National Geographic: Lost Kingdoms of the Maya

Synopsis:
Year:
1993
11 Views

They were here thousands of years

before Columbus.

While Paris was still a village,

they were carving cities

out of the jungle.

They played a ball game for

life or death.

They planned their lives according

to the heavens.

Their writing is a puzzle

we're still learning to decipher.

Wow! Look at this.

Really something.

Now the pace of discovery

is quickening.

We are finally finding out

who they were.

Bone? There's a lot of bone.

Look. It's a black kind of a...

Oh, man!

This is really a powerful work of art.

They are the people who say

that the gods made them from corn.

They are the Maya.

The year is 1839.

The place-western Honduras.

An American explorer named

John Lloyd Stephens

is leading an expedition in search of

an abandoned Maya city called Copan.

Almost nothing is knows about the Maya

Stephens is about to learn more.

Draped with a thousand years

of tropical growth,

the brooding temples and

tumbled stones sprawl for miles.

Stephens is overwhelmed

by a sense of mystery.

Who built this place?

What happened here?

In the following days Stephens and

English artist Frederick Catherwood

record their impressions

of the ruined city.

It lay before us like a shattered bark

in the midst of the ocean,

her masts gone, her crew perished.

And none to tell when she came,

or what caused her destruction.

All was mystery, dark,

impenetrable mystery.

During the next three years Stephens

and Catherwood

visit the better known Maya sites

to the north.

In Yucatan they explore Uxmal

and Chichen Itza.

In Chiapas they visit Palenque.

And still questions plague them.

Who built these cities?

Why had they been abandoned?

The land of the Maya spread from parts

of Honduras,

El Salvador, and Guatemala

in the south

to Belize and Mexico in the north

It was dotted with hundreds

of small kingdoms,

each with its own unique history.

The heartland of what scholars call

the "Classic" Maya civilization lay

in the southern lowlands.

It is there that our story

takes place

starting at the site where scientific

excavations first began... Copan.

Today, this partially restored site

still retains its air of mystery.

Bill Fash is the director

of the Copan Acropolis Project.

Copan was one of the premiere

Maya cities.

Now we can't say that in terms

of its size.

Certainly there were other cities

that were larger.

But while it was booming

for about 400 years there,

it was quite a place.

It had incredible artists, sculptors,

architects, engineers, astronomers,

scribes, and so forth.

So I suppose if you had to put it

in our cultural terms

...if Tikal were like say New York,

Copan was like Paris.

Every year of the past few decades,

a handful of Maya specialists and

hundreds of workers have been trying

to piece Copan's history back together

The story of what happened here

is still unfolding,

stone by stone.

There are over 30,000 fragments

of stone sculpture

that once adorned these buildings.

The problem is,

for this particular puzzle,

there is no box top.

There is no picture that enables us

to know how they went back together.

We have to try and figure that out.

And the problem is made worse

by things like this.

This is what we call a GOK piles

and pull out the examples that

are just like those we have dug up,

and try and put the whole thing

back together.

But in spite of the difficulties,

Fash's team of experts has reassembled

thousands of sculptures

and conserved dozens of buildings.

Every year the pictures of what Copan

was like more that a thousand years ago

becomes clearer.

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Submitted on August 05, 2018

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