARRATOR: The Maya had guided explorers and rebuilt monuments. They had shared knowledge of their spoken languages and customs. Now they wanted to reap the benefits of the decipherment.
KATHRYN JOSSERAND: So at this Mayan workshop in Antigua, I gave a presentation about a hieroglyphic text, and I showed how you could read it.
NICHOLAS HOPKINS (Linguist, Florida State University): And the guys came up to her after the paper and said, "You were showing Maya hieroglyphics there on the screen." She said, "Yeah." (They) said, "It looked like you could read those." And she said, "Yeah, we can pretty well read those now." So they said, "Whoa, this is our history." They said, "This is what they've always kept from us. This is what we want to know."
LOLMAY GARCÍA MATZAR: This is the history they never taught me in school. It is very important because it is the history I care about.
NARRATOR: For centuries, Maya culture has been brutally suppressed. Its people were pressured to speak and write in Spanish and take Christian names. Now the Maya are rediscovering the hieroglyphs and their history.
LINDA SCHELE: One of the most precious gifts that any group of humans on the Earth has is history. The process of actually deciphering it, that's only the first tiny step to understanding what this great civilization contributed to the heritage of humanity.
SIMON MARTIN: Glyphs represent our one and only window into the pre-Columbian past. It doesn't answer all the questions that we'd love to have answers to, but it does give us an indigenous insight into what they thought was important.
NARRATOR: With the cracking of the Maya code, the words of their ancient scribes have finally come to life, revealing a history and literature of a vanished world.
On NOVA's Cracking the Maya Code Web site, translate glyphs that tell of an ancient queen, and hear her story told in the Mayan language. Find it on
Major funding for NOVA is provided by David H. Koch. And...
Discovering new knowledge: HHMI.
Major funding for Cracking the Maya Code is provided by the National Science Foundation, where discoveries begin. And by...
The National Endowment for the Humanities, because democracy demands wisdom.
Additional funding for this program is provided by the Solow Art and Architecture Foundation.
Major funding for NOVA is also provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and by PBS viewers like you. Thank you.
To order this NOVA program, for $24.95 plus shipping and handling, call WGBH Boston Video at 1-800-255-9424.
NOVA is a production of WGBH Boston.



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.


Actual decipherment began with an eccentric European genius named Constantine Rafinesque, who boasted of having dabbled in more than a dozen professions, from archeology to zoology. His insatiable thirst for knowledge had led Rafinesque to a reproduction of just five pages of the Dresden Codex, from which he was able to crack the Maya's system of counting. In 1832, Rafinesque declared in his newsletter, the Atlantic Journal and Friend of Knowledge, that the dots and bars seen in Maya glyphs (like these above, from the Dresden Codex) represented simple numbers—a dot equaled one and a bar five. Later findings proved him right and also revealed that the Maya even had a symbol for zero, which appeared on Mesoamerican carvings as early as 36 B.C. (Zero didn't appear in Western Europe until the 12th century.)

Math and astronomy

As with many early glyph-related discoveries, serendipity may have played a role in the next major step in decipherment. A librarian with a penchant for mathematics named Ernst Förstemann just happened to work at the Royal Library in Dresden, Germany, which owned the Dresden Codex and after which it was named. He also had access to Landa's "Relation." Using his unique skill set, Förstemann decoded the astronomy tables the Maya used to determine when, for example, to wage war (above are codex pages depicting the planetary cycle of Venus). He also deciphered the Maya system for measuring time, now called the Calendar Round. In this system, dates cycle once every 52 years, much like dates cycle annually in our Gregorian calendar. Later Mayanists used Förstemann's discoveries to convert Maya dates to Gregorian dates—for instance, the Maya believed the world was created on August 13, 3114 B.C.

Photo documentation

Britain's Alfred Maudslay was a respected diplomat, but he would be best remembered for his work as an amateur Mayanist. Fascinated by scholars' writings on the Maya and by new advancements in photography, Maudslay set out to create as complete a record as possible of the civilization's architecture and art. Using a large-format, glass-plate camera, he captured highly detailed images of Maya sites, including clear close-ups of the glyphs (above). He also prepared papier-mâché casts of several carvings from which accurate drawings were later made. Maudslay had effectively given Maya studies its first systematic corpus, or body, of inscriptions. This helped make further decipherments possible, in part by bringing glyphs to scholars who had limited access to the few surviving Maya texts.

