Breaking the Maya Code DVD

For a people to lose their history is a tragedy; to recover it, a miracle. Breaking the Maya Code is the story of the 200-year struggle to unlock the secrets of the world's last major undeciphered 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. It 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 heroes of the story 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 citystates in a long struggle for domination. 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.For the 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.

     The Maya developed a complete complex writing system, 1 of only 5 in the history of the world. It is composed of over 800 symbols called hieroglyphs. They wrote on paper made from the inner bark of the fig tree covered with lime plaster, using lime based pigments. These codices could reach up to 22 feet long, and were folded accordion style, making pages. In the 16th century, the Spanish burned every codex they could find, along with anyone who could read or write. By the 18th century, all knowledge of the script was lost. Of the prolific output of the ancient Maya scribes, only 3 examples survive to the present day. Today's Maya are completely cut off from the written words of their ancestors, since all 3 are held captive in Europe. All are in poor condition as they have not been well cared for.

     Fortunately, Maya writing is also found carved in stone. One of the best examples was found by Jose Calderon when he stumbled on the jungle city of Palenque, Mexico in 1746. He found the 3 carved panels in the Temple of the Inscriptions, which contain a total of 640 glyphs. John Lloyd Stevens found, and bought, Copan, Honduras, in 1839. That fifty dollar purchase included the Hieroglyphic Stairway, where its 2200 glyphs make it the longest pre-Colombian stone inscription in all the Americas.

      The tale of decipherment began in 1721 when the librarian of the Royal Saxon library traveled to Vienna and bought what is now known as the Dresden codex. It sat on a shelf, collecting dust, until 1810 when a Parisian publisher reproduced 5 of its pages in a volume on the Americas. That volume led to Constantine Rafenesque's (sp) discovery of the bar and dot number system. This was the beginning of the decipherment.

     In 1832, a French artist, Jean Fredrick Valdec, traveled to Palenque. Believing that Phoenicians, Hindus, or Babylonians must have created the beautiful city (rather than native Americans), he drew Indian elephants in his hieroglyphs. Artists that followed were equally hampered by their preconceived notions, until the 1880's when Alfred Mosley's photographs appeared.

     Ernst Thursturman found the Dresden codex on the dusty shelves and studied it extensively. Much of what is now known about Maya astronomy comes from his studies. He found the Maya astrology calendars, including the Long Count calendar, where the ancient Maya measured the days since 4 ahau 8 cumku, the first day of the Maya world. When this Maya date was correlated to August 13, 3114 BC on our calendar, archaeologists were able to date stone monuments in the field.

     J. Eric Thompson was most respected Mayanist from 1930's until the 1960's. He created a meticulous classification system of over 800 Maya symbols, and assigned a number to each. He believed that the figures carved in stone depicted Maya gods and the the symbols were a mystic exercise for the Maya to get in touch with those gods. Tatanya Proscuriokoff would prove him wrong. After 20 years of field work at Piedras Negras, Guatemala, and other sites, she found the Mayan symbols and meanings for birth, coronation and death, and demonstrated that the monuments told the history of human beings.

     Uri Valenovich Konorokoff, the lone mayanist in Stalin's Soviet Union theorized that the glyphs represented the sounds of the spoken Mayan language, that there was no Mayan alphabet. In the hysteria of the Cold War, his priceless insight was dismissed as Soviet propaganda. Subsequent events would prove that he was right.

     Linda Shele and Peter Matthews discovered the royal sun sign and decoded the dynastic history of Palenque in 1973.

     In the late 1970's fewer than 30 of the 800 sacred mayan symbols could be read with confidence.

     In the 1980's, 18 year old David Stewart took on the task of completing Konorokoff's phonetic translation. He learned that many of the glyphs were combinations of other glyphs, merged or overlapping one another, and that as many as 15 different glyphs could represent the same sound. The pace of discovery quickened. Today, we can read about 80% of the glyphs, and work continues.

     The decipherment of the hieroglyphs gives today's Maya 1500 years of history written in the words of their ancestors, not in the words of white people from Europe. It gives us a window into the history, science and literature of a vanished world. From Chitzen Itza, Palenque, Copan, and dozens of sites scattered in between, the ancient Maya now speak for themselves.

See also: