Want to know whether the king’s birthday falls under a jaguar moon 10 years hence? A thousand? Check the table.
“It’s really cool because it shows us the tools the ancient astronomers and priests were using to do their calculations,” Stuart said.
On another wall sits a smaller set of four columns of figures. These took a bit more puzzling. But eventually Saturno’s team figured it out: 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 farther into the future than the supposed doomsday date.
“Like a lot of ancient cultures, they were able with naked-eye astronomy to calculate the paths of the planets,” Stuart said. “We tend to forget that before telescopes, people were able to analyze the movement of planets in a lot of detail — and figure out exactly, to the day, the length of a Venus year and a Mars year.”
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.”
Saturno said the building had been filled in by the Mayans, heaped with dirt and rubble. “They just backed themselves out the door and left,” he said; no one knows why. But the fill probably helped preserve the paintings.
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 and said he’d bet anyone a million dollars that it will. The Mayan calendar does start a new “long cycle,” later this year, but he equated that with the odometer on a car rolling over from 99,999 miles to zero: “You go, ‘Yay,’ but the car just doesn’t disappear.”
The discovery is detailed in this week’s Science magazine and in the June issue of National Geographic.