Nevermind the Apocalypse: Earliest Mayan Calendar Found by Stephanie Pappas
The oldest-known version of the ancient Maya calendar has been
discovered adorning a lavishly painted wall in the ruins of a city deep
in the Guatemalan rainforest.
The hieroglyphs, painted in black and red, along with a colorful mural
of a king and his mysterious attendants, seem to have been a sort of
handy reference chart for court scribes in A.D. 800 — the astronomers
and mathematicians of their day. Contrary to popular myth, this calendar
isn't a countdown to the end of the world in December 2012, the study researchers said.
"The Mayan calendar is going to keep going for billions, trillions,
octillions of years into the future," said archaeologist David Stuart of
the University of Texas, who worked to decipher the glyphs. "Numbers we
can't even wrap our heads around."
[End of the World? Top Doomsday Fears]
A brilliant surprise
The newly discovered calendar is complex indeed, featuring stacked bars and dots representing fives and ones and recording lunar cycles
in six-month chunks of time. But it wasn't these mathematical notations
that first caught the archeologists' eye. William Saturno, an
archaeologist from Boston University, was mapping the ancient Maya city
of Xultun in northeast Guatemala in 2010 when one of his undergraduate
students peered into an old trench dug by looters and reported seeing
traces of ancient paint.
The discovery was "certainly nothing to write home about," Saturno told reporters on Thursday (May 10), in advance of releasing details of the murals
in this week's issue of the journal Science. Paint doesn't preserve
well in the rain forest climate of Guatemala, and Saturno figured that
the faint red and black lines his student had found weren't going to
yield much information. But he felt he had a responsibility to excavate
the room the looters had tried to reach, if only to be able to report
the size of the structure along with the paint finding.
As Saturno continued along the old trench to the back wall, he was
shocked to run into a brilliantly painted portrait: a Mayan king,
sitting on his throne, wearing a red crown with blue feathers flowing
out behind him. Another figure peeks out from behind him. On an
adjoining wall, three loincloth-clad figures sit, wearing feathered
headdresses. One is captioned "Older Brother Obsidian," or "Senior
Obsidian," a still-mysterious title. Next to the king, a man painted in
brilliant orange wearing jade bracelets reaches out with a stylus,
likely identifying him as a scribe. He is labeled as "Younger Brother
Obsidian," or perhaps "Junior Obsidian." [See Photos of the Mayan murals]
It's not the end of the world
These paintings — covering the west and north walls of the small,
6-foot-by-6-foot room — weren't the only surprise Xultun had to offer.
On the east wall, someone had painted a series of small, complex
hieroglyphics. This, the researchers soon realized, was a calendar.
The calendar seemed to have been added after the murals were completed,
as some of the numbers cover up painted figures on the wall. It's
almost as if an ancient scribe got sick of flipping through a document
to find his timekeeping chart and decided to put it on the wall for
at-a-glance reference, Stuart said.
"It's kind of like having a whiteboard in your office where you're writing down formulas that you want to remember," he said.
The Maya recorded time in a series of cycles, including 400-year chunks
called baktuns. It's these baktuns that have led to rumors of an
end-of-the-world catastrophe on Dec. 21, 2012 — on that date, a cycle of 13 baktuns will be complete. But the idea that this means the end of the world is a misconception, Stuart said. In fact, Maya experts have known for a long time that the calendar doesn't end after the 13th
baktun. It simply begins a new cycle. And the calendar encompasses much
larger units than the baktun.
"There were 24 units of time they actually could have incorporated into
their calendar," Stuart said. "Here, we're only seeing five units and
they're still really big."
In one column, the ancient scribe even worked out a cycle of time
recording 17 baktuns, the researchers found. In another spot, someone
etched a "ring number" into the wall. These notations were used to
record time in a previous cycle, thousands of years into the past. The
calendar also appears to note the cycles of Mars and Venus, the
researchers said. Symbols of gods head the top of each lunar cycle, suggesting that each cycle had its own patron deity.
"There was a lot more to the Maya calendar than just 13 baktuns," Stuart said.
Scratching the surface
This ancient "wall calendar" is a major find, because the first known
calendar and astronomical tables before this time came from the Dresden
Codex, a book that dates to the 11th or 12th centuries. Most likely,
Saturno said, the wall calendar and the Dresden Codex both arose from
earlier books that long ago rotted away. [8 Grisly Archaeological Discoveries]
The mural room gives an unprecedented glimpse into the work lives of Mayan scientists,
Stuart said. The mural room is in a compound with several other rooms,
which were collapsed and built over in later years. The murals only
survived, because, instead of collapsing the room, Mayan engineers
filled it with rubble and then built on top of it.
"This is clearly a space where someone important was living, this
important household of the noble class, and here you also have a
mathematician working in that space," Stuart said. "It's a great
illustration of how closely those roles were connected in Mayan society."
Kings would have been extremely interested in timekeeping, Stuart said,
because part of their job was to conduct rituals of renewal at certain
times. Unfortunately, the name of the king pictured in the mural room
has been lost.
Although Xultun was first discovered in 1915, less than 0.1 percent has
been explored, Saturno said. Looters damaged much of the ancient city
in the 1970s, meaning much of historical significance has been lost. But
archaeologists still don't even know how far the boundaries of the town
"[That] investigations can begin and in a house like this we can find
something we've never seen before only speaks to the great wealth of
scientific material that remains in Guatemala in the Maya area for us to
discover," Saturno said.
The excavations of the mural room were funded by the National Geographic Society.
You can follow LiveScience senior writer Stephanie Pappas on Twitter @sipappas. Follow LiveScience for the latest in science news and discoveries on Twitter @livescience and on Facebook.
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