Archaeologists excavating for the first time in the sprawling complex of Xultún, discovered nearly a century ago in Guatemala’s Petén region, have uncovered a structure that contains what appears to be a work space for the town’s scribe, its walls adorned with unique paintings – one depicting a lineup of men in black uniforms – and hundreds of scrawled numbers. Many are calculations relating to the Maya calendar.
Dr. William Saturno, an archaeologist at Boston University, who led the exploration and excavation, said to National Geographic: “One wall of the structure, thought to be a house, is covered with tiny, millimeter-thick, red and black glyphs unlike any seen before at other Maya sites. Some appear to represent the various calendrical cycles charted by the Maya – the 260-day ceremonial calendar, the 365-day solar calendar, the 584-day cycle of the planet Venus and the 780-day cycle of Mars.”
“For the first time we get to see what may be actual records kept by a scribe, whose job was to be official record keeper of a Maya community,” Saturno added. “It’s like an episode of TV’s ‘Big Bang Theory,’ a geek math problem and they’re painting it on the wall. They seem to be using it like a blackboard.”
The archaeologists said that despite popular belief, there is no sign that the Maya calendar – or the world – was to end in the year 2012, just one of its calendar cycles.
“It’s like the odometer of a car, with the Maya calendar rolling over from the 120,000s to 130,000,” said Dr. Anthony Aveni, professor of astronomy and anthropology at Colgate University, a co-author of the paper in Science. “The car gets a step closer to the junkyard as the numbers turn over, the Maya just start over.”
The discovery represents the first Maya art to be found on the walls of a house. “There are tiny glyphs all over the wall, bars and dots representing columns of numbers,” said Dr. David Stuart, Schele Professor of Mesoamerican Art and Writing at the University of Texas-Austin, who deciphered the glyphs. “It’s the kind of thing that only appears in one place – the Dresden Codex, which the Maya wrote many centuries later. We’ve never seen anything like it.”
The vegetation-covered structure was first spotted in 2010 by Dr. Saturno’s student Max Chamberlain, who was following looters’ trenches to explore the site of Xultún, hidden in the remote rain forest of the Petén. Then, supported by a series of grants from the National Geographic Society, Dr. Saturno and his team launched an organized exploration and excavation of the house, working urgently to beat the region’s rainy seasons, which threatened to erase what time had so far preserved.
Xultún, a 12-square-mile site where tens of thousands once lived, was first discovered about 100 years ago by a Guatemalan worker and roughly mapped in the 1920s by Sylvanus Morley, who named the site “Xultún” — “end stone.” Scientists from Harvard University mapped more of the site in the 1970s. The house discovered by Dr. Saturno’s team was numbered 54 of 56 structures counted and mapped at that time.
“It’s weird that the Xultún finds exist at all,” Dr. Saturno said. “Such writings and artwork on walls don’t preserve well in the Maya lowlands, especially in a house buried only a meter below the surface.”
The team’s excavations reveal that monumental construction at Xultún began in the first centuries BC. The site thrived until the end of the Classic Maya period, the site’s last carved monument dates to around 890 AD Xultún stood only about five miles from San Bartolo, where in 2001 Dr. Saturno found rare, extensive murals painted on the walls of a ritual structure by the ancient Maya.