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2012 – End of the Maya Long Count

August 20th, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

Catastrophe theorists have been having a field day – or rather year.  2012 is when the Maya long count ends.

As catastrophe theorists have loved to point out, 2012 marks the end of the old Maya long count, the end-date of a 5,125-year-long cycle;  but before we get too depressed,  Mayanists have been quick to add that just because one count ends, it doesn’t mean the Maya believed another couldn’t begin.

As ever, nothing is ever quite as you think it is with the Maya.

Thirty-five years ago, I visited my first Maya site, at Palenque.  From the top of the Palacio temple, a staircase led down inside it to the burial chamber of a ruler.  The ‘secret staircase’ – it is difficult to use any other less melodramatic term – had only been discovered in 1949.  An archaeologist noticed there were holes which had been filled with stone plugs in one of the floor slabs;  the temple wall also extended below ground level, suggesting some lower chamber.

When they lifted the slab, they found a stairway filled so densely with rubble that it took three years to get to the bottom.

Going down the corbelled staircase on my own felt like something out of John Buchan.  At that time, visitors were asked to bring their own torches, as there were only low-voltage lights running from an intermittent generator.

For the archaeologists who first saw the funeral vault at the bottom, it must have been the revelation of a lifetime:  the room was still preserved as they had found it, with the king’s funeral tomb dominating the chamber.

The size of the crypt was impressive:  it was at least twenty feet high.  After the descent down a narrow staircase, this was like finding a cavern after pot-holing.

In the years since my visit, much has changed in our understanding of the Maya – from new archaeological discoveries, but above all because we can now finally read the glyphs on the temple stelae.  The story of how those glyphs were finally translated is one of the great intellectual achievements of the late 20th Century;  up until their decipherment, archaeologists had not been in much of a better position than I had been at Palenque, scrabbling around in the rainforest to see what evidence lay on the ground, or just under it;  now they could survey the whole panorama of Maya history from the temple rooftops.

The glyphs revealed that far from being the peaceable Greeks of the Mesoamerican world, as I remembered hearing when I first visited the sites, the ‘storehouses’ of peaceful learning from which other more bellicose cultures could draw, the Maya cities were constantly at war with one another.

Stone stelae standing at each site told how Tikal, the most romantic of all their ruins, lost in the Guatemalan jungle until the 19th century, had been locked for centuries in bitter combat with another city, Calukmal;  at one point Tikal had almost shut down for a century after a particularly vicious attack – which left Caracol, a city lying in modern day Belize, the licence to grow in its stead.  The tomb I had once visited at Palenque of Pacal, the tall king in his sarcophagus at the base of the temple, was only so richly decorated because he had led a renaissance of the city after it had been almost annihilated by its neighbours.

And just recently, the spectacular discovery of a newer, longer calendar at the site of Xultun, with ‘four long numbers on one of the walls representing one-third of a million to 2.5 million days stretching 7,000 years into the future’, will give the doomsayers a moment’s pause.


Maybe we can all wake up safely in 2013 after all.


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