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Cracking the Maya Code

When the Spanish conquered the Maya empire in the 16th century, they forced their new subjects to convert to Christianity and speak and write in Spanish. But long before the Maya used the Roman alphabet, they had created their own rich and elegant script, featuring more than 800 hieroglyphs. Sadly, the glyphs' meanings were lost in the decadesfollowing the Conquest. Ever since, scholars have struggled to decode these symbols, pronounce the words they form, and understand the stories they tell. In this time line, follow the centuries-long decipherment, which has only recently reached the point where scholars can read more than 90 percent of the glyphs.—Rima Chaddha


16th century
Surviving texts
Thequest 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 benton 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 theDresden 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 toa 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 andalso 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 Förstemannjust 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 formeasuring 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 hewould 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...
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