For years, archaeologists have referred to an ancient set of texts known as the Maya codices to study that ancient civilization's relationship with astronomy and time. But now, a team of archaeologists has discovered a set of murals, hieroglyphs, and astronomical calendars deep in the rainforests of Guatemala, that predate those texts by hundreds of years.
Oh, and check your 2012 conspiracies at the door. According to these newly discovered charts, the Maya were in it for the long-haul.
Almost everything we know about Maya astronomy — their charting of the Sun, their tracking of the Moon and planets — we've learned from the Maya codices, a trio of intricately illustrated books carefully assembled out of a rugged cloth crafted from the inner bark of fig trees.
Each codex — The Madrid Codex, the Dresden Codex, and the Paris Codex — is filled with hieroglyphic script and astronomical tables like the ones pictured here. This particular leaf of bark cloth comes from the Dresden Codex. The scribes who penned these charts and figures are thought to have lived a century or two before the arrival of Columbus. It is the oldest known book ever written in the Americas.
It is not, however, the earliest known Maya astronomical calendar. At least, not any more.
In today's issue of Science a research team led by Boston University archaeologist William Saturno describes the recent discovery of Maya murals, hieroglyphs and astronomical calculations that date all the way back to the 9th century. Not only do these paintings predate the Dresden Codex by hundreds of years, they are also the first known evidence of Maya astronomical methodology from what's known as the Classic period — the time span ranging from 200 to 900 C.E.
An Unlikely Find
The discovery was made in a small, sub-surface dwelling located in Xultún, Guatemala — one of the largest Maya archaeological sites on Earth.
"Xultún is a city that takes up at least 16 square kilometers," Saturno told reporters earlier today in a press conference. Thousands of Maya structures, some as tall as 35 meters in height, have been found rising up from the region's rain forest floor.
For as expansive as Xultún is, it has been the subject of very few official archaeological investigations since it was first discovered in 1915. What attention it has received has come in the form of looting. These illicit investigations, say the researchers, have left the largest mark on the site; much of Xultún's archaeological richness has been plundered, or eroded over time by the region's punishing climate.
That's not to say official studies aren't conducted, or that discoveries aren't made. Saturno, himself, was involved in one such investigation in March, 2010, when a member of his team — Maxwell Chamberlain — happened upon the small, masonry-vaulted structure pictured here (click to enlarge). The dwelling had already been partially exposed by looting, but when Chamberlain peered inside, he was met by the structure's western wall (see inset), and identified what he believed to be a heavily eroded mural painting.
To the untrained eye, what Chamberlain had spotted probably looks no different from a bare slab of rock, but something was definitely there. "Maya paintings are incredibly rare," explains Saturno, "not because [the Maya] didn't paint, but because they rarely stay preserved in the Guatemalan climate."
Researchers often find walls with remnants of paint, but very rarely can anything be said about their previous artistic content. Such was the case with the mural that Chamberlain had discovered. It was a noteworthy find, to be sure, but nothing earth-shattering in the grand scheme of things.
But then the researchers started digging.
"We decided to look at how big the room was," explains Saturno. The team burrowed North, searching for the rear wall of what they knew to be a small room, a room they determined would require minimal effort in the way of excavation. The researchers reached the wall quickly; they had been right about the size of the room. But what they found there nobody could have anticipated.
It was a mural of a Maya king, seated atop a throne. The mural is depicted here alongside a reconstruction by archaeological illustrator Heather Hurst. According to Saturno, the painting has been color matched to the chemical components of the pigments used by the original painter (determined using a preservation technique known as chemical fluorescence), revealing the color this painting would have been prior to enduring centuries of deterioration.
"It was a shock to find a mural so well preserved," said Saturno. "It was also a shock to find it in a house, and to find it depicting the king of Xultún.
With further excavation came the discovery of more stunning murals. Also depicted on the north wall, to the left of the painted king, is a scribe, portrayed with writing implement in-hand. On the adjoining, western wall, three black figures, each adorned with matching headdresses, form a line and face in the direction of the northern wall. The king, the scribe, and the largest of the three black figures can all be seen in the image featured here.
The Earliest Known Maya Calendar
But the most striking discovery of all was made on the structure's east wall, where Saturno and his team uncovered neatly ordered columns of carefully rendered hieroglyphic texts and numerals.
"These bars and dots are really, really cool," explains David Stuart, an expert on Maya hieroglyphs at the University of Texas at Austin. "What these are giving us are time spans — not so much dates, but Maya notations of elapsed time." He continues:
There's just enough preserved here for us to figure out the differences in time between the different columns, and they seem to be very standard. The interval between each of these columns was either 178 days or 177 days, and those numbers are really important in the lunar timekeeping of the ancient Maya. It seems pretty clear here that we have a lunar calendar.
A second set of columns, each depicting blocks of time between one-third to 2.5 million days into the future, is thought to depict the astronomical cycles of Mars, Venus and lunar eclipses. These figures, the researchers say, only serve to confirm what Maya scholars have long known to be true regarding society's obsession with 2012, that date's coincidence with the end of the Maya's 13-Baktun "Long Count" calendar, and the end of the world: that 2012 — while important insofar as it represented the end of a long-drawn Baktun cycle — was more akin to turning the page of a calendar to the Maya than it was the end of days.
"Baktun 14, Baktun 15, Baktun 16 were all going to be coming," said Stuart. "The Maya calendar is going to keep going, and keep going for billions, trillions, octillions of years into the future. A huge number that we can't even wrap our heads around."
Saturno echoed Stuart's sentiments.
"The ancient Maya predicted the world would continue, that 7,000 years from now, things would be exactly like this."
"We keep looking for endings. The Maya were looking for a guarantee that nothing would change. It's an entirely different mindset."
The researcher's findings are published in today's issue of Science. The findings will also be presented in next month's issue of National Geographic.