Just when we thought the ancient Mayans had everything written (or drawn) down for us lowly mortals to follow, here comes this revelation. A vast Mayan city discovered nearly a century ago in Guatemala’s Petén region is beginning to yield its secrets and in the process, expanding our comprehension of ancient Mayan society.
Excavating for the first time in the sprawling complex of Xultún in Guatemala’s Petén region, archaeologists have uncovered a structure that contains what appears to be a work space for the town’s record keeper; its walls adorned with unique paintings – one depicting a lineup of men in black uniforms – and hundreds of scrawled numbers. Many are calculations relating to the Maya calendar.
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, reports archaeologist William Saturno of Boston University, who led the exploration and excavation.
“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,” Saturno said.
Xultún, a 12-square-mile site where tens of thousands once lived, was first discovered about 100 years ago by a Guatemalan worker and roughly mapped in the 1920’s by Sylvanus Morley, who named the site “Xultún” – “end stone.” Scientists from Harvard University mapped more of the site in the 1970’s. The house discovered by Saturno’s team was numbered 54 of 56 structures counted and mapped at that time. Thousands at Xultún remain uncounted.
The team’s excavations reveal that monumental construction at Xultún began in the first centuries B.C. The site thrived until the end of the Classic Maya period; the site’s last carved monument dates to around 890 A.D. Xultún stood only about five miles from San Bartolo, where in 2001 Saturno found rare, extensive murals painted on the walls of a ritual structure by the ancient Maya.
The house contains 3 intact walls, each telling its own story and each posing its own mysteries.
The north wall lies straight ahead as one enters the room. An off-center niche in the wall features a painting of a seated king, wearing blue feathers. A long rod made of bone mounted on the wall allowed a curtain to be pulled across the king’s portrait, hiding it and revealing a well-preserved painting of a man whose image is wrapped around the wall; he is depicted in vibrant orange and holds a pen. Maya glyphs near his face call him “Younger Brother Obsidian,” a curious title seldom seen in Maya text. Based on other Maya sites, Saturno theorizes he could be the son or younger brother of the king and possibly the artist-scribe who lived in the house. “The portrait of the king implies a relationship between whoever lived in this space and the royal family,” Saturno said.
Four long numbers on the wall representing one-third of a million to 2.5 million days likely bring together all of the astronomical cycles – such as those of Mars, Venus and the lunar eclipses – the Maya thought important, dates that stretch some 7,000 years into the future. This is the first place 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 A.D., a time when Mayan society began to collapse.
Three male figures loom on west wall, all of them seated and painted in black, wearing only white loincloths, medallions around their necks and identical single-feathered, miter-style head dresses. One of the figures is particularly burly and is labeled “Older Brother Obsidian.” Another figure is labeled as a youth.
The east wall is badly eroded, but another black-painted human figure and remnants of others are still discernible. This wall is dominated by numerical figures, including columns of numbers representing counting and calendrical calculations. Some of the numbers track the phases of the moon; others try to reconcile lunar periods with the solar calendar. One well-preserved section contains numerical notes painted in red that appear to be corrections to more formal calculations appearing alongside them.
“The most exciting point is that we now see that the Maya were making such computations hundreds of years – and in places other than books – before they recorded them in the Codices,” said Anthony Aveni, professor of astronomy and anthropology at Colgate University, a coauthor of the Science paper.
The scientists say all of these symbols reflect a certain world view the ancient Mayans possessed. They “predicted the world would continue, that 7,000 years from now, things would be exactly like this,” Saturno noted. “We keep looking for endings. The Maya were looking for a guarantee that nothing would change. It’s an entirely different mindset.”
The discovery is reported in the June issue of National Geographic magazine and in the May 11 issue of the journal Science.