News / Science & Technology

Ancient Mayan Artwork, Calculations Discovered

The painted figure of a man — possibly a scribe who once lived in the house built by the ancient Maya — is illuminated through a doorway to the dwelling, in northeastern Guatemala. (Tyrone Turner © 2012 National Geographic)
The painted figure of a man — possibly a scribe who once lived in the house built by the ancient Maya — is illuminated through a doorway to the dwelling, in northeastern Guatemala. (Tyrone Turner © 2012 National Geographic)
Rosanne Skirble
Archeologists working among the ruins of a 9th century Mayan town in Guatemala have discovered a room filled with extraordinarily well-preserved artwork. The colorful wall paintings provide new insights into how Mayan astronomers charted the cosmos.  
Xultun was the largest city in the ancient Mayan empire in Central America, where, at its height, an estimated 90,000 people lived and worked among pyramids, inscribed monuments, water reservoirs and sport fields. But by the 14th century, the Mayan civilization had collapsed and this great city fell with it.  

In 1920, Xultun was rediscovered, overgrown with vegetation. Work to map the 31-square-kilometer site and decode the myriad inscriptions on its monuments continues to this day.    

In 2008, Boston University archeologist William Saturno was exploring tunnels in the Xultun ruins that had been opened by looters in the 1970s.  One day his student assistant, Max Chamberlain, discovered the entranceway - close to the surface but hidden by vegetation - to a room-like structure.
Conservator Angelyn Bass cleans and stabilizes the surface of a wall of a Maya house that dates to the 9th century A.D. The figure of a man who may have been the town scribe appears on the wall to her left. (Tyrone Turner © 2012 National Geographic)Conservator Angelyn Bass cleans and stabilizes the surface of a wall of a Maya house that dates to the 9th century A.D. The figure of a man who may have been the town scribe appears on the wall to her left. (Tyrone Turner © 2012 National Geographic)
x
Conservator Angelyn Bass cleans and stabilizes the surface of a wall of a Maya house that dates to the 9th century A.D. The figure of a man who may have been the town scribe appears on the wall to her left. (Tyrone Turner © 2012 National Geographic)
Conservator Angelyn Bass cleans and stabilizes the surface of a wall of a Maya house that dates to the 9th century A.D. The figure of a man who may have been the town scribe appears on the wall to her left. (Tyrone Turner © 2012 National Geographic)

“Max thought he saw the remnants of paint on the walls of this fairly small Maya structure,” Saturno says.   

Once inside the room - part of a larger residential complex at the Xultun site - Saturno knew he was in a special place. On the opposite wall, he came face-to-face with the painting of a Mayan king, its regal colors remarkably preserved.

“[He’s wearing] this gorgeous sort of blue-green head dress, he’s holding this white scepter in his hand," Saturno says. "He’s sitting on top of this throne. He is just incredible to look at."   

Another figure painted in brilliant orange wears a white medallion and holds a small stylus in his hand - possibly the artist scribe who lived in the house, Saturno speculates.  On the other walls are more male figures in black with white loin cloths and identical head dresses with a single red feather.  And running all around, between and sometimes on top of these figures is tiny Mayan hieroglyphic script.

Ancient Mayan Artwork, Calculations Discovered
Ancient Mayan Artwork, Calculations Discoveredi
|| 0:00:00
...    
🔇
X


“There are these large numerical arrays, just columns of numbers of one after another, after another," Saturno says. "This seems to be a place where Maya scribes are at work.  They are painting and repainting texts on the walls. They are in different hands and different scales and different sizes in order to have the calculations present.”

According to Saturno, the painted numbers are a version of the Mayan calendar system, one that he notes predates the Mayan astronomical tables written on bark paper books in the 14th century.  Tthe parallels were obvious once he began to do the math.

“The Maya had a 260-day ceremonial calendar and a 365 [day] solar calendar," Saturno says. "The Maya combined those two calendars to make a longer cycle of time that repeated every 52 years. But they also kept track of the motions of Venus and the motions of Mars and perhaps the motions of Mercury. And the numbers that are recorded on this wall are multiples of all of those cycles combined.”
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. (Tyrone Turner © 2012 National Geographic)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. (Tyrone Turner © 2012 National Geographic)
x
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. (Tyrone Turner © 2012 National Geographic)
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. (Tyrone Turner © 2012 National Geographic)

The painted room also pays tribute to the way the Maya used those calendars to synchronize human activities with the larger cycles of the moon and planets they routinely observed in the heavens. Saturno says while modern humans keep looking for endings, the Maya were looking for a guarantee that nothing would change.

