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Thursday, May 10, 2012

Oldest Mayan Astronomical Tables Discovered

Under the Guatemalan jungle, 1,200-year-old paintings like no others. "Unprecedented"

  • Guatemala Ruins Hid Astronomical Calendar, Murals

    Jungle ordeal leads to surprise treasure

    A report in Science says it dates from the early 9th Century, pre-dating other Mayan calendars by centuries.

    Wall of the Xultun find
    The first known murals of Mayan art were discovered after removing the dirt from a surprisingly  well preserved building.

    The excavation was carried out using grants from the National Geographic Society, which has prepared a high-resolution photographic tour of the room.

    Archaeologists stumbled onto the astronomical tables, inscribed on the walls of a small building, while excavating part of the Xultun ruins, a large, heavily looted archaeological site in northern Guatemala, near its borders with Mexico and Belize. William Saturno, an archaeologist at Boston University (B.U.), recalls that an undergraduate student noticed the remains of a mural on one of the walls, triggering an excavation of the room, which had been partly exposed by looters. On three of the walls the researchers found figural paintings, along with a series of glyphs and numerals.

    William Saturno
    Archaeologist William Saturno (left) reattaches a section of a pre-Classic Maya mural discovered at San Bartolo, a remote Maya ceremonial site in northern Guatemala.The discovery is reported in the April issue of National Geographic magazine. (Photos by Kenneth Garret © National Geographic Society)

    The tables suggest that the Mesoamerican civilisation had advanced astronomy for over 1000 years, and that the information was widely available in Mayan society.  

    Dig for astronomy

    In 2010 Saturno and colleagues were excavating Mayan ruins at Xultún, also in Guatemala.One house had been partially looted, exposing a mural on one wall. Intrigued, Saturno excavated the rest of the building.

    William Saturno with researchers
    Archaeologists William Saturno (right), David Stuart, and Hector Escobedo inspect the walls of an 80-foot-high pyramid exposed by looters at a Maya ceremonial site in Guatemala. Saturno discovered the oldest known wall painting of Maya mythology inside the pyramid when he wandered into a crude looters' trench in search of shade.

    The walls were covered with pictures of Mayan people. In the gaps between the drawings, and sometimes drawn over the top of them, were glyphs: Mayan writing. Two sets looked like Dresden Codex glyphs, and contained astronomical information.
    The first is a table describing lunar cycles: the 29.5 days it takes for the moon to go through all of its phases. The Maya believed in six gods of the moon, each ruling its own lunar cycle. By knowing which god was in charge of the moon at any given time, Mayan rulers could plan their actions accordingly. "The Maya doubtless started with a presumption of meaning in such movements," explains Houston.
    No Classic astronomical texts survive, because Mayan books were made of plaster and bark paper that have rotted away, says William Saturno of Boston University in Massachusetts.
    Until now our main evidence of Mayan astronomical knowledge came from books produced centuries after their society declined. The most famous is the Dresden Codex, which dates from the 11th or 12th century. "The Dresden Codex was the summit – artistically, calligraphically, and intellectually," says Stephen Houston of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.
    But the Maya civilisation reached its height centuries before that. The Classic period spanned AD 250-900 and saw the rise of major cities – including Tikalin what is now Guatemala – and the construction of vast stepped pyramids.
    1000-year-long calculation

    The second set of glyphs is more obscure. It possibly relates to two Mayan calendars: a ritual calendar lasting 260 days and the solar calendar, lasting 365 days. The two calendars only show the same date once every 18,980 days – the so-called Calendar Round.
All the numbers in the second set are multiples of 18,980, suggesting they are anniversaries. They are also multiples of other astronomical cycles. But Saturno doesn't know what they represent.
"It seems obvious that the Maya were making almanacs, major calculations, and Dresden Codex-like astronomical tables for over 1000 years," says Joyce Marcus of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
Such calendars rose to prominence recently amid claims they predicted the end of the world in 2012. However, these astrological calculations show cycles rather than endings.  Seems that the Mayans were looking for continuances of life.

Mayan society was dominated by the idea that time is cyclic. "The Maya conceived of time as a series of cycles that all interplay and all repeat," Saturno says. By understanding these repetitions, including astronomical cycles, they picked the most auspicious dates for events, such as coronations. 
The house probably belonged to a senior figure but not a royal. That suggests astronomical information was broadly available in Mayan society, says Gary Feinman of the Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois.

The painted figure of a man is illuminated through this doorway in northeastern Guatemala, the first ancient Mayan house found to contain artwork on its walls. <i>(Image: Tyrone Turner © 2012 National Geographic)</i>
The painted figure of a man is illuminated through this doorway in northeastern Guatemala, the first ancient Mayan house found to contain artwork on its walls. (Image: Tyrone Turner © 2012 National Geographic)

Contributing Sources:

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