Ancient Maya workshop for astronomers discovered

Archeologists have discovered Maya astronomical tables that are hundreds of years older than any previously discovered - and which pour more cold water on the myth that the society predicted the world would end in 2012.

Astronomical tables look well beyond supposed 2012 doomsday

A conservator cleans and stabilizes the surface of a wall of a house that dates to the 9th century in the Maya city Xultun in northeastern Guatemala. Archaeologists found the small room where scribes apparently used walls like a blackboard to keep track of astronomical records. (National Geographic/Tyrone Turner/AP)

Archeologists have discovered Maya astronomical tables that are hundreds of years older than any previously discovered — and which pour more cold water on the myth that the society predicted the world would end in 2012.

Coming up

Excavation leader William Saturno talks to Quirks & Quarks May 12 at noon on CBC Radio One

The wall markings, which date from the 9th century, were discovered in the ancient Maya city of Xultun, in the northeastern corner of Guatemala. Found in a small room, the markings include a series of Maya paintings, a chart tracking lunar cycles, and another wall that appears to track Mars and Venus.

"This particular room seems to be have been used by a scribe or astronomers in order to record this information, either copying it out of books or preparing it to be put into books, and used the wall as sort of a blackboard," excavation leader William Saturno of Boston University told CBC's Bob McDonald. The full interview can be heard on Quirks & Quarks at noon Saturday on CBC Radio One. 

The doorway of the ancient dwelling, which contains paintings and calculations from the 9th century. (Tyrone Turner/National Geographic/AP)

Saturno and others reported their discovery in Friday's issue of the journal Science.

The discovery was made by one of Saturno's undergraduate students, who poked his head into the room on his lunch break, hoping to find paintings. He noticed a couple of red lines on a piece of wall that had been exposed when the city was looted 30 years ago.

Xultan was large — about 16 square kilometres — but has long since been grown over by the rain forest. "Finding [the paintings] inside a house so close to the surface was truly remarkable," Saturno said.

Most of the information about Maya astronomy comes from two preserved bark-paper books that date back to the 14th or 15th century. The lunar chart found in the room is about 600 years older.

Astronomical records were key to the Maya calendar, which has received some attention recently because of doomsday warnings that it predicts the end of the world this December. Experts say it makes no such prediction. The new finding provides a bit of backup: The calculations include a time span longer than 6,000 years that could extend well beyond 2012.

The numbers are related to the Maya calendar and computations about the moon, sun and possibly Venus and Mars. (Tyrone Turner/National Geographic/AP)

"Why would they go into those numbers if the world is going to come to an end this year?" observed Anthony Aveni of Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y., an expert on Maya astronomy. "You could say a number that big at least suggests that time marches on."

One wall contains a calendar based on phases of the moon, covering about 13 years. The researchers said they think it might have been used to keep track of which deity was overseeing the moon at particular times.

Aveni said it would allow scribes to predict the appearance of a full moon years in advance, for example. Such record-keeping was key to Mayan astrology and rituals, and may have been used to advise the king on when to go to war or how good this year's crops would be, he said.

"What you have here is astronomy driven by religion," he said.

Maybe they were 'geeks'

On an adjacent wall are numbers indicating four time spans from roughly 935 to 6,700 years. It's not clear what they represent, but maybe the scribes were doing calculations that combined observations from important astronomical events like the movements of Mars, Venus and the moon, the researchers said.

Why bother to do that? Maybe the scribes were "geeks…who just got carried away with doing these kinds of computations and calculations, and probably did them far beyond the needs of ordinary society," Aveni suggested.

The room also contains images of the Maya king wearing a headdress of blue feathers. In front of him, a young man who appears to be a scribe reaches out toward him. Both men are surrounded by people wearing an identical costume — a white loin cloth and a headdress with a single red feather.

The artwork was unusually well preserved. (Tyrone Turner/National Geographic/AP)

Saturno said the room provides an unusual look at the Maya.

"Normally in Maya society we get to look at the king and then we get to look at maybe a couple of elites associated with them," he said. "And we talk about the masses, the population. We don't get a lot of opportunity to look at what Maya scientists and astronomers and writers were doing in their workspaces."

Experts unconnected with the discovery said it was a significant advance.

"It's really a wonderful surprise," said Simon Martin, co-curator of an exhibit about the Maya calendar at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

While the results of the scribes' work were known from carvings on monuments, "we've never really been able to identify a working space, or how they actually went about things," Martin said.

The new work gives insight into that, he said, and the fact the room had a stone roof rather than thatching supports previous indications that the scribes enjoyed a high social standing.

With files from The Associated Press