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.
“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.
“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.”
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.