Sunday, March 10, 2013

Cracking the Mayan Code

This documentary dates from 2008 on PBS, but I only saw it for the first time on History Channel the other night.  It is a fascinating exploration into the Mayan language.  The doc is based on a book by Michael Coe.  It starts with the destruction of many of the ancient codices by Diego de Landa, a 16th century priest determined to convert the Maya to Christianity.  However, the documentary fails to note that de Landa spent a long time trying to crack the code himself because he like many other priests originally saw the Maya as a lost tribe of Israel.  I have his book, Yucatan Before and After the Conquest, and Hugh Thomas writes quite a bit about him in Conquest.

This intriguing special focuses on the long process of decrypting a language composed of over 800 glyphs and combined in a seemingly endless number of ways that had befuddled Mayanists for decades.  Eric Thompson, considered the dean of Mayanology, viewed the Mayans as relatively primitive and saw the hieroglyphs in purely graphic mythic terms.  Tatiana Proskuriakova, a Russian emigree, was apparently the first to see the glyphs as part of an intricate language that told the history of the Mayans, and that the stelae at   Palenque were actually stories of the dynastic rulers, dating back to the 7th century.  It took the efforts of a lone Soviet ethnologist, Yuri Knorozov, to figure out that the glyphs were symbolic of a phonetic language, but he worked largely in isolation, and his studies were discounted by Thompson, seemingly for political reasons.

It took the intuitive mind of a boy, David Stuart, to unlock the language.  He joined his father and mother on expeditions to the Yucatan, sketching the hieroglyphs like his father, and eventually finding patterns others hadn't been able to see.  He came to view the symbols as phonetic, like Knorozov, but saw that a sound could have more than one glyph, in some cases as many as fifteen, so that it could be arranged graphically into the blocks in a number of compelling ways.

The beauty is that eventually this understanding of the hieroglyphs was given back to contemporary Maya, giving them a window on their past they had thought lost forever.

1 comment:

  1. There was this documentary on Knorozov a few years back,