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NOVA: Cracking The Maya Code

Airs Tuesday, June 8, 2010 at 8 p.m. on KPBS TV

Above: Pages from the "Dresden Codex," one of only four Maya books known to have survived the Conquest, track the planet Venus and helped a 19th-century scholar decipher the Maya calendar and astronomy.

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: Cracking The Maya Code" 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.)

Decode Stela 3

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

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.

J. Eric S. Thompson (1898-1975) dominated Maya glyph studies for most of the 20th century.
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Above: J. Eric S. Thompson (1898-1975) dominated Maya glyph studies for most of the 20th century.

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.)

Video

NOVA: Cracking The Maya Code (entire program)

Above: The ancient Maya civilization of Central America left behind a riddle: an intricate and mysterious hieroglyphic script carved on stone monuments and painted on pottery and bark books. Because the invading Spanish suppressed nearly all knowledge of how the script worked, unlocking its meaning posed one of archaeology's fiercest challenges. Until now. "Watch the entire episode of NOVA: Cracking The Maya Code."