Cracking The Maya Code On PBS

Late Breaking News
Cracking the Maya Code
The week of April 8, 2008 on PBS stations

Marita Adair

Fasten your seatbelts. Prepare for a head-spinning ride through the centuries on a twist-and-turn journey that ends with the decipherment of Maya hieroglyphs.
Based on the extraordinarily riveting book Breaking the Maya Code by Michael D. Coe, PBS,  invites us on this journey that includes a cast of characters and storyline worthy of a major motion picture: vicious scholarly rivalries, major setbacks, generous heroes  and heroines, ancient archaeological sites, amazing sleuthing, dusty archives, lost-then-found manuscripts, sweat and scholarship.  That’s without mentioning what the deciphered glyphs reveal:  named people, dates, events, births, deaths, kings, queens, wars, sacrifices, and rivalries that now speak from carved stone. The trail leads around the world and back again to the Maya Civilization found in southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador.

In his book Michael Coe compares cracking the Maya code to the importance of space exploration and discovering the genetic code. You read that correctly. And as you’ll see in the film, “new” sites and information reveal more each year.

As for this movie version, if you are thinking dull documentary, forget it. For one thing, Coe’s prose is so lively, opinion-filled, and rich in characters, that the book is hard to put down. But you must in order to digest it all.  So the PBS version, that distills it into 56 minutes, provides the provocative overview that may send you running to the bookstore for your personal copy of the book which, of course, holds all the enthralling details It’s one of those “keeper” books every lover of Mexico must have.

Teachers and layfolk alike will appreciate the aids PBS has on its site that include a time line of decipherment, a fascinating “reading” of the 8th-century glyph on Stela 3 from Piedras Negras, Guatemala and hearing it in Maya,  seeing a Maya mural discovered in Guatemala in 2001, a map of the Maya World, plus teacher aids, and an exemplary list of books.

At last, in our lifetime, this multi-country mystery with many linguistic challenges, has been pieced together. Now all we have to do is go and see what the ancients built. And then stuff ourselves with knowledge about a life so important that they carved stories in stone with primitive tools and built enormous stone cities in commemoration. Or stuff ourselves and then go.

Check your local PBS TV listing for film times. Or, if you miss it, see it online at the PBS website. Some stations may repeat it several times this week.