“This is the type of calculation and dissemination of knowledge that we don’t get to look at for a people for whom this type of knowledge was central to their existence.”

 Saturno is making images of the Xultun paintings that students and scholars can access using desk-top scanners and other tools. When that work is done, Saturno plans to rebury the site, leaving it to rest where the ancient Mayan people created it.  His study of the Xultun site is featured in the journal Science and in the June issue of the National Geographic magazine.

You May Like

Video One Year After Thai Coup, No End in Sight for Military Rule

Since carrying out the May 22, 2014 coup, the general has retired from the military but is still firmly in charge More

Goodbye, New York

This is what the fastest-growing big cities in America have in common More

Job-Seeking Bangladeshis Risk Lives to Find Work

The number of Bangladeshi migrants on smugglers’ boats bound for Southeast Asian countries has soared in the past two years More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Mandla Ntshakala from: Swaziland
May 17, 2012 9:00 AM
As I read this this subject on Ancient Mayans and Extra Terrestrial, I think that maybe the ET are no longer appearing because they destroyed their planet, including themselves using the heat energy like nuclear. We are on that same route of destroying ourselves and the planet. I do'nt believe in supernaturaliasm however for life outside our own is different.

by: Humanist & Mathematician
May 16, 2012 10:45 AM
Those Mayas practiced human sacrifices more than anyone. We should prohibit the study of their gory culture like it is done in relation to Hitlerism. Why, is anyone interested in their insights into future? What kind of sick interest would be that? Akin to necrophilia. What’s good may be in regal colors of the Mayan king if his consecration was tied to human sacrifice?

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthroughi
X
May 22, 2015 10:23 AM
Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthrough

Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Europe Follows US Lead in Tackling ‘Conflict Minerals’

Metals mined from conflict zones in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo are often sold by warlords to buy weapons. This week European lawmakers voted to force manufacturers to prove that their supply chains are not inadvertently fueling conflicts and human rights abuses. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Class Tackles Questions of Race, Discrimination

Unrest in some U.S. cities is more than just a trending news item at Ladue Middle School in St. Louis, Missouri. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, it’s a focus of a multicultural studies class engaging students in wide-ranging discussions about racial tensions and police aggression.
Video

Video Mind-Controlled Prosthetics Are Getting Closer

Scientists and engineers are making substantial advances towards the ultimate goal in prosthetics – creation of limbs that can be controlled by the wearer’s mind. Thanks to sophisticated sensors capable of picking up the brain’s signals, an amputee in Iceland is literally bringing us one step closer to that goal. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Afghan Economy Sinks As Foreign Troops Depart

As international troops prepare to leave Afghanistan, and many foreign aid groups follow, Afghans are grappling with how the exodus will affect the country's fragile economy. Ayesha Tanzeem reports from the Afghan capital, Kabul.
Video

Video Poverty, Ignorance Force Underage Girls Into Marriage

The recent marriage of a 17-year old Chechen girl to a local police chief who was 30 years older and already had a wife caused an outcry in Russia and beyond. The bride was reportedly forced to marry and her parents were intimidated into giving their consent. The union spotlighted yet again the plight of many underage girls in developing countries. Zlatica Hoke reports poverty, ignorance and fear are behind the practice, especially in Asia and Africa.
Video

Video South Korea Marks Gwangju Uprising Anniversary

South Korea this week marked the 35th anniversary of a protest that turned deadly. The Gwangju Uprising is credited with starting the country’s democratic revolution after it was violently quelled by South Korea’s former military rulers. But as Jason Strother reports, some observers worry that democracy has recently been eroded.
Video

Video California’s Water System Not Created To Handle Current Drought

The drought in California is moving into its fourth year. While the state's governor is mandating a reduction in urban water use, most of the water used in California is for agriculture. But both city dwellers and farmers are feeling the impact of the drought. Some experts say the state’s water system was not created to handle long periods of drought. Elizabeth Lee reports from Ventura County, an agricultural region just northwest of Los Angeles.
Video

Video How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction

An international team of scientists has sequenced the complete genome of the woolly mammoth. Led by the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm, the work opens the door to recreate the huge herbivore, which last roamed the Earth 4,000 years ago. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble considers the science of de-extinction and its place on the planet
Video

Video Blind Boy Defines His Life with Music

Cole Moran was born blind. He also has cognitive delays and other birth defects. He has to learn everything by ear. Nevertheless, the 12-year-old has had an insatiable love for music since he was born. VOA’s June Soh introduces us to the young phenomenal harmonica player.

VOA Blogs