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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Deciphering Mayan Calendar Records

Air Date: Week of
“Younger Brother Obsidian,” was painted in the 9th century A.D. Archaeologist William Saturno excavates the house in the ruins of the Maya city of Xultún. (Photo: Tyrone Turner © 2012, National Geographic)

Archaeologists have unearthed intricate calendar calculations on the walls of a ruined Mayan city in the remote rainforest of Guatemala. Boston University archeologist William Saturno spoke with host Bruce Gellerman to explain the secrets his team discovered.


GELLERMAN: It's Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman.

In 1915, while harvesting gum from trees in the lowland rainforest of Guatemala, Aurelio Aguayo stumbled upon a magnificent Maya city. For his discovery he was given the equivalent of twenty-five dollars in gold but the true value of his priceless find would not be clear until 95 years later. That’s when Boston University professor William Saturno and his team began excavating the lost, ancient Maya city of Xultun.

William Saturno’s excavation site in Xultun. (Photo: Tyrone Turner © 2012 National Geographic)

SATURNO: Xultun is a city surrounded by forest. If you were to walk through the site of Xultun, you would see towering pyramids covered in trees. The largest buildings at the site are more than 100 feet tall and the trees crane up from their heights. Today, the city occupies about 16 square kilometers of forest, and certainly tens of thousands of people would have lived there in the past.

GELLERMAN: How old is it?

SATURNO: The city was probably first occupied by around 200 BC, and certainly grew to its height in the period we think of as the early classics, so, between 400 and 600 AD.

GELLERMAN: So it was discovered in the early 1900s. You excavated it a few years ago… what was happening in between?

SATURNO: Since that time of the site’s initial discovery, so essentially for 100 years it sat without any legitimate archaeological excavations being performed. That’s not to say that the site wasn’t excavated because beginning in the 1970s, the site was absolutely ravaged by looters.

GELLERMAN: So when you got to the site about two years ago, was there an area or a bunch of buildings that weren’t looted?

SATURNO: Actually, there are thousands of buildings at this site of Xultun, and not a single one of them is un-looted.

GELLERMAN: So,you came to this one building, this room with a chamber. Can you describe that?

Numbers on the north wall of the ruined house relate to the Maya calendar and computations about the moon, sun and possibly Venus and Mars; the dates may stretch some 7,000 years into the future. (Photo: William Saturno and David Stuart © 2012 National Geographic)

SATURNO: The room was actually found by one of my undergraduate students, a student named Maxwell Chamberlain. On his lunch hour, he peeked his head into one of these looters excavations and saw the remains of a painting. By the time I came to see it, I was relieved to see that there wasn’t a lot of paint left on the wall. Now, that sounds strange, but the amount of working- having just spent about a decade excavating nearby at San Bartolo, the idea of tackling another Mayan mural sounded rather daunting. So, I said to Max ‘you know, I’m very sorry, Max, this looks like this room was probably brilliantly painted in the past. It’s a pity we’re not going to be able to see what it looked like.’ And then I excavated about 30 centimeters to the back wall of the room and on that wall is the portrait of the Maya king in resplendent blue feathered headdress, holding this brilliant white scepter. His face just looks off, these beautifully rendered eyelash… he’s really quite stunning. So, seeing the face of that king on that back wall was certainly a eureka moment.

And then, we started to ask the question- well, why is there a painting of the king on the back wall of this room in the first place? What else is on these walls?

GELLERMAN: And there’s your real discovery. It wasn’t the Maya king. It was, well, I’m looking at your Science article and you’ve got pictures of the walls and it looks like, well, morse code…dots and dashes.

SATURNO: Yes. You know the first thing that we were struck by were the figures painted on the wall. But then all along the east wall of the room there are the absolutely miniscule Maya hieroglyphs. There’s a table of numbers, column after column after column of Maya numbers. And atop each of those columns was a single glyph that was the image of the moon and a patron deity for each associated column. So, what we were looking at was probably related to the lunar calendar.

GELLERMAN: So the Maya had a special fascination with the calendar. They had calendar keepers. Is that what you found here?

SATURNO: Yeah, I think that we found the workspace in which Maya calendrical almanacs were being read and used as reference materials by our scribes.

GELLERMAN: So, what’s the new here? We knew that the Maya had a special fascination with things calendar-wise. What’s so fascinating about this discovery?

SATURNO: Well, one of the things that sort of sets this bit of painting apart is that the only other place that we’ve seen writing like this from the ancient Maya are in the very few preserved Maya codices – the bark paper books that were preserved from the 13th or 14th centuries AD. We’ve long assumed that there were previous versions of these… that they were copied over, over time. But, of course, we’ve never found a classic period Maya codex. And this is really the closest we’ve ever come.

GELLERMAN: And this is many hundreds of years earlier.

SATURNO: Yeah, this is about 500 years earlier. And, you know, they are the earliest astronomical tables we have for the ancient Maya.

GELLERMAN: So, Professor, why were the Maya – and maybe you don’t know this – why they so enamored with things astronomical and time?

SATURNO: Well, certainly the Maya rulers sought to tie the historical events of their lives, their accomplishments, to larger cycles of time and larger more universal events. Being able to fix an event in the sort of the grand scheme of cosmic time was very important in Maya society. Their calendar was keeping track of those large cycles of time.

GELLERMAN: So when does the calendar end? We hear all about the Maya prediction of the end of the world on December 21st 2012. Does this calendar end on December 21st, 2012?

SATURNO: (LAUGHS). The Maya calendar has no end. The Maya calendar was a series of circles. And, like a circle, one could say ‘where is the beginning of the circle, where is the end of the circle?’ Well, the whole point of the circle is that it has neither beginning nor end, and it just goes around and around and around. And for the ancient Maya, that’s how their calendar worked.

GELLERMAN: So you say that there are thousands of buildings still left to be explored there. Are you going to do that?

SATURNO: Um, well, we plan on working at Xultun for a very long time. We just finished up a field season this week and we hope to continue there for many years into the future.

GELLERMAN: Is there one thing that you’d love to discover there?

SATURNO: Is there one thing I would love to discover at Xultun? Um…probably not. [LAUGHS]. I mean, I think one of the great joys of archaeology is discovering the unexpected. So, is there something that I think of that I would want to find. I think that if I had something in particular that I wanted to find, I wouldn’t enjoy it nearly as much when I found it. Being able to uncover something like this that was unanticipated, that’s where the real joy is.

GELLERMAN: Well, Professor Saturno, thank you very much.

SATURNO: Thanks for having me.

GELLERMAN: William Saturno is professor of archaeology at Boston University. His paper Ancient Maya Astronomical Tables from Xultun, Guatemala is in the current issue of Science Magazine. He's also got a story in the June issue of National Geographic Magazine.



Science Magazine Article

National Geographic Article


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