Newly discovered wall writings found in Guatemala show
the famed Maya culture’s obsession with cycles of time. But they also show calendars that go well
beyond 2012, the year when the vanished civilization, according to popular culture, expected the end of
“So much for the supposed end of the
world,” says archaeologist William Saturno of Boston University, lead author of a study in the journal
Science, which reported the discovery on Thursday.
Discovered in the ruins of Xultun
(SHOOL-toon) , the astronomical calendar was unearthed from a filled-in scribe’s room. While about 7
million Maya people still live in Central
America today, the “Classic” Maya civilization of pyramid temples had collapsed there by about 900
A.D., leaving only a few birch-bark books dating to perhaps the 14th century as records of their
astronomy, until now.
“The numbers we found indicate an obsession with time and cycles of time,
some of them very large,” Saturno says. “Maya scribes most likely transcribed the numbers on the wall
in this room into (books) just like the ones later seen by conquistadors.”
reported the site of Xultun, once a large Maya center, in 1915. But it was only two years ago that
National Geographic Society-funded archaeologists noted a small residential room partly exposed by
looters. The room’s walls proved to hold murals and small, delicate hieroglyphs inscribed in rows
between paintings of scribes and rulers that not only corresponded to a 260 day ceremonial calendar and
365-day year, but the 584-day sky track of Venus and 780-day one of Mars.
Examination of the
rows shows they are columns of numbers and symbols similar to lunar eclipse calculations found in early
16th century Maya writings that tied astronomical events to rituals. Some of them include dates
corresponding to a time after the year 3500.
“A fascinating discovery and a first in Maya
archaeology,” says Maya anthropologist Victoria Bricker of Tulane University in New Orleans. She notes
its conclusive linkage of the later books to the Classic Maya calendar carved in stone dating back to
before 300 A.D. The room’s wall calculations likely served as a blackboard for scribes, in a society
where festivals, rituals and farming were tied to astronomical observations.
“Seeing the actual writing on the wall certainly gives us a little insight into
history,” says Maya writing expert Simon Martin, co-curator of the “Maya 2012: Lords of Time”
exhibition now ongoing at Philadelphia’s Penn Museum. Although once viewed as peaceful star-gazers,
more recent scholarly work has revealed that politics, war and trade dominated ancient Maya society.
“We’re seeing the pendulum swing back with this discovery, where we can now see astronomy playing a
role in ordering their society,” Martin says.
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