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

Is Air Travel Safe?

Aviation expert says despite tragic losses of Malaysian Airlines flights 370 and 17, industry experienced lowest fatality rate in recorded history last year More

Multimedia 100 Days Later, Nigerian Girls Still Held

Activists holding rallies in Nigeria and several other countries to mark 100th day of captivity for more than 200 schoolgirls being held by Boko Haram More

Chocolate Too Bitter? Swap Sugar for Mushrooms

US food technology company develops fermentation process using mushrooms to reduce bitterness in cocoa beans, believes it will cut sugar content in candy 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.
IAEA: Iran Turns its Enriched Uranium Into Less Harmful Formi
X
July 22, 2014 10:26 AM
Iran has converted its stockpiles of enriched uranium into a less dangerous form that is more difficult to use for nuclear weapons, according to the United Nations’ Atomic Energy Agency. The move complies with an interim deal reached with Western powers on Iran's nuclear program last year, in exchange for easing of sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video IAEA: Iran Turns its Enriched Uranium Into Less Harmful Form

Iran has converted its stockpiles of enriched uranium into a less dangerous form that is more difficult to use for nuclear weapons, according to the United Nations’ Atomic Energy Agency. The move complies with an interim deal reached with Western powers on Iran's nuclear program last year, in exchange for easing of sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video Relic of Saint Draws Catholics Worried About Immigration Issue

A Roman Catholic saint who is a figure of devotion for those crossing the border into the United States is attracting believers concerned about the plight of undocumented immigrants. Mike O'Sullivan reports from Los Angeles, where a relic of Saint Toribio has drawn thousands to local churches.
Video

Video Ukraine Rebels Surrender MH17 Black Boxes

After days of negotiations, a senior separatist leader handed over two black boxes from an airliner downed over eastern Ukraine to Malaysian experts early Tuesday. While on Monday, the U.N. Security Council unanimously demanded that armed groups controlling the crash site allow safe and unrestricted access to the wreckage.
Video

Video In Cambodia, HIV Diagnosis Brings Deadly Shame

Although HIV/AIDS is now a treatable condition, a positive diagnosis is still a life altering experience. In Cambodia, people living with HIV are often disowned by friends, family and the community. This humiliation can be unbearable. We bring you one Cambodian woman’s struggle to overcome a life tragedy and her own HIV positive diagnosis.
Video

Video Nature of Space Exploration Enters New Age

Forty-five years ago this month, the first humans walked on the moon. It was during an era of the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. World politics have changed since then and -- as Elizabeth Lee reports -- so has the nature of space exploration.
Video

Video Chicago’s Argonne Lab Developing Battery of the Future

In 2012, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science awarded a $120 million grant to a new technology center focused on battery development - headquartered at Argonne National Laboratory in suburban Chicago, Illinois. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, there scientists are making the next technological breakthroughs in energy storage.
Video

Video In NW Pakistan, Army Offensive Causes Massive Number of Displaced

Pakistan’s army offensive in North Waziristan has resulted in the large-scale displacement of the local population. VOA's Ayaz Gul reports from northwest Pakistan where authorities say around 80 percent of the estimated 1 million internally displaced persons [IDPs] have settled in Bannu district, while much of the remaining 20 percent are scattered in nearby cities.
Video

Video Kurdish Peshmerga Force Secures Kirkuk, Its Oil

The Kurdistan regional government has sent its Peshmerga troops into the adjacent province of Kirkuk to drive out insurgents, and to secure the area's rich oil fields. By doing this, the regional government has added a fourth province to the three it officially controls. The oil also provides revenue that could make an independent Kurdistan economically strong. VOA’s Jeffrey Young went out with the Peshmerga and filed this report.
Video

Video Malaysia Reeling: Second Air Disaster in Four Months

Malaysia is reeling from the second air disaster in four months involving the country’s flag carrier. Flight 340 vanished in March and despite an extensive search, no debris has been found. And on Thursday, Flight 17, likely hit by a surface-to-air missile, came apart over eastern Ukraine. The two incidents together have left more than 500 people dead. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Kuala Lumpur.

AppleAndroid