In the last known largely unexcavated Maya megacity, archaeologists have uncovered the only known mural adorning an ancient Maya house, a new study says—and it’s not just any mural.
In addition to a still vibrant scene of a king and his retinue, the walls are rife with calculations that helped ancient scribes track vast amounts of time. Contrary to the idea the Maya predicted the end of the world in 2012, the markings suggest dates thousands of years in the future.
“The paintings we have here—we’ve never found them anyplace else,” excavation leader William Saturno told National Geographic News.
And in today’s Xultún—to the untrained eye, just 6 square miles (16 square kilometers) of jungle floor—it’s a wonder Saturno’s team found the artwork at all.
At the Guatemalan site in 2010 the Boston University archaeologist and Ph.D. student Franco Rossi were inspecting a looters’ tunnel, where an undergraduate student had noticed the faintest traces of paint on a thin stucco wall.
The pair began cleaning off 1,200-year-old mud and suddenly a little more red paint appeared.
“Suddenly Bill was like, ‘Oh my God, we have a glyph!’” Rossi said.
(Read Saturno’s account of the Maya-mural discovery in National Geographic magazine online.)
What the team found, after a full excavation in 2011, is likely the ancient workroom of a Maya scribe, a record-keeper of Xultún.
“The reason this room’s so interesting,” said Rossi, as he crouched in the chamber late last year, “is that … this was a workspace. People were seated on this bench” painting books that have long since disintegrated.
The books would have been filled with elaborate calculations intended to predict the city’s fortunes. The numbers on the wall were “fixed tabulations that they can then refer to—tables more or less like those in the back of your chemistry book,” he added.
“Undoubtedly this type of room exists at every Maya site in the Late Classic [period] and probably earlier, but it’s our only example thus far.”
Its facade long ago erased by erosion and creeping plant life, the scribe’s chamber was once part of a small building just off a massive Maya plaza circled by pyramids, where kings and high priests conducted ceremonies and peddlers likely sold the clay pots whose fragments now litter the forest site.
Discovered in 1915, the sprawling city was just five miles (eight kilometers) from another Maya metropolis, San Bartolo, which became famous when Saturno uncovered stunning, 2,000-year-old Maya murals there about a decade ago.
Beyond the two cities, the Maya civilization spanned much of what are now Guatemala, Belize, and Mexico’s Yucatán region. Around A.D. 900 the Classic Maya centers, including Xultún, collapsed after a series of droughts and perhaps political conflicts. (Read about the rise and fall of the Maya in National Geographic magazine.)
The apparent desperation of those final years may have played out on the walls of the newly revealed room—the only major excavation so far in Xultún.