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

Elusive Deal With Iran Could Yield Foreign Policy Legacy for Obama

A new Iranian leader -- and a strategic shift by the United States -- opens narrow window for nuclear agreement with Tehran More

Column: Saudi-Iran Meeting Could Boost Fight Against Islamic State

The fact that Iranians and Saudis are talking again does not guarantee a breakthrough, but it could make it easier to build a broad coalition against IS More

Thai Ruler Gives Top Cabinet Posts to Junta Inner Circle

Thailand's army chief has kept an iron grip on power as he extends the government, hand-picking an interim parliament that subsequently nominated him prime minister 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.
West Africa Ebola Vaccine Trials Possible by Early 2015i
X
Carol Pearson
August 30, 2014 7:14 PM
A U.S. health agency is speeding up clinical trials of a possible vaccine against the deadly Ebola virus that so far has killed more than 1,500 people in West Africa. If successful, the next step would be a larger trial in countries where the outbreak is occurring. VOA's Carol Pearson has more.
Video

Video West Africa Ebola Vaccine Trials Possible by Early 2015

A U.S. health agency is speeding up clinical trials of a possible vaccine against the deadly Ebola virus that so far has killed more than 1,500 people in West Africa. If successful, the next step would be a larger trial in countries where the outbreak is occurring. VOA's Carol Pearson has more.
Video

Video Survivors Commemorate 70th Anniversary of Nazi Liquidation of Jewish Ghetto

When the German Nazi army occupied the Polish city of Lodz in 1939, it marked the beginning of a long nightmare for the Jewish community that once made up one third of the population. Roughly 200,000 people were forced into the Lodz Ghetto. Less than 7,000 survived. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, some survivors gathered in Chicago on the 70th anniversary of the liquidation of the Lodz Ghetto to remember those who suffered at the hands of the Nazi regime.
Video

Video Cost to Raise Child in US Continues to Rise

The cost of raising a child in the United States continues to rise. In its latest annual report, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says middle income families with a child born in 2013 can expect to spend more than $240,000 before that child turns 18. And sending that child to college more than doubles that amount. VOA’s Deborah Block visited with a couple with one child in Alexandria, Virginia, to learn if the report reflects their lifestyle.
Video

Video Chaotic Afghan Vote Recount Threatens Nation’s Future

Afghanistan’s troubled presidential election continues to be rocked by turmoil as an audit of the ballots drags on. The U.N. says the recount will not be completed before September 10. Observers say repeated disputes and delays are threatening the orderly transfer of power and could have dangerous consequences. VOA correspondent Meredith Buel reports.
Video

Video Ukraine Battles Pro-Russia Rebel Assault

After NATO concluded an emergency meeting to discuss the crisis in eastern Ukraine, the country is struggling to contain heavy fighting near the strategic port of Mariupol, on the Azov Sea. Separatist rebels are trying to capture the city, allegedly with Russian military help, and Ukraine's defense forces are digging in. VOA's Daniel Schearf spoke with analysts about what lies ahead for Ukraine.
Video

Video Growing Business Offers Paint with a Twist of Wine

Two New Orleans area women started a small business seven years ago with one thing in mind: to help their neighbors relieve the stress of coping with a hurricane's aftermath. Today their business, which pairs painting and a little bit of wine, has become one of the fastest growing franchises across the U.S. VOA’s June Soh met the entrepreneurs at their newest franchise location in the Washington suburbs.
Video

Video Ebola Vaccine Trials To Begin Next Week

The National Institutes of Health says it is launching early stage trials of a vaccine to prevent the Ebola virus, which has infected or killed thousands of people across West Africa. The World Health Organization says Ebola could infect more than 20,000 people across the region by the time the outbreak is over. The epidemic has health experts and governments scrambling to prevent more people from becoming infected. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Asian Bacteria Threatens Florida Orange Trees

Florida's citrus fruit industry is facing a serious threat from a bacteria carried by the Asian insect called psyllid. The widespread infestation again highlights the danger of transferring non-native species to American soil. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Aging Will Reduce Economic Growth Worldwide in Coming Decades

The world is getting older, fast. And as more people retire each year, fewer working-age people will be there to replace them. Bond rating agency Moody’s says that will lead to a decline in household savings; reducing global investments - which in turn, will lead to slower economic growth around the world. But experts say it’s not too late to mitigate the economic impact of the world’s aging populations. Mil Arcega has more.
Video

Video Is West Doing Enough to Tackle Islamic State?

U.S. President Barack Obama has ruled out sending ground troops to Iraq to fight militants of the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, despite officials in Washington describing the extremist group as the biggest threat the United States has faced in years. Henry Ridgwell reports from London on the growing uncertainty over whether the West’s response to ISIS will be enough to defeat the terrorist threat.
Video

Video Coalition to Fight Islamic State Could Reward Assad

The United States along with European and Mideast allies are considering a broader assault against Islamic State fighters who have spread from Syria into Iraq and risk further destabilizing an already troubled region. But as VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports, confronting those militants could end up helping the embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Video

Video Made in America Socks Get Toehold in Online Fashion Market

Three young entrepreneurs are hoping to revolutionize the high-end sock industry by introducing all-American creations of their own. And they’re doing most of it the old-fashioned way. VOA’s Julie Taboh recently caught up with them to learn what goes into making their one-of-a-kind socks.
Video

Video Americans, Ex-Pats Send Relief Supplies to West Africa

Health organizations from around the world are sending supplies and specialists to the West African countries that are dealing with the worst Ebola outbreak in history. On a smaller scale, ordinary Americans and African expatriates living in the United States are doing the same. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.

AppleAndroid