Giant steps—and missteps

By the 1930s, British researcher Eric Thompson was the world's foremost expert in glyph studies. His achievements included deciphering signs related to the calendar and astronomy as well as identifying new words from the Maya lexicon. Thompson also developed a numerical cataloguing technique, the "T"-numbering system, for each glyph (above). This enabled experts to easily discuss symbols that had yet to be fully understood or identified. Nevertheless, glyph studies nearly came to a halt during this time, in large part because Thompson had most scholars convinced that each of the symbols in glyphs stood for entire words or ideas. For instance, the glyph for "west" included a well-known symbol for the sun and an as-yet unidentified symbol depicting a nearly closed hand. Thompson suggested that the hand meant "completion." And so "west," where the sun sets, was symbolized by "completion of the sun." It was a reasonable guess, but one that, along with Thompson's more general take on the glyphs, would be proven wrong.

The sounds of the glyphs

While glyph studies languished in the West, a Russian linguist in Moscow was making his own groundbreaking discoveries. In 1952, Yuri Knorosov (above) postulated that the individual symbols in Maya glyphs stood for phonetic sounds, much like English letters do. Knorosov knew that Maya had too many glyphs to be a true alphabet but too few for each glyph to symbolize an entire word. (Maya's 800-plus glyphs compare to the several thousand characters of Chinese, for example.) He determined that written Maya, like Egyptian hieroglyphics, contained a combination of these elements. Because "west," in spoken Maya, is "chik'in," and "k'in" is the word for sun, the hand represents the syllable "chi," as Knorosov concluded. Fortunately, American scholars Michael and Sophie Coe began publishing Knorosov's papers in the U.S. in the late 1950s. Otherwise, his important (though incomplete) findings might have been inaccessible to Western scholars until the end of the Cold War.

Uncovering Maya history

Tatiana Proskouriakoff was an architect by trade, but faced with a scarce job market during the Great Depression, the Russian-born American took work drawing reconstructions of the ruins at Piedras Negras, a Classic Maya site on the border between Mexico and Guatemala (above). Later, while examining photographs of the Piedras Negras stelae, or commemorative stone slabs, Proskouriakoff noticed patterns in their dedication dates. The Maya would set up a series of stelae in front of a single temple, one every five years. The first stela in each series always showed a seated figure. Thompson had thought these were gods, but Proskouriakoff convincingly proved that they were kings and that the different markings on the stelae depicted their lives from birth until death. When a ruler died, the Maya at Piedras Negras would begin erecting stelae at another temple, detailing the life story of another ruler. For the first time, as Thompson and others came to agree, the glyphs were found to tell the stories of the Maya.

Unveiling a dynasty

Concerned that Maya research was limited to a few experts with special access to key resources, Merle Greene Robertson, an American artist based at the Classic Maya site of Palenque, built a center where anyone could go to study the city's art and inscriptions. In December 1973, 30 people came to the center at Robertson's invitation, forming the first major scholarly conference held at a Maya site. Attendees included Robertson's assistant Linda Schele, who had studied every Palenque inscription firsthand, and Peter Mathews, an undergraduate who had spent the previous year assigning Thompson's "T"-numbers to the city's inscriptions. The duo (above, at the site) began piecing together Palenque's history using a carving from the site called the Tablet of the 96 Glyphs, which researchers vaguely understood to depict a line of royal accession. Within hours, and with a combination of luck and an intimate knowledge of the glyphs, Schele and Mathews accomplished something extraordinary: They unveiled most of Palenque's dynastic history, including the life stories of six rulers.

In their own words

Before all the glyphs could be read aloud in the original Maya, researchers needed to complete Yuri Knorosov's phonetic decipherment. This began in 1981 when 15-year-old budding Mayanist David Stuart (above, with Linda Schele) discovered that individual Maya words could be written in multiple ways, using different symbols for the same sounds, as in "faze" and "phase." Eric Thompson's theory had been that the Maya wrote in rebus, in which symbols are used for whole words. A modern rebus of the phrase "I can see" might include pictures of an eye, a tin can, and the sea. While some glyphs can indeed be read this way, Stuart's finding—that any symbol with the correct beginning sound can be used to identify that sound in a word glyph—is also true. As a result, a single glyph could be drawn in dozens of ways. With this revelation, scholars could now read many glyphs once considered indecipherable.

Reviving ancient Maya

Scholars and the modern Maya can now read the majority of glyphs, like these from Copan. They understand how the ancient language was spoken compared to modern Maya and have begun to grasp the lost civilization's traditions by reading the stories carved on walls and painted on pottery. From these images, they now know, for example, that early Maya scribes held an exalted status, each living like royalty and vying to develop his own glyphic style. Though many traditional Maya scribes today write in the Roman script, there has been a push since the 1980s among Maya to relearn their forebears' script and use it themselves. Maya are now teaching the written language to one another in workshops, while Maya schoolchildren are learning the glyphs along with the history of their ancestors.



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