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Ancient Middle America

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  map: Mesoamerica and Its Cultural Areas
 Pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica

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Cracking the Maya Code

NOVA, 8 April 2008

(54 min, 2008, DVD 1575)

Maya glyphs in stucco at the Museo de sitio in Palenque, Mexico.

Maya glyphs in stucco at the Museo de sitio in Palenque, Mexico

see also

Writing Systems


Maya script

Abstract Terms / Concepts Notes
Cultures Sites Individuals Bibliography
/ Resources

Cracking the Maya Code
(54 min, 2008, DVD 1575)

Cracking the Maya Code banner.

"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."


From Discovery . . .

For a people to lose their history is a tragedy; to recover it, a miracle.

With the Breaking The Maya Code DVD, experience the tragedy of losing an entire peoples' history and the miracle of rediscovering it. This historical Maya DVD shows the painstaking journey through 40 locations in nine countries with a handful of men and women, whose most important mission is to reunite six million living Maya people with their lost history. A Breaking The Maya Code video was inspired by historian Michael Coe's book by the same name, which was called "one of the great stories of twentieth century scientific discovery" and will surprise and astound you as you delve into the ancient culture restored through tireless research by some of the most amazing scientific heroes of our time.

The Breaking The Maya Code DVD, is the story of the 200 year struggle to unlock the secrets of the world's last major un-deciphered writing system. Based on archaeologist and historian Michael Coe's book of the same title (which The New York Times called "one of the great stories of twentieth century scientific discovery") and filmed in over 40 locations in nine countries, this amazing detective story is filled with false leads, rivalries and colliding personalities. The Maya DVD, leads us from the jungles of Guatemala to the bitter cold of Russia, from ancient Maya temples to the dusty libraries of Dresden and Madrid.

The Breaking The Maya Code DVD story heroes are an extraordinary and diverse group of men and women: an English photographer, a German librarian, a Russian soldier, a California newspaperman, an art teacher from Tennessee, and an 18 year-old boy immersed in the glyphs since early childhood. Surprisingly, the decipherment reveals not peaceful kingdoms but warring city-states in a long struggle for domination. Shown in the Maya DVD, the texts also reveal a strange world of kings and queens who regularly shed and burned their blood to invoke the Vision Serpent, a world shaped by an intricate cosmology that weaves together the lives of humans, the deeds of mythic heroes and the cycles of the planets and the stars.

In the Breaking The Maya Code video, six million Maya alive today, a people who had been cut off from their own extraordinary past, the decipherment is like a time machine — uniting them with their own lost history and opening up an invaluable treasure for all of us.

. . . Witness the tragedy of an entire culture's history lost and the miracle of it being restored by through tireless research in over 40 locations on nine continents.


While watching this program pay some attention to the relationship between research/scholarship and the social-polotical climate of the times

This is also a good example for Philosophy of Science, History of Science, and the Sociology of Knowledge

NOVA program homepage

program transcript

Links and Books


Time Line of Decipherment

Timeline Decipherment.

Trace key discoveries in the effort to understand the Maya script.


A Masterpiece Revealed

A Masterpiece Revealed

Explore a 2,000-year-old mural, one of the most exciting recent discoveries of early Maya art


Decode Stela 3

Decode Stela 3

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

Map of the Maya World

Map of the Maya World

From Chichén Itzá in the north to Copán in the south, the Maya empire was vast and varied

Speaking Ancient Maya

Speaking Ancient Maya
Anthropologist Barbara MacLeod says that studying the ancient Maya language offers a unique window into the past

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Terms / Concepts:

  • glyphs
  • Dresden Codex
  • Madrid Codex
  • Paris Codex
  • "T-numbers" / Thompson-numbers

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Sites / Locations:




(from the NOVA homepage)


Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions
This project, run by Harvard's Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, has a lofty goal: record and disseminate information about all known ancient Maya inscriptions and their associative art. On this well-designed site, examine stelae and other artifacts from 16 Maya sites in detail, with help from commentary, photos, line drawings, and site maps.

This extensive Web site offers dozens of downloadable articles, academic papers, translations, and other useful resources for studying the ancient cultures of Mexico and Central America.

Maya Hieroglyphic Writing
The Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies provides this Web resource for deciphering Maya hieroglyphs. Browse online Maya dictionaries, download PDF files of famous Maya codices, and more.

The Mesoamerica Center
On this Web site from the University of Texas, Austin, read research papers on ancient Maya writing, browse field reports from archeological sites, and participate in a discussion board on the art and culture of Mesoamerica.

Maya Decipherment
Read in-depth discussions of Maya hieroglyphic decipherment on this blog hosted by Mesoamerican scholar David Stuart.

Yucatec Maya Language
Find a Yucatec Maya vocabulary list, pronunciation guide, and more on this Web site devoted to the study of that language.

Breaking the Maya Code
David Lebrun, producer of NOVA's "Cracking the Maya Code," made a two-hour version of the film with the title above. On his company's Web site, you can learn more about the story of the decipherment and the film's production, watch animations on the workings of the Maya script, and explore resources including an archive of more than 20 interview transcripts.


Breaking the Maya Code
by Michael D. Coe. Thames & Hudson, 1999.
NOVA's "Cracking the Maya Code" was based on this book.

Reading the Maya Glyphs
by Michael D. Coe and Mark Van Stone. Thames & Hudson, 2005.

Dictionary of Maya Hieroglyphs
by John Montgomery. Hippocrene Books, 2002.

Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World
by Lynn V. Foster. Oxford University Press, 2005.

The Inscriptions from Temple XIX at Palenque
by David Stuart. Pre-Columbian Art Research Institute, 2005.


"Introduction to Maya Hieroglyphs"
by Harri Kettunen and Christophe Helmke. Workshop Handbook, 10th European Maya Conference, 2005.

Mayan Numerals, 5 + 8 = 13.

La Mojarra Inscription and Long Count date

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