A vast city built by the ancient Maya and discovered nearly a century ago is finally starting to yield its secrets. Excavating for the first time in the sprawling complex of Xultún in Guatemala’s Petén region, a team of archaeologists has uncovered a structure that contains what appears to be a work space for the town’s scribe, its walls adorned with unique paintings and hundreds of scrawled numbers. Many are calculations relating to the infamous Mayan calendar. Does it give any indication about whether the world will end in December?
One wall of the structure, thought to be a house, is covered with tiny, millimeter-thick, red and black glyphs unlike any seen before at other Maya sites. Some appear to represent the various 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.
Archeologist William Saturno, who led the exploration and excavation, says, "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. It’s like a geek math problem and they’re painting it on the wall. They seem to be using it like a blackboard."
But why did someone record the astronomical tables on residential walls rather than on bark paper, as Maya scribes generally did? One of the incised texts suggests that the room was in use around 813 C.E., and during the early 9th century, political turmoil wracked parts of the Maya world, with some city-states imploding as others seemed to rise. Perhaps the Xultún scribe wished to make a more permanent record of calendrical data. On the Science Now website, Heather Pringle quotes archeologist Stephen Houston as saying, "It could be kind of a drive toward archiving."
The project scientists say that despite popular belief, there is no sign that the Maya calendar–or the world–was to end in the year 2012, just one of its calendar cycles. Anthropologist Anthony Aveni says, "It’s like the odometer of a car, with the Maya calendar rolling over from the 120,000s to 130,000. The car gets a step closer to the junkyard as the numbers turn over; the Maya just start over." So we don’t need to dread December after all!
Xultún, a 12-square-mile site where tens of thousands once lived, was first discovered about 100 years ago by Guatemalan workers and roughly mapped in the 1920s, and the vegetation-covered structure with the numbers on the walls was first spotted in 2010 by one of Saturno’s students. There’s not a lot left to see: Since its discovery, looters have extensively targeted the once-sprawling Maya city-state, so the recent find was a lucky one.
We don’t know about Mayan calendars, but we DO know about our gorgeous crop circle calendar, and with over half a year left on OUR calendar, there’s still plenty of time to use it and it supports our site as well!