Fragment of Oldest-Known Maya Calendar Discovered in Guatemalan Pyramid

A glyph representing “7 Deer” marks the earliest known use of the historical system—for now

Mural fragments include the 7-Deer sign
Archaeologists found the calendar fragment among a total of 249 pieces of painted plaster and painted masonry block.  Photograph by Karl Taube / Courtesy of the Proyecto Regional Arqueológico San Bartolo-Xultun

Inside the Las Pinturas pyramid in San Bartolo, a pre-Hispanic archaeological complex in northern Guatemala, ancient fragments of painted murals line the walls. Now, scholars report, they’ve found something even more impressive: the oldest known Maya calendar.

The find, published in Science Advances by University of Texas professor David Stuart and colleagues, dated the calendar notation to between 300 and 200 B.C.E., marking the earliest evidence of the Maya calendar.

The site was discovered in 2001 in the jungle of El Petén by a group of archaeologists led by William Saturno. Las Pinturas—Spanish for “the paintings”— was named after the bright-colored murals found inside the first chamber, which resembled Roman frescoes from Pompeii, Miguel Ángel Criado notes for El País. The Maya would often build larger versions on top of earlier temples, according to Reuters’ Will Dunham. Las Pinturas’ height eventually reached around 100 feet.

The paintings found in 2001 display mythological scenes and rituals dating back to around 100 B.C.E. Twenty-one years later, archaeologists spotted a “7 Deer” glyph—representing one of the days in the Maya 260-day calendar, or tzolk’in—on one of the still-intact murals.

The calendar was just one of the systems the Maya used to reckon time. Tzolk’in relied upon observations of the movements of the planets, the sun and the moon. The calendar has no months. Instead, it has days represented by glyphs and numbered from one to 13. The date “7 Deer” is followed by “8 Star,” “9 Jade/Water” and so forth.

Wall painting fragments in Las Pinturas pyramid
A mural fragment block collected from the Las Pinturas pyramid in San Bartolo depicts the Late Preclassic period Maya maize god. Digital image overlaid with illustration by Heather Hurst

Deer had what California State University, Chico professor of art history Matthew Looper calls “complex roles in ritual and religion as well as subsistence” in Maya culture.

White-tailed deer were plentiful in the region, and served as an important source of food and fur. Plentiful depictions of the animals can be found in Maya art, he writes, and the animals also played roles in religious ceremonies and Maya mythology. Across Mesoamerica, the study notes, the seventh day is consistently associated with the deer.

The 7 Deer glyph is made up of “two small pieces of white plaster that would fit in your hand, that were once attached to a stone wall,” Stuart tells Reuters. He adds that “The two pieces fit together and have black painted calligraphy, opening with the date ‘7 Deer.’ The rest is hard to read.”

San Bartolo Architectural Complex
Archaeologists discovered what could be the oldest known Mayan calendar at the San Bartolo archictectural complex in Guatemala.  Drawing by Heather Hurst. Photograph by Karl Taube, courtesy of the Proyecto Regional Arqueológico San Bartolo-Xultun

The fragments examined in the study display a “mature” artistic and writing ability, suggesting that the calendar system had been used even earlier than previously thought.

Retired Longwood University emeritus anthropologist and geographer Walter Witschey, who was not involved in the research, tells LiveScience’s Laura Geggel that the research is “meticulously done” and that the dating is “evidence for the earliest known calendar notation” from the region.

The Maya also developed a writing system which consists of 800 glyphs, with the earliest example also found in San Bartolo, reports Sam Hancock for the IndependentHeather Hurst, one of the paper’s co-authors and anthropology professor at Skidmore College, told the Independent about 7,000 mural fragments of varying sizes have also been found in this site, amounting to a “giant jigsaw puzzle.”

“Other sites will likely find other examples, perhaps even earlier examples,” Hurst tells Reuters.

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