Pros:Interesting topic, nice unfolding,
Cons:Nothing worth mentioning.
The Bottom Line: Based on Michael Coe's book from the early 1990s, Breaking the Maya Code, this nicely recounts the long history of the decipherment of Mayan writing.
Plot Details: This opinion reveals minor details about the movie's plot.
This 2008 PBS “Nova” episode recounting the story of the decipherment of the Mayan hieroglyphs is based on Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at Yale University Michael Coe’s excellent book, Breaking the Maya Code. I read it in the early 90s in its first edition. It’s now available in a third edition, apparently in hard copy only.
The program begins with shots of familiar monuments and inscriptions in Washington, DC, but there are no people around. The narration asks:
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?
This is similar to what happened when Western and even native visitors came upon abandoned Mayan sites in Guatemala and the Yucatan Peninsula. No one could even begin to read the inscriptions on the stone walls and stelae. However, the cause of the break in understanding was known (if seldom acknowledged). During the Spanish Conquest of Central and South America, the destruction of Mayan culture was part of the conversion of the native peoples to Christianity. Only four complete or partial codices are known to have escaped the campaign of book burning. The Mayans who were taught to read and write were taught to do so in European languages.
“By the 18th century,” says Michael Coe, interviewed for this program, “I don’t think anyone could write.”
The story unfolds gradually, with technology such as photography in the late 19th century being one of the first aids. Early artists, believing the glyphs were the work of Old World cultures, had drawn their pictures so that some glyphs resembled elephants, for example. Also, photography allowed a large enough body of work to be spread among scholars to take serious stabs at decipherment.
There was also simple brain power. One scholar noticed the particular dot and bar pattern in an excerpt from a surviving codex, and figured it referred to numbers. Another came across a complete codex—one of the few that has survived—in a library in Dresden, Germany and was able to use the numbers to come to understand Mayan dates and to realize that the codex predicted solar and lunar eclipses, as well as the phases of Venus.
But it wasn’t all clear sailing. A couple of the obstacles included people who are convinced they were right, and who were incredibly influential in the field. I remember as a kid reading that the Mayan were a peaceful people in contrast to the warlike Aztecs. It’s well known now that this is not the case, that, in fact, many of their rituals involve blood, but this idea stood for a long time.
Another obstacle was the Cold War, isolating a Soviet Mayanist and making it easy for Westerners to discount his ideas, even when he was right.
There is a brief discussion of types of writing, and why the Mayan glyphs didn’t seem to fit the mold. There are also several demonstration of how the glyphs break down and translate.
As for the modern photography, it's really hard to take a bad picture of such spectacular ruins.
The importance of the achievement of decipherment is hard to understate. It allows the modern scholar to read, for example, not only the dates of the ascension of various kings, but also some myths without the filter of the earlier Spanish translators. It may be difficult to grasp exactly what those myths meant to the Maya, however.
Overall, though, this is quite an interesting program, tracking many pieces of a puzzle as they come together. It also shows the modern day Maya teaching the meaning of the glyphs to schoolchildren. It’s not an easy task to master. (Mayan is still spoken, though it’s changed since the days of the pre-Columbian civilization).
The program is presented in typical “Nova” style, told chronologically with some brief comments from various experts and some archival footage and stills. Having read Coe’s book some years ago, I remember him striking the same balance there in not trying to make villains of people who were mistaken, but at the same time not trying to minimize the mistakes. I think, frankly, that this is about as fair a treatment on the topic as one can expect.
Written and directed by David Lebrun
Narrated by Jay O. Sanders
For more info: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/ancient/cracking-maya-code.html
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Video Occasion: Fit for Friday Evening
Suitability For Children: Suitable for Children Age 9 - 12