Christmas will not be cancelled after all: archaeologists have found the earliest known Maya Calendar – with dates that go well beyond 21 December 2012, the day alarmists predict will be our last. The calendar is in the form of wall-paintings uncovered in a tiny building at Xultún in northeast e, a complex of Maya ruins about 40km northeast of Tikal.
The wall-paintings date to the early 9th century AD, and so are several hundred years older than the Maya Codices, which were written on bark in the 11th and 12th centuries.
The red and black glyphs at Xultún appear to represent calendrical cycles charted by the Maya: the 260-day ceremonial calendar, the 365-day solar calendar, the 584-day cycle of the planet Venus and the 780-day cycle of Mars. This is the only example Maya archaeologists have found that seems to tabulate all of these cycles in this way. Another number scratched into the plaster surface likely records the date 813 AD – a time when the Maya world had begun to collapse.
The small room, c.6ft by 6ft 6ins and about 10ft high with a vaulted ceiling, was taken up with a stone bench. The room had been deliberately filled in and buried but the paintings were surprisingly well preserved.
On the west wall are three seated men, all in black, wearing white loin-cloths, a medallion on their chests, and a mitre-style headdress; all face towards the north wall. The east wall is less well preserved but also seems to have a black-painted figure and traces of others. But it is covered in numerical figures: columns of numbers representing various calculations. Some track the phases of the moon, others con-ordinate lunar and solar cycles.
William Saturno of Boston University, who led the excavation and is co-author of the report newly published in Science, believes the small room was used by the town scribe: ‘For the first time we get to see what may be actual records kept by a scribe, whose job was to be official record keeper of a Maya community,’ he said. ‘It’s like an episode of TV’s Big Bang Theory: a geek math problem and they’re painting it on the wall. They seem to be using it like a blackboard.’
On the north wall, directly opposite the door, are the figures of two men: one is a seated king, wearing blue feathers, the other is vibrant orange and holds a stylus – probably the scribe. Numbers on this wall seem to represent all the astronomical cycles — such as those of Mars, Venus, and the lunar eclipses — that the Maya thought important, dates that stretch some 7,000 years into the future.
‘The ancient Maya predicted the world would continue, that 7,000 years from now, things would be exactly like this,’ Saturno said. ‘We keep looking for endings. The Maya were looking for a guarantee that nothing would change. It’s an entirely different mindset.’
‘It’s like the odometer of a car, with the Maya calendar rolling over from the 120,000s to 130,000,’ said Anthony Aveni, professor of astronomy and anthropology at Colgate University, and co-author of the Science paper. ‘The car gets a step closer to the junkyard as the numbers turn over; the Maya just start over.’
Monumental construction at Xultún began in the 1st century BC, and the site appeared to thrive until the end of the Classic Maya period; the last carved monument dates to around 890 AD. That the paintings have survived all this time is surprising, as Saturno explains: ‘Such writings and artwork on walls are not well preserved in the Maya lowlands, especially in a house buried only a metre below the surface.’