Mystery of the Maya - The Film

Synopsis

Mystery of the Maya is an exciting archaeological journey through Maya history. A young Maya boy who lives close to the ruins begins to wonder about the people who built these amazing structures. He becomes acquainted with one of the archaeologists (portrayed in the film by the Mexican actress Blanca Guerra) and asks her to tell him about his ancestors. This sets the stage to explore the ancient sites and to discover how the story of this civilization is being revealed.

The crew travelled to over fifteen locations in Mexico and Guatemala to create this giant-screen motion picture, which includes aerial views of Maya ruins and key events in modern Mexican archaeology. The film begins with a view of Tulum from the sea, moves on to Palenque, site of the magnificent Temple of the Inscriptions, to Chichén Itzá's famous "Castillo" temple and other well-known sites on la ruta Maya.

Dramatizations illustrate scenes from traditional Maya life, the period of the Spanish invasion, and contemporary events such as a prayer ritual deep within a cave. Descendants of the ancient Maya pray to the same gods their ancestors worshipped a hundred generations ago. The discovery of the secret staircase that led to the tomb of King Pacal, the seventh-century ruler of Palenque, is reenacted, as is the work of the nineteenth-century explorers who first documented the existence of Maya cities.

You will feel part of the historic expeditions (1839-42) led by John Lloyd Stephens, an American writer of popular travel books, and his companion, the English artist Frederick Catherwood, as they venture into the jungle on the trail of a "lost" civilization. Catherwood's accurate drawings in Stephens's Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatán (1841) are an invaluable record of many stone carvings that have since been damaged or lost. This book provided the first opportunity for the world to ponder the achievements of the Maya civilization and to speculate on the reasons for its demise.

A wealthy Englishman, Alfred Maudslay, visited the area forty years later. Using a scientific approach, he surveyed as many sites as possible, producing accurate records of the architecture, carvings, and hieroglyphics. Capitalizing on improvements in photographic technology (such as the invention of the dry-plate gelatin negative, which allowed photographers to work away from their studios), he took hundreds of photographs of various sites. Some of this rich photographic legacy is shown in the film, as fresh today as when the images were created. Maudslay also made plaster moulds of the glyphs and images that he had recorded on film.

The film also relives an important chapter in Maya history. In 1562, the Franciscan bishop Diego de Landa decided to burn all the Maya books he could find in a massive public bonfire because he felt they contained nothing but "superstitions and the writings of the devil." This act obliterated most of the information the Maya had recorded on their history and sciences. Today only four fragmentary books survive: in Dresden, Paris, Madrid, and Mexico City. Ironically, although he destroyed this treasury of knowledge, it is through Landa's own writings that we know as much as we do of Maya customs, clothing, and lifestyle. His attempts to decipher Maya hieroglyphics ultimately contributed to their translation by modern scholars.

Another reenactment in the film recounts the story of the spectacular Bonampak murals. In 1946, the American Fruit Company hired the photographer Giles Healey to document the ancient traditions of the Lacandón Maya. He persuaded a few local men to take him to temples in remote parts of the jungle, some of which had never been seen by non-Natives, where he witnessed traditional ceremonies that demonstrated the continuity of Maya culture. He was also led to the Temple of Three Rooms at Bonampak, where he became the first non-Maya to gaze on the exceptional wall frescos showing Maya kings in full regalia and performing various rituals including torture.

The film also considers some remarkable Maya achievements. Their system of mathematics and calendrics, for example, was highly advanced and extremely accurate. Maya writing effectively recorded historical events as well as ideas associated with their religious beliefs and practices. In addition, the Maya were expert astronomers who measured planetary cycles and predicted solar and lunar eclipses.

Animation sequences focus on the deciphering of the famous "96 glyphs" from Palenque and demonstrate the work of numerous scholars as the puzzle of various glyphs was worked out. It was not until 1990 that the meaning of the full panel of glyphs became clear. They read like a history book, describing royal families, exploits of war, and the ascension of young kings to the throne. The monument of one of those kings, Lord Pacal, is featured in the film. The limestone sarcophagus lid of his tomb, engraved with a superb example of Maya art, is considered a world treasure.

The film ends with some insights about the unsolved mystery of why so many cities were abandoned at the end of the Classic period (around A.D. 900). Why did the Maya give up their kings and return to a simple lifestyle as farmers of maize - the cornerstone of their civilization for over a millennium?