The Dresden Codex is the oldest surviving book from the Mayan era, dating back as far as the 13th-century. It was discovered in Dresden, Germany, and refers to an original text of some three or four hundred years earlier, describing the local history and astronomical tables. It is one of only four documents that survived the Spanish Inquisition into the New World when much of Mayan history was wiped from the face of the planet.
But Amazon Prime’s “Secrets of Archaeology” revealed how the mystery was finally cracked many centuries later.
The series explained: “The practice of human sacrifice was described by Bishop Diego de Linda, a Spaniard who lived in the 16th-century.
“He himself was guilty of committing a number of crimes while attempting to convert the inhabitants to Christianity.
“Among these, the so-called auto de fe, or public burning of Mani, in which all written documents from this classical period of the Maya were destroyed by fire.
The Mayan code dates back as far as 800 years
The Mayans were interested in the stars
It’s a complicated system that was finally unravelled by Russian epigraphist Yuri Knorozov
“The Maya were the first people of the New World to keep historical records, with a written history that begins in 50BC.”
The narrator explained how the books soon spilt their secrets.
He added: “But today, only four of thousands of books written in hieroglyphs still exist – one of which is the so-called Dresden Codex.
“Maya books were made of fig tree bark, folded like an accordion, although everyone could learn how to write, only priests were allowed to compile books and read sacred scriptures.
“The greatest difficulty in deciphering Maya writing lies in interpreting the glyphs, since they are based on a system that combines ideograph and phonetic elements.
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The Dresden Codex
“It’s a complicated system that was finally unravelled by Russian epigraphist Yuri Knorozov, who wrote the first Mayan grammar that was published in 1950.”
Mr Knorozov’s approach was based on the De Landa alphabet which was followed up by other scholars in the Eighties.
Together, they identified that the Dresden Codex contains accurate astronomical tables, which are recognised by students of the codex for its detailed Venus tables and lunar tables.
The lunar series has intervals correlating with eclipses, while the Venus tables correlate with the movements of the planet Venus.
The codex also contains ritual schedules and shows a cycle of a 260-day ritual calendar of the important Maya royal events.
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Auto de fe say the burning of written documents
Only four documents are known to have survived
The codex also includes information on the Maya new-year ceremony tradition and references the rain god Chaac 134 times.
The Mayans were a civilisation known for their architecture, mathematics and astronomical beliefs, who date back to as far as 2000BC, with many of their impressive constructions still standing in the jungles of southeast Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and western parts of Honduras.
Earlier this year, archaeologists hunting for a sacred well beneath the city of Chichen Itza in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula accidentally discovered a trove of more than 150 ritual objects untouched for more than 1,000 years.
The discovery of the cave system, known as Balamku or “Jaguar God,” was announced by Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) in a press conference held in March this year.
The team found incense burners, water carriers and pots, and evidence of religious ceremonies.
Lead archaeologist Guillermo De Anda said in March: “This cave is going to help us to rewrite the history of this city.
“We have found several offerings, all of them in a very good state of preservation, it looks like they were deposited by the ancient Maya yesterday.
“Why did they bother to go into these caves? It was a place that the mortals – the people on the surface – were not going to be able to see.
“What they were trying to do was call the attention of the water gods, we believe, to produce rain.”
Balamka was first discovered in 1966, but the cave was sealed by archaeologist Victor Pinto, who claimed there was no extensive archaeological material.
It remained sealed for more than half a century, until it was reopened in 2018 by Mr De Anda and his team of investigators from the Great Maya Aquifer Project during their search for the watershed beneath Chichen Itza.