November 28, 2011

Good Mon. – 4 here, -19 in the flats.

Not too much to report yokelly. We watched a NOVA special on Cracking the Maya Code, which is fascinating. If you have any interest in the Maya of Central America or decipherment of ancient writing, this is an excellent program. In 1950 scholars could read mostly numbers and a few astronomical  signs in Maya script. 90 percent of it was unreadable. Gradually, step by step, individual Maya scholars made small breakthroughs, such as figuring out the date the world began in Maya chronology, which corresponds to August 13, 3114 BCE, and figuring out that all those gods on statutes were actually chiefs of powerful Maya tribes. In 1950 the Maya were considered a peaceful people who studied the heavens and planted corn.

By the 1970s this picture was beginning to change. Murals were discovered showing Maya warriors torturing captives. And the words for “when” and “then” were deciphered, making it clear that the writing was narrative and not just dates and names. Then in the 1980s an 18 year old Maya scholar (his father was one) figured out that the Maya hieroglyphs were phonetic representations of words, and, more amazing, that they freely substituted different signs for the same sounds. So the sound u had 13 different signs and the sound bi had 8 signs. Also, when they combined sounds, a final vowel sound was dropped.

Now it was possible to read almost 90 percent of the writing. Formerly incomprehensible signs were translated: signs on an ear ornament read “his ear ornament”; on a bowl, “his bowl.” “He” was the chief, or some other noble, as most Maya were not top dogs and did not own ear ornaments of gold. Also, and more interestingly, signs on ancient objects contained bits of the now famous story about the Hero Twins told in the Popol Vuh, the Council Book of the Quiche Maya miraculously preserved over the centuries from the time it was written down, in Quiche and in Spanish, in the 1550s. It was miraculous because the Spanish friars regarded Maya writing as worship of the devil and burned everything they could find. Just 4 Maya folding screen books survive from that time. The bulk of surviving writing was on stone monuments that were overgrown by the jungle and not rediscovered until the 1800s.

This program is well worth an hour of your time. Kids from about middle school up would like it, too. Available from Netflix. A longer version (the original) is called Breaking the Maya Code, also available from Netflix.

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