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Painted Numbers on 9th Century House Walls Show Oldest Known Maya Calendar, Researchers Say


Never-before-seen artwork — the first to be found on walls of a Maya house — adorn the dwelling in the ruined city of Xultún. The figure at left is one of three men on the house’s west wall who are painted in black and wear identical costumes. The research is supported by the National Geographic Society. View a larger version of this image. | Photo by Tyrone Turner © 2012 National Geographic

A painted room in a Maya house in Guatemala shows numerical records of lunar and possibly planetary cycles, researchers report.


The hieroglyphs are from the 9th century, making this calendar several centuries older than the records in the Maya Codices, which were written in bark-paper books. Predecessors to these books have not been found until now.

William Saturno of Boston University, who led the exploration and excavation, and his colleagues describe the paintings in the 11 May 2012 issue of Science. The room is part of a larger residential complex at Xultún, Guatemala, and seems to have similar calculations on two of its walls. Much of the room has been damaged by looters, but several painted human figures and many black and red hieroglyphs have been preserved.


Column One: 1,195,740 days Column Two: 341,640 days Column Three: 2,448,420 days Column Four: 1,765,140 days
Four long 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 stretch some 7,000 years into the future. These are the first calculations Maya archaeologists have found that seem to tabulate all of these cycles in this way. Although they all involve common multiples of key calendrical and astronomical cycles, the exact significance of these particular spans of time is not known. The research is supported by the National Geographic Society.
View a larger version of this image. | Illustration by William Saturno and David Stuart © 2012 National Geographic

The east wall contains calculations relating to the lunar cycle. A series of columns represents six lunar-month intervals, spanning a 13-year-period. During a teleconference for journalists, the authors proposed that these columns functioned as a calendar for Maya priests to calculate moon ages, or possibly to determine which of three deities were overseeing the moon at a given time.


“We think this was a workspace for scribes and calendar priests. It’s kind of like having a whiteboard in your office where you’re writing down formulas,” said co-author David Stuart, Schele Professor of Mesoamerican Art and Writing at the University of Texas-Austin.

The calculations on the north wall are more enigmatic but may relate to Mars, Mercury, and possibly Venus.

The authors note in their Science paper that one goal of the Maya calendar keepers, gleaned from studies of the codices, was to seek harmony between sky events and sacred rituals. They speculate that the Xultún paintings may have been used for similar purposes.

The priests and their scribes were “looking at astronomy in very big way,” Stuart said. “They’re looking at patterns in the sky and trying to mesh them together. These guys were really the scientists of their day.”

During the teleconference, the researchers also addressed the popular misconception that the Maya calendar—and the world itself—is set to end at the close of 2012. They said the findings at Xultún show that the Maya were tracking very large quantities of time, in units spanning thousands of years, and that there is no sign they expected time to end in 2012.