A glyph – a type of drawing or engraving – depicting a day called the “seven deer” of the Mayan calendar, drawn on a fragment of a 3rd century BC mural, was found inside the ruins of a pyramid in Guatemala. The archaeologists responsible for the discovery said Wednesday (13) that this is the oldest reference to this calendar ever found.
The fragments were found at the archaeological site of San Bartolo, in the jungles of the north Guatemalafamous for the discovery in 2001 of a buried chamber with colorful murals dating back to 100 BC depicting ceremonial and mythological scenes of the Maya.
The pieces with the glyph “7 Veado” were discovered within the same pyramid as Las Pinturas, where the murals are still intact.
As was the case with this structure, the Maya often built what were initially modestly sized temples, then built increasingly larger versions on top of earlier temples. The height of this pyramid reached about 30 meters.
The illustration shows what a religious building covered in a pyramid would look like in Guatemala – Photo: Heather Hurst/Reuters
The glyph on the murals for “7 Deer,” one of the 260 days named in the calendar, consists of an ancient Mayan inscription of the number seven above the outlines of a deer’s head.
David Stewart, lead author of the discovery published in Science Advances and a professor at the University of Texas, described the found fragments as “two small pieces of white plaster that were once stuck to a stone wall.”
“The wall was intentionally destroyed by the ancient Mayas when they were rebuilding their ceremonial spaces — and it ended up turning into a pyramid. The two pieces fit together and have a streak in black, opening with the date ‘7 deer,’” Stewart said.
“The paintings from this phase are all very fragmented, unlike any of the later and more famous rooms,” said the Texas scholar. To date, the earliest notation of the Mayan calendar dates back to the 1st century BC.
The calendar, rooted in observations of the movements of the sun, moon, and planets, was based on a ritual cycle of 260 days each with its own name.
The 260-day calendar, called tzolk’in, was one of several Mayan timekeeping systems that worked together and also included a 365-day solar year, a larger system called the “large number” and the moon.
The calendar was one of the achievements of a culture that also developed a writing system with 800 glyphs, with the first examples also from San Bartolo. The Maya built temples, pyramids, palaces, and observatories and worked in sophisticated agriculture without the use of metal tools or the wheel.
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