I watched Breaking the Maya Code last night, the 2007 documentary based on Michael Coe's book. I highly recommend it.
A list of things I liked:
- I'm a sucker for history of anthropology stories, particularly those that show the importance of the social/historical context in the development of the field and in the interpretation of data. The movie does a good job with that, for example exploring how a WWI soldier's view of warfare (and Communism) affected his ability to objectively evaluate a Soviet researcher's (in retrospect largely correct) findings. I spend a lot of time in my classes - even intro classes - talking about the importance of cultural context in interpreting scientific data, and making it clear that data discovery and data interpretation are not the same thing. And, as much as we may not want to admit it, passing or failing peer review does not mean an idea is "true" or "false", just that it is or is not generally accepted by the scientific community of that time and place.
- The movie at least hints at the inherent biases built into our interpretations of Maya writing. It does not do a great job of explaining that monumental inscriptions were only one type of writing among the Maya, and our view of their world would be quite different if we had more perishable texts, but at least it mentions the issue. It also does a nice job explaining how archaeological interpretations of the Maya world were shaped by what part of the writing system was readable at that point in the history of the discipline. In many ways, Mayanists were like the man looking for his keys under the streetlight, not because he lost them there, but because that was the only place he could see.
- The movie is much better than your average Mayan documentary in avoiding over-dramatization. You know, the Maya "collapse", "lost cities of the jungle", "enduring mysteries of a lost tribe", and all that crap.
- At the end, the documentary at least pays lip service to the importance of the (yes, still very much alive!) Maya people in the translation of ancient texts. I would have liked to see this discussed more throughout the movie, but it was a nice segment. It includes some interesting commentary on the politics of learning Mayan history, in the context of the modern nation states where the Maya live. Plus, the computer program created to write in Maya was seriously cool.
Some things I didn't like:
- Alas, it's too long. It's not too dull, but at 116 minutes, it would eat an entire week of class. Obviously, it can be broken up into sections, but I always like to show the full video when possible.
- I mentioned that the documentary avoided sensationalism. In the process, it left out some rather striking aspects of Maya history. Of course I can't read the glyphs, but I wondered if some of the translations had been sanitized. I'm sure there are a lot of inscriptions about lords "defeating" enemies, but I remember reading a lot about enemies being tortured, flayed, defleshed and scattered. Similarly, de Landa's burning of Maya books was mentioned in the documentary, as a response to ancient Maya "sacrifices" taking place in nearby villages. I don't know about that specific incident, but human sacrifice continued to take place well into the historic period, often with political implications. Most modern Americans, at least, would have a better understanding of de Landa's horror at what he considered to be "devil worship", if they knew the specific acts he was condemning. I'm not condoning de Landa's actions, just saying that the video skimmed over some of the less pleasant bits (from our modern perspective) of ancient Maya culture.
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