Discovering A Lost Civilization

In the late 18th century Charles III of Spain ordered an exploratory excavation of Palenque, one of the Mayan cities. The results aroused little interest in Spain, but a report was published in London in 1822 and the Mayan ruins came to the attention of the English-speaking world. In 1839-40 John Lloyd Stephens, a United States lawyer, and Frederick Catherwood, an English architect, made the first of several expeditions into the lost world of the Mayas. Since then many archeologists and scholars have taken up the study. Explorations have been sponsored by various universities, museums, and other organizations as well as by the government of Mexico.

More than 100 sites have been studied. These include Copn in the south; Palenque, Piedras Negras, Bonampak, Uaxactn, Ro Azul, and Tikal in the central area; Chichn-Itz, Uxmal, and Dzibilchaltn in the north.

Thousands of Mayan codices (books) existed before the Spanish conquest but only four, written on folded bark, survive. However, many vases with painted inscriptions have been recovered. There are also innumerable carved inscriptions on stelae and on temples and other buildings. Mayan writing was in a form of hieroglyphics, which for decades defied all attempts at decipherment. A breakthrough came in 1952, when a Russian, Yuri Knorosov, determined that some Mayan glyphs stood for sounds. His methods yielded more and more clues, and by the 1990's most of the glyphs had been deciphered.

After the Spanish conquest, two books were written by Mayan scribes in their own language but in Latin characters. These, The Books of Chilam Balam and Popol Vuh, supply some knowledge of Mayan history and religion.