Archaeologist William Saturno of Boston University excavates a house in the ruins of the Maya city of Xultun.
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 the world.
"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."
Explorers first 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.