The ancient Mayans were masters of time, keepers of good calendars. And now we have one of their timekeepers' workrooms to prove it.
Archaeologists in Guatemala report the discovery of a small building whose walls display a stunningly preserved mural of a brightly adorned Mayan king and calendars that destroy any notion that the Mayans predicted the end of the world in 2012.
These deep-time calendars can be used to count thousands of years into the past and future, countering pop-culture and New Age ideas that Mayan calendars ended on Dec. 21, 2012, (or Dec. 23, depending on who's counting), thereby predicting the end of the world.
The newly found calendars, which track the motion of the moon, Venus and Mars, provide an unprecedented glimpse into how these storied sky-gazers — who dominated Central America for nearly 1,000 years — kept such accurate track of months, seasons and years.
"What they're trying to do is understand the large cycles of cosmic time," said William Saturno, the Boston University archaeologist who led the expedition. "This is the space they're doing it in. It's like looking into da Vinci's workshop."
Before the new find, the best-preserved Mayan calendars were inscribed in bark-paged books called codices, the most famous being the Dresden Codex. But those pages hail from several hundred years later than the newly found calendars.
Saturno said researchers have long assumed the Mayans had worked out the cycles of the moons and planets much earlier, but no evidence of such work had been found.
But in 2010, an undergraduate student working with Saturno, Max Chamberlain, stumbled onto the house as the team began excavations at a Mayan city, Xultun, which, despite being known since 1915, had never been professionally excavated.
A quick excavation at the house revealed the back wall of the building, replete with a mural of a Mayan king, in bright blue, adorned with feathers and jewelry.
Saturno's team brushed off the wall and, "Ta-da!" he said. "A Technicolor, fantastically preserved mural. I don't know how it survived." Saturno emailed contacts at the National Geographic Society, which agreed to pay for a full excavation of the building.
The mural is the oldest known preserved Mayan painting.
Next to the king, a scribe holds a writing instrument.
Three mysterious figures wearing black also march across the wall. One is named "older brother obsidian."
Once the team uncovered several columns of red and black dots and dashes — the Mayans' numbering system — the meaning of these figures was almost immediately evident to David Stuart, one of the world's foremost experts in Mayan hieroglyphics. It was a lunar table, showing a 4,784-day cycle of the moon's phases.
The table is broken into 27 columns, each representing six lunar months. Each column is topped by the face of one of three moon gods: a jaguar, a skull or a woman. These three repeat. So by consulting the table, a priest could tell which moon god would preside over a particular date.
Want to know whether the king's birthday falls under a jaguar moon 10 years hence? A hundred? A thousand? Check the table.
On another wall sits a smaller set of four columns of figures. This second table was filled with huge numbers relating to how long it takes Mars and Venus to cross the sky and come back again.
This calendar spans some 7,000 years, heading much further into the future than the supposed 2012 doomsday date.
"Like a lot of ancient cultures, they were able with naked-eye astronomy to calculate the paths of the planets," Stuart said.
Heather McKillop, a Mayan expert at Louisiana State University who was not involved in the research, called the Xultun murals "stunning new evidence of the ancient origins of Maya astronomical record keeping, best known from later documents."
Tulane University's Marc Zender, another Mayan expert not involved in the work, said that "it's about as exciting as discovering lost manuscripts of a famous mathematician like Archimedes. It's an amazing privileged glimpse over their shoulders."
With the virtually unexplored city of Xultun containing hundreds of buildings stretching across at least 16 square miles of jungle, Saturno guesses that plenty of other surprises await excavation.
"It might take another two decades," he said.
He expects the world to still exist then. The Mayan calendar does start a new "long cycle," this year, but he equated that with the odometer on a car rolling over from 99,999 miles to zero: "You go, 'Yea,' but the car just doesn't disappear."
The discovery is detailed