Mayan Artwork Uncovered In A Guatemalan Forest

Conservator Angelyn Bass cleans and stabilizes the surface of a wall of a Mayan house that dates to the ninth century. The figure of a man who may have been the town scribe appears on the wall to her left. i i

Conservator Angelyn Bass cleans and stabilizes the surface of a wall of a Mayan house that dates to the ninth century. The figure of a man who may have been the town scribe appears on the wall to her left. Tyrone Turner/Copyright 2012 National Geographic hide caption

itoggle caption Tyrone Turner/Copyright 2012 National Geographic
Conservator Angelyn Bass cleans and stabilizes the surface of a wall of a Mayan house that dates to the ninth century. The figure of a man who may have been the town scribe appears on the wall to her left.

Conservator Angelyn Bass cleans and stabilizes the surface of a wall of a Mayan house that dates to the ninth century. The figure of a man who may have been the town scribe appears on the wall to her left.

Tyrone Turner/Copyright 2012 National Geographic

Archaeologists working in one of the most impenetrable rain forests in Guatemala have stumbled on a remarkable discovery: a room full of wall paintings and numerical calculations.

The buried room apparently was a workshop used by scribes or astronomers working for a Mayan king. The paintings depict the king and members of his court. The numbers mark important periods in the Mayan calendar.

The room is about the size of a walk-in closet. It's part of the buried Mayan city of Xultun. There are painted murals on three walls, depicting a resplendent king wearing a feather and four other figures. Mayan paintings this old — the site dates to the ninth century — are very rare; tropical weather usually destroys them.

But David Stuart, an anthropologist at the University of Texas, Austin, says the numbers are the most intriguing discovery. "The wall is covered in numbers and this is something that really got our attention very early on," he says. "This is an unusual thing about the Xultun mural."

Four long numbers on the north wall of the ruined house relate to the Mayan calendar and computations about the moon, sun and possibly Venus and Mars; the dates stretch some 7,000 years into the future. i i

Four long numbers on the north wall of the ruined house relate to the Mayan calendar and computations about the moon, sun and possibly Venus and Mars; the dates stretch some 7,000 years into the future. Illustration by William Saturno and David Stuart/Copyright 2012 National Geographic hide caption

itoggle caption Illustration by William Saturno and David Stuart/Copyright 2012 National Geographic
Four long numbers on the north wall of the ruined house relate to the Mayan calendar and computations about the moon, sun and possibly Venus and Mars; the dates stretch some 7,000 years into the future.

Four long numbers on the north wall of the ruined house relate to the Mayan calendar and computations about the moon, sun and possibly Venus and Mars; the dates stretch some 7,000 years into the future.

Illustration by William Saturno and David Stuart/Copyright 2012 National Geographic

Stuart says some of the numbers are calendars that mark Mayan ceremonies, or the cycles of the moon, Venus and Mars. Some calculations appear to be efforts to predict lunar eclipses.

"It's kind of like having a whiteboard in your office where you write down numbers you want to remember if you are a physicist or a mathematician," Stuart says. "And it's amazing it's on a wall. It's not in a book."

Mayan numbers are written with bars and dots. Their use in calendars and astronomy is well-known from a Mayan book called the Dresden Codex, which is written on the bark of a fig tree. But the Xultun murals are centuries older than the book.

Writing in the journal Science, the scientists say the murals confirm what Mayan archaeologists have been saying for years: The Mayan calendar does not predict the end of time in 2012, as some New Age prophets have argued. In fact, the murals register future time stretching far beyond 2012.

Archaeologist William Saturno from Boston University compares Mayan calendars to a car's odometer.

"If we're driving a car," Satruno says, "we don't anticipate that at 100,000 miles the car will vanish from beneath us. We know that it will reset to zero, and the next 10th of a mile we go we'll have another number to look at."

What these Mayan timekeepers were doing was simply marking the passage of time from past to future, but in discrete intervals.

The buried city of Xultun was discovered in 1915 but was so hard to get to that archaeologists mostly ignored it. Saturno started exploring it in 2008. A member of his team found the mural room two years later, under just a few feet of soil. They got an emergency grant from the National Geographic Society to dig into it.

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 Mayan house found to contain artwork on its walls. i i

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 Mayan house found to contain artwork on its walls. Tyrone Turner/Copyright 2012 National Geographic hide caption

itoggle caption Tyrone Turner/Copyright 2012 National Geographic
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 Mayan house found to contain artwork on its walls.

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 Mayan house found to contain artwork on its walls.

Tyrone Turner/Copyright 2012 National Geographic

Looters had stolen everything removable, but the murals and the numbers remained.

Saturno says there may be lots more to find at Xultun. They've examined only about 1 percent of the buried city.

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