Bloomberg News

Earliest Known Mayan Calendar Found in Guatemalan House

May 10, 2012

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. The structure represents the first Maya house found to contain artwork on its walls. The research is supported by the National Geographic Society. Photographer: Tyrone Turner/National Geographic via Bloomberg

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. The structure represents the first Maya house found to contain artwork on its walls. The research is supported by the National Geographic Society. Photographer: Tyrone Turner/National Geographic via Bloomberg

A 1,000-year-old house in Guatemala, its interior adorned with paintings of people, numbers and astronomical symbols, has yielded the earliest known Mayan calendar ever found, archaeologists said.

The mural, covering three walls and a ceiling, is also the first Mayan art discovered in a building thought to be a house, according to the report, published in the journal Science.

The researchers believe dates on the walls represent astronomical cycles of Mars, Venus, and lunar eclipses for 7,000 years. That suggests Mayans had computed the sky’s events hundreds of years before their now-famous Codices, the hieroglyphic manuscripts that record the civilization’s history and chronicles. The oldest of the codices was written about 1300, according to the report.

“They’re painting it on the wall,” said William Saturno, an archaeologist at Boston University and lead author of the report, in a statement. “They seem to be using it like a blackboard.”

The ninth-century structure was first found in 2010, by Max Chamberlain, a student of Saturno, who had followed looters’ trails to the remote rainforest site. As for a popularly held belief that the Mayan calendar predicts the world will end in 2012, no such sign was found in the latest discovery, researchers said in a statement.

“It’s like the odometer of a car, with the Maya calendar rolling over from the 120,000s to 130,000,” said Anthony Aveni, professor of astronomy and anthropology at Colgate University and coauthor of the paper, in the statement.

Home of a Scribe

The site of the discovery is part of a city called Xultun, in Guatemala’s largest and northernmost region, Peten. The murals include a sitting king garlanded with feathers. Another painting shows a man in orange, holding a pen, who may be the house’s occupant, a scribe. Four numbers on the wall may represent the astronomical cycles.

The ancient Mayan civilization reached the pinnacle of its power around the sixth century, covering all of Guatemala, Belize, and parts of Honduras, El Salvador and Mexico. Today’s discovery dates from the so-called classic period, when many of the temples and palaces were built. Beginning in the early ninth century, the cities were abandoned. Researchers aren’t sure why.

To contact the reporter on this story: Elizabeth Lopatto in New York at elopatto@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Reg Gale at rgale5@bloomberg.net.


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