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It's About Time

Newly published study casts Classic Maya timekeeping in new light.

Archaeologists specializing in the Classic Maya society of Mexico and Central America have been braced for quite some time for hype around the claim that the ancient Maya predicted that the end of the world would come in December of 2012. Numerous books have been written trying to combat this claim. University of Kansas anthropologist John Hoopes has been writing about the kind of social circumstances that make it attractive to people today to imagine that others in the past were predicting apocalypse.

None of which has stopped the hoopla: 2012, Central American countries hope, can somehow be used to encourage tourism (come to the end of the world!), so archaeologists have become more-or-less resigned to having even responsible organizations flirt with the idea that there is a Maya prophecy predicting the imminent end of time.

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One major weapon in response has been humor: the circulation of 2012-themed cartoons has skyrocketed. Here's a favorite, by Dan Piraro. Like most of the cartoons I have seen about this, Piraro actually uses an image of the so-called Aztec calendar stone, which comes from a completely different culture, as his source. While this Aztec monument has a degree of immediate recognition that says "calendar", it doesn't include the kind of precise record of long-term time-keeping that has put the Maya in the spotlight this year.

Dana Atnip, in contrast, has a nice cartoon using Maya imagery: a scribe incising glyphs on the interior wall of a building, running out of space. The punchline?

"So you've run out of room to continue the calendar past 2012, big deal. It's not like in a thousand years people will think anything about it".

I thought of Atnip's image immediately when the National Geographic posted about a newly published analysis of murals inside a Classic Maya building preserved at the site of Xultun, Guatemala. Described as "the ancient workroom of a Maya scribe", the building has vivid paintings of three people—and a host of painted and etched texts written on the walls of the chamber.

News coverage says the scribes at Xultun were calculating time 7000 years into their future—far beyond the current year. USA Today's website captioned their video "Doomsday delayed? New Maya calendar unearthed".

What exactly is the evidence? Quoting National Geographic again:

One is a lunar table, and the other is a "ring number," something previously known only from much later Maya books, where it was used as part of a backward calculation in establishing a base date for planetary cycles. Etched nearby is a sequence of numbered intervals corresponding to key calendrical and planetary cycles.

The calculations include dates some 7,000 years in the future, adding to evidence against the idea that the Maya thought the world would end in 2012—a modern myth inspired by an ancient calendar that depicts time starting over this year.

All of which is, absolutely, great.

But it isn't actually the point of the article on the findings, published in the May 11 issue of Science.

The abstract (which is all that readers of this blog post will be able to see, unless they subscribe to Science) concludes

Many of these hieroglyphs are calendrical in nature and relate astronomical computations, including at least two tables concerning the movement of the Moon, and perhaps Mars and Venus. These apparently represent early astronomical tables and may shed light on the later books.

The full paper, which I have read so you don't have to, is highly technical. It (happily) does not even mention the 2012 issue.

The key point it makes is that these inscriptions contain the same kind of calculation tables as the much later books in use by the descendants of the Classic Maya when the Spanish entered their territory in the early 1500s. It links together the Maya scribes of the Classic cities and those of the new cities that emerged after political collapse of kingdoms like that of Xultun. It pushes back our evidence for specific kinds of astronomical calculations in the Maya historical tradition to the early 800s.

The careful recording of the inscriptions showed that the wall was reused for multiple episodes of notation, with plaster applied to cover earlier inscriptions and provide a fresh surface. Hence the interpretation of this chamber as an actual scribe's workroom.

What were these scribes writing about? here, the parallel to the much later Dresden Codex helps the authors make sense of these scribbled notes. One section of the wall has content parallel to a table used to track periods of six lunar months. The preserved text would have allowed calculation of 162 sets of six lunar months. The authors note that in the Dresden Codex, the similar table is used to calculate future eclipses of the sun and moon, but the Xultun table doesn't seem to relate to eclipse reckoning.

What about the 7,000 year calculation that, the news media inform us, disproves the 2012 calendar-ending myth?

Well, that's a little more complicated than the way it got boiled down in the press.

The Science article describes a second table, this one with four columns painted in red. Each column begins with a record of a date in the infinitely repeating divinatory calendar of 260 days still used today. (The drawing gracing this post is a stylized depiction of one of the day names, usually written as Imix in archaeological studies.)

Below these dates, each column in this table at Xultun contains a number, written in 5 rows, using the base-20 math system and place notation of the Maya. The first of these numbers is transcribed as 8.6.1.9.0: zero days; 9 groups of twenty days; 1 group of 360 days (this third position should, strictly speaking, be 400 days—20 times 20—but the Maya tweaked the count to have a close approximation of the solar year); 6 groups of 360 times 20 days (7200 days, not quite 20 solar years); and 8 groups of 20 times 20 times 360 days (14,400 days, not quite 400 years, a period called the baktun). 

The authors of the new article suggest that if this table is like those known from later painted books, then these columns of numbers are calculations—to be added to the base date at the top of the column, to project into the future from the early ninth century when Xultun's scribes were doing their math to predict future astronomical events or calendrical periods.

This is where the Xultun finds directly challenge the threatened 2012 apocalypse. Today (May 10, 2012) is the day 12.19.19.6.15, counted from the beginning point of the Maya calendar. Five days from now will be 12.19.19.7.0. Every day, we get closer to when that first 12 there—which is the marker of the 13th baktun (just like 2012 is the twenty-first century)—will turn over. And for complicated reasons, people think that the number of baktuns the Maya counted in a cycle was 13, not 20, so if you only look at those five places, the number would be 0.0.0.0.0.

Still with me? Let's go back to Xultun. The five-place number in the first column was, as illustrated above, was 8.6.1.9.0. The second reads 2.7.9.0.0. The third one is 17.0.1.3.0. And the fourth is 12.5.3.3.0.

If you count those as numbers of days from the beginning point of the current Maya Long Count, then the first, second, and fourth of these would be dates in our past. But that third one, starting with 17: that is in the future, far beyond the supposed end of the Maya Long Count. The number of days it represents, if you add them up, totals 6708 years—the apparent inspiration of the widely cited 7000 years used to refute the Maya 2012 calendar ending.

Since these are not actually dates, it is equally likely the scribes at Xultun were calculating dates in the future from the time they were writing. From that perspective, the first, third, and fourth of these calculations would all reach far beyond this coming December.

This is not actually the first piece of evidence that the Maya projected dates into the future beyond the end of Baktun 13. Best known is an inscription from Palenque that says that in AD 4772 an anniversary of a seventh-century political event would be marked.

There are two ways for us to step back and see this whole thing. The first would be to continue to focus on the manufactured notion that the ancient Maya predicted the end of the world. That is fine; we need to understand what makes people today vulnerable to claims like this.

But we really need to recognize something else that the new study from Xultun reinforces: the Maya were exceptional mathematicians, astronomers, and writers of historical narrative. They used their mathematical notation system and the calendars they constructed from observations of the movements of astronomical bodies to place themselves in time, in a historical framework that extended infinitely.

Such a sense of historicity is actually not very common in human history. It means we can imagine a scribe at Xultun, writing as his society was breaking down, calmly thinking about a future he would never see, and perhaps no descendant of his would survive to live.

Not only did the Xultun scribe have the means to think about a very long term future: one of the tools he used continues to be employed by other Maya people in highland Guatemala today.

That is something that makes Maya culture an astonishing part of the human tradition. It is not consistent with apocalyptic thought and end-times philosophy. It is a rare and wonderful flourishing of human symbolic thought that is worth more attention on its own merits.

Rosemary Joyce, Ph.D., is a professor of anthropology at UC Berkeley.

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