A new study published in the journal Science Advances has announced the discovery of the earliest known use of the Maya calendar. This discovery of the glyph “7 Deer” on mural fragments from deep inside a pyramid at the San Bartolo archaeological site in the jungles of northern Guatemala indicates that the calendar was in use even as far back as between 300 and 200 BC. Until now the earliest evidence of its use found elsewhere in Guatemala was dated to the first century BC, according to a Reuters report.
The mural fragment containing “7 Deer”, at top. (Karl Taube / Proyecto Regional Arqueológico San Bartolo – Xultun)
Maya Calendar Glyph Amongst 7,000-Piece “Jigsaw”
The San Bartolo archaeological site shot into news in 2001 for the discovery of a new semi-hidden Maya city, reports the newspaper El Pais . The San Bartolo complex contained a pyramid that consisted of a series of temples, each larger than the last, built one atop the other till the structure eventually reached a height of about 100 feet (30 m).
The pyramid found in San Bartolo was named Las Pinturas (meaning “the paintings”) after the still intact murals depicting scenes from Maya mythology found in the topmost chamber. It is from the center of the pyramid that the team encountered over 7,000 mural fragments from an earlier era. In fact, radiocarbon dating has concluded that these fragments date back to between 300 and 200 BC.
Mural fragment depicting Maya calendar glyph and illustration showing the visible “7 Deer” day sign. (Heather Hurst & David Stuart / Proyecto Regional Arqueológico San Bartolo – Xultun)
Some of the fragments are as small as a fingernail and others measure up to 8-by-16 inches (20-by-40 cm). They have been dubbed by anthropology professor and study co-author Heather Hurst of Skidmore College in New York state as a “a giant jigsaw puzzle.”
After 10 years of trying to fit together the pieces of the 7,000-piece jigsaw, the researchers have now discovered that two of the fragments add up to the “7 Deer” glyph of the Maya 260-day Tzolk’in divinatory calendar , according to the website Gizmodo.
North wall San Bartolo mural discovered in 2001. ( Pueblos Originarios )
University of Texas professor of Mesoamerican art and writing David Stuart, who is lead author of the research, described the fragments as “two small pieces of white plaster that would fit in your hand, that were once attached to a stone wall,” according to Reuters. “The two pieces fit together and have black painted calligraphy, opening with the date ‘7 Deer.’ The rest is hard to read,” he went on to say.
The deliberate knocking down of older structures and building newer ones atop them was once a pretty widely prevalent Maya construction practice. “When a new structure is made, they bury the old one. It doesn’t just break and is thrown away, it’s something sacred, as if they were burying the family,” Boris Beltrán, co-director of the San Bartolo-Xultun Regional Archaeological Project is quoted as saying by El Pais .
“When painting an image, the Mayans believed that the act of painting brought the figure to life,” explained his colleague Heather Hurst. “So when the end of its use came, they had to remove it with respect.”
7 Deer: Project members publish a mural fragment that bears earliest datable evidence of the 260-day Maya calendar in Science Advances today! @nehgov @insidenatgeo @mcdguate https://t.co/Hh9KdlmEVp pic.twitter.com/nh4SfBbYQI
— Proyecto Regional Arqueológico San Bartolo-Xultun (@SbxProject) April 13, 2022
Understanding the Sacred Maya Calendar
The 260-day Tzolk’in calendar is one of many inter-related ways that the advanced Mesoamerican Maya civilization structured time. There was also a 365-day solar year, a larger system called the “Long Count” and a lunar year. The 260-day Tzolk’in calendar is a sacred calendar that is still followed by some indigenous communities today, according to Science Alert .
There are no months in this calendar and days are named from 1 to 20 in a set order and are represented by glyphs. They repeat 13 times a year in a cyclical fashion. Some of the other days are named 8 Stars, 9 Jade/Water, 10 Dogs and 11 Monkeys. “This calendar system has lasted for at least 2,200 years, maintained by the Maya during times of incredible change, stress and tragedy,” Stuart said, reports Reuters.
The Mayan writing system consisted of 800 glyphs and the earliest evidence of its use so far also comes from San Bartolo. The glyphic notations found on 11 of the 7,000 mural fragments suggest that well-developed writing and artistic systems were already in place among the Maya by this time and the calendar had been in use for several years.
“The scribal tradition represented in these 11 fragments is diverse, expressive, their technology for paint preparation and calligraphic fluidity is impressive – this was a well-established tradition of writing and art,” Reuters quotes Hurst as saying. She also said that other sites should provide more examples, perhaps even earlier examples.
The Maya were an astonishingly advanced people who built temples, observatories, palaces and pyramids and had sophisticated farming without using metal tools or the wheel. San Bartolo dates to the Maya Preclassic period from 400 BC to AD 250. The Preclassic period was followed by the Classic period when Mayan culture flourished and cities like Tikal in Guatemala, Palenque in Mexico and Copan in Honduras were created.
Before the San Bartolo “7 Deer” discovery, the calendar system of 260 days was believed to have originated elsewhere, in Oaxaca. But the new evidence is just as old and throws open the question of place of origin. Experts hope that the San Bartolo site will open a window to further understanding of the development of ancient Maya astronomical and writing traditions and it will therefore continue to be researched for many years to come.
Top image: Left; Maya Calendar representation ( Niciak/ Adobe Stock), Right; Mural fragment depicting Maya calendar glyph and illustration showing the visible “7 Deer” day sign. Source: Heather Hurst & David Stuart / Proyecto Regional Arqueológico San Bartolo – Xultun
By Sahir Pandey