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Breaking the Maya Code

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Frequently Bought Together

Breaking the Maya Code + Cracking the Maya Code - NOVA + Palenque: Metropolis of the Maya
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Product Details

  • Actors: Richard Agurcia, Michael Coe, CCH Pounder
  • Directors: David Lebrun
  • Format: Multiple Formats, Color, NTSC, Widescreen
  • Language: English
  • Region: Region 1 (U.S. and Canada only. Read more about DVD formats.)
  • Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
  • Number of discs: 1
  • Rated: NR (Not Rated)
  • DVD Release Date: September 16, 2008
  • Run Time: 116 minutes
  • Average Customer Review: 4.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (23 customer reviews)
  • ASIN: B001B2U1BE
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #90,695 in Movies & TV (See Top 100 in Movies & TV)

Special Features


Editorial Reviews

Product Description

For a people to lose their history is a tragedy; to recover it, a miracle.

Breaking the Maya Code is the story of the 200-year struggle to unlock the secrets of the world's last major undeciphered writing system. Based on archaeologist and historian Michael Coe's book of the same title (which The New York Times called "one of the great stories of twentieth century scientific discovery") and filmed in over 40 locations in nine countries, this amazing detective story is filled with false leads, rivalries and colliding personalities. It leads us from the jungles of Guatemala to the bitter cold of Russia, from ancient Maya temples to the dusty libraries of Dresden and Madrid.

The heroes of the story are an extraordinary and diverse group of men and women: an English photographer, a German librarian, a Russian soldier, a California newspaperman, an art teacher from Tennessee, and an 18-year-old boy immersed in the glyphs since early childhood. Surprisingly, the decipherment reveals not peaceful kingdoms but warring citystates in a long struggle for domination. The texts also reveal a strange world of kings and queens who regularly shed and burned their blood to invoke the Vision Serpent, a world shaped by an intricate cosmology that weaves together the lives of humans, the deeds of mythic heroes and the cycles of the planets and the stars.

For the six million Maya alive today, a people who had been cut off from their own extraordinary past, the decipherment is like a time machine - uniting them with their own lost history and opening up an invaluable treasure for all of us.


Mind-blowing stuff! --Maui Film Festival

Customer Reviews

4.9 out of 5 stars
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See all 23 customer reviews
Very smart and informative, a well crafted documentary.
It is also easily understandable for those of us who are not experts but still find the Maya and the Mayan glyphs fascinating.
Stanley C. Sargent
This is beautifully done and a must have for your video library.
E. K. Moseley

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

47 of 48 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on November 11, 2008
Verified Purchase
If you saw Cracking the Maya Code on PBS's NOVA series, this is the original for that episode. The NOVA producers had the filmmaker condense this full-length documentary (Breaking the Maya Code) into a one-hour broadcast. Both are stunning, but the full-length documentary gives you even more detail--something you will want. The documentary is assisted by state-of-the-art graphics which allow specific parts of the glyph carvings to light up when they are being discussed, as if the narrator were touching the surface of the carving. By the end of the documentary, when you get to see the deciphered glyphs re-introduced to the Maya themselves, you are almost cheering for a blow against the conquistadores and de Landa--who (almost!) eliminated the culture. The main accomplishment of the film is to lay out the story of how the glyphs were finally unlocked--with many frustrating roadblocks along the way (the key that opened the treasure trove was briefly tried twice before, but stopped each time). The story of the breaking of the glyphs also serves to show how interdisciplinarity is sometimes a necessity, not just a luxury: the ultimate unraveling required contributions from school teachers, amateur archaeologists, artists, art teachers, linguists, photographers, and mathematicians. In addition, one sees how cultural forces shape and distort readings of the glyphs and interpretations of the Maya culture. Simply fascinating!
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19 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Gerard D. Launay on October 14, 2008
If you asked most persons to identify the greatest intellectual achievements of the 20th century, you would probably hear about space exploration, the cure for polio, or uncovering the structure of DNA. After watching this film, I would add cracking the Mayan Code belongs in the top 5. There are literally thousands of Maya ruins with strange pictorial glyphs - but unlike the Egyptian hieroglyphs, scholars had no Rosetta Stone to help translate them. How then to decipher the ancient language?

This film is not a study of the Maya but a study of the personalities and thinkers who tried to interpret the Mayan picture glyphs. The story embraces a 500 year period. We begin with Bishop de Landa - a 15th century Spanish priest who asked the Mayan scribes to translate the Mayan sounds into western letters...a librarian in Germany who came across one of the few books still preserved of Mayan writing lost in the stacks...an artist with no special academic training who copied and studied the glyphs in Palenque...a Russian soldier who made the intellectual breakthrough that some of the Mayan writing was not like Chinese (pictures of ideas) but syllabic symbols...a photographer who photographed Mayan pottery for 30 years...and a 12 year old American genius who started publishing detailed scholarly papers on the language of the ancient Mayas. The string of personalities is endlessly fascinating. This is a beautifully photographed tribute to a group of unknown thinkers who followed their obsession and step by step deciphered the most difficult code possible.

If you enjoy this film, the director is also responsible for the exciting movie entitled "Proteus"...another exceptional documentary about scientific discovery. Check it out.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Utah Blaine on May 9, 2010
If you've ever wondered how the scientific community really attacks a problem, watch this video. There are occasional brilliant insights, but this shows the painstaking, behind the scenes work done by an array of professional (and amateur) researchers that lead up to that one big leap. Einstein didn't work in a vacuum, many researchers spent decades amassing the work that Einstein would ultimately tie together to develop relativity. So it is in some ways with the breaking of the Maya code. The Mayans left an incredibly detailed account of their history and culture right in front of us, and for centuries we hadn't a clue as to what it meant. A mystery that started with the Spanish conquest of central America several centuries ago, and only resolved (well, mostly resolved) in the past few decades. In this DVD, you'll watch how generations of researchers slowly put together bits and pieces of the puzzle. You'll listen to accounts of young researchers as they recall the high points of key conferences and key moments, as well as the arduous months in the jungles carefully photographing and drawing the Mayan symbols on temples, stelae, and other antiquities. The symbols are also reproduced graphically so that the viewer can see how the written Mayan language all fits together. You probably won't be reading the symbols on the temple walls by the end of the DVD, but you'll be able to recognize the symbols and how they all fit together! There are so many fascinating details presented in this outstanding documentary. One of the most famous, most knowledgeable Mayan scholars was completely wrong on one key aspect of the translation, and probably held up progress for decades, but quickly and graciously relented when shown convincingly that he was wrong.Read more ›
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Jean L. Vignes on January 30, 2010
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As a woman of part-Chippewa (Ojibwa) heritage, I am very interested in both the ancient peoples of the Americas and in the stories of how our cultures have fared since the European settlers "discovered" our homelands.

This documentary pulls very few punches when describing the ancient Mayans, the European newcomers, or modern Mayans.

There are stories within stories in this well-crafted documentary: the ancient Mayan story, the modern Mayan story, the European explorer/conqueror story and the personal stories of the various scholars, linguists, enthusiastic amateurs and adventurers who did something amazing, sometimes in spite of themselves: break the ancient Mayan code, a code that was almost neglected -- and actively repressed -- out of existence.

I highly recommend this documentary as a bridge between the past and the future. It pulls together the various strands of its story with nuanced wisdom and humility -- and with almost none of the romanticized sentimentality that so often turns pseudo-scholarly works on Native Americans into something embarrassingly banal.

Very well done.
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