Ancient inscriptions on the walls of a looted house in the Guatemalan jungle are the oldest astronomical charts known from the Mayan civilisation.
Explorers chanced upon the writings while excavating a room buried under a collapsed building that was overgrown with vegetation in Xultun, in northeastern Peten.
Researchers who dug debris from the room found bright, vivid paintings of a king and other figures preserved on the walls, leading them to speculate that the owner might have been a royal relative.
One wall was covered with hundreds of small red and black symbols that tracked the phases of the moon. Others are thought to represent the Mayan ceremonial calendar and cycles of the sun, Mars and Venus.
The hieroglyphs date to about AD814, making them considerably older than the Dresden codex, an 11th or 12th-century Mayan book written on bark paper, which found its way to the Royal Library at Dresden in 1739. The Mayans kept detailed records of the heavens and tied traditional ceremonies to celestial events.
“There are tiny glyphs all over the wall, bars and dots representing columns of numbers,” said David Stuart, a professor of Mesoamerican art at the University of Texas in the United States, who deciphered the symbols. “It is the kind of thing that only appears in one place, the Dresden codex, which the Maya wrote many centuries later.”
William Saturno, an archaeologist at Boston University who led the exploration and excavation, said some calculations predicted astronomical events 7000 years into the future. Contrary to some theories, there was no sign that the Mayan calendar ended abruptly in 2012.
Archaeologists took an interest in the building, which lies among thousands of others, after Max Chamberlain, a student of Saturno’s, followed a looter’s trench to the site in 2010. Looters have targeted Mayan temples throughout history, removing large wooden monuments in the 1970s and, more recently, vases, figurines and jade to sell.
The building Chamberlain found sat over a room that had been loosely filled with soil and stone. When Chamberlain looked inside, he noticed two red marks on an exposed wall, but it took several hours of excavation to reveal hints of the lavish artwork and calendars beneath.
Writing in the journal Science, Saturno describes how he returned to the site in 2011 with a grant from National Geographic Society to excavate the room completely. The east wall was dominated by columns of numbers, represented by dots, bars and shell-like inscriptions, some of which tracked the moon or reconciled lunar phases with the solar calendar.
Other tables of red numbers appear to be numerical corrections to make calculations more accurate.
“This is certainly our oldest Mayan astronomical table. It is the only one we have from the classical period. It is also the first time we get to look inside a scribe or astronomer’s house and see the writing on the wall,” Saturno said. – © Guardian News & Media 2012