Sunday, November 04, 2012


Source: ‘Re-cycled Mayan calendar nonsense’ in Bad Astronomy blog/Discover magazine

Prince exhorted us to party like it’s 1999 and now preparations are underway all over the globe to celebrate the End of the World on December 21st (some say 23rd). According to popular belief, this particular date is when the calendars constructed by the ancient Mayan culture ran out.  THE GENERALIST hates to rain on your parade but, like the Millennium Bug, this particular viral message lacks one essential ingredient – the truth.

2012 is an important year for the Mayan Calendars but for an entirely different reason – the publication of the details of a major archaeological discovery that is transforming and broadening our understanding of these calendars. It is leading us to a completely new interpretation of what this year’s end really signifies. Its a fascinating story which, in brief, I will try and do justice to.

The Mayan civilisation dominated Central America for nearly 1,000 years before collapsing due to the effects of deforestation. They left behind the ruins of a remarkable and ornate civilisation which has fascinated archaeologists and captured the Western imagination. Progressive expeditions have revealed many of the Mayan secrets but new discoveries are still being made.

Our story begins in 2010 when a team under the leadership of the Boston University archaeologist William Saturno, began excavating the Mayan city of Xultún in Guatemala known since 1915, never before properly examined but it had been targeted by looters.

This worked to the excavation team’s advantage when, early in the dig, one of Saturno’s undergraduate students, Max Chamberlain, discovered a piece of a painted wall exposed by the illegal diggers. This led them to uncover the remains of a 1200-year-old residential building, which they believe was a scribe’s workspace. It has three intact room walls on which are the oldest known Mayan painting of an elaborately attired Mayan king, alongside painted and inscribed astronomical tables and texts.

Dresden Codex detail. Source:


These predate the previously oldest-known Mayan calendars   - preserved in books with pages made of bark, known as the Mayan codices - by at least 500 years.

One  table shows a 784-day cycle of the moon’s phases. A second, a table spanning 7,000 years, which shows how long it takes for Mars and Venus to cross the sky and come back again. This calendar goes much further into the future than 2012.

This discovery confirms that the Mayans, like many ancient cultures, used naked-eye astronomy to calculate the paths of the planets. The Mayans used these calendars to harmonise their key ceremonial events with significant planetary cycles.

So here we get to the real meaning of 2012 in the Mayan calendar. According to Mayan expert Marc Zender, the Mayan calendar does start a new “long cycle” in 2012 but this is not the end. Zender compares it to the odometer in car – when it reaches 99,999 miles it rolls over to a line of zeroes and just carries on 7,000 years into the future. So its not the end of everything but the beginning of a new cycle, a time of renewal, not death.

Sources: ‘Mayan discovery shows world won’t end this year after all’ by Brian Vastag. [Seattle Times/10 May 2012)

‘Looting Leads Archaeologists to Oldest Known Mayan Calendar’ by Heather Pringle [Science/10 May 2012]

See also: Christian Science Monitor report with video

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