Dresden codex

The Maya script is the New World’s most highly developed ancient writing system, and it is “our one and only opportunity to peer into the Americas before the arrival of Europeans and hear these people speaking to us,” says Simon Martin, a specialist in Maya inscriptions at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Yet records of this written language were all but destroyed by European conquerors, who burned an untold number of Maya books.

Today, only four known, partial examples survive. Unlike the Rosetta Stone, which unlocked the secrets of Egyptian hieroglyphs in practically one fell swoop, deciphering the Maya script involved a long series of hunches and tantalizing insights as well as false leads, blind alleys, and heated disagreements among scholars.

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