PHILADELPHIA -- Trouble sleeping? Biting those fingernails? Maya apocalypse worries keeping you up at night?
Well, you can relax. Anyone still sweating a Dec. 21, 2012 winter solstice End of the World courtesy of the ancient Maya calendar may want to consider a trip here, to the storied Penn Museum. Opening this weekend, the "Maya 2012: Lords of Time" exhibition comes complete with panels debunking all sorts of buncombe about the Maya, from doomsday calendar predictions to their "disappearance."
"The reality about the Maya is far more interesting than any of the stories out there about them," says curator and archeologist Loa Traxler of the University of Pennsylvania. "There are still 7 million Maya people living in the world today. So we can learn from the descendants of the classic Maya about their cultural beliefs and inheritance," Traxler says.
Starting, as the exhibit notes, with the absence of any expectations of the world ending. Rather than springing from the Maya themselves, the idea gained traction with the 2006 book, 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl, by Daniel Pinchbeck, which prophesied big doings for this year, a prediction followed in more doom-saying books by various authors and the critically-panned disaster flick 2012. (Another underpinning of the 2012 apocalypse idea is the suggestion that a stone panel from the Maya site of Tortuguero predicts the end of the world this year. This appears to be a bad translation of a damaged inscription that might not even have the year right, according to University of Texas archeologist David Stuart, author of The Order of Days: The Maya World and the Truth about 2012.)
Meanwhile for today's Maya, the Classic Maya calendar, or Long Count, no longer has any meaning. That's because it was intimately tied to the rule of the now-vanished Maya kings, says University of Pennsylvania epigrapher Simon Martin, co-curator of the exhibition. During the "Classic" period from about 300 A.D. to 850 A.D., the ancient Maya kings built pyramid-filled cities throughout Central America, such as the city of Copan (KOE-pon) in modern-day Honduras, a focus of the exhibit. Copan, and most other Maya cities, such as Tikal in modern-day Guatemala, were abandoned, with only a few Maya cities in the Yucatan still using a form of the calendar by the time the conquistadors arrived for them in the early 16th Century.
Those now-empty cities contained monuments like the ones filling the exhibition; statues of Maya kings and gods, a staggering replica of a painted pyramid mural wall, casts of altars and standing stones, or stelae, that proclaimed the victories (and only the victories) of rulers. Inscribed upon many of them were dates written in the long-vanished Long Count calendar, which had a 365-day year, and roughly 394-year centuries called "bak'tun", and which does indeed advance one cycle, to the 13th bak'tun (bok-TUNE), or the date, 188.8.131.52.0 in December, sort of like the flip from 1999 to 2000 in our own Gregorian calendar. And knowing what we do now about writing on those objects tells us a lot about why the end of the world wasn't a likely scheduled event on ancient Maya calendars.
"Maya kings really were anchors of the entire cosmos around them," Traxler says. "They were responsible for the stability of their communities and their families."
In other words, Maya inscriptions were all about proclaiming the longevity of their rulers' reigns — not about their downfall — on the monuments they hired sculptors to litter their cities with. The Long Count calendar was just part of the act, Martin says, often tying their families to almost legendary kings and dynasties from thousands of years before. The calendar also contained periods of time far longer than baktuns, "literally far longer than the actual age of the universe," he says. "They had a conception of time that extended to lengths that were truly mind-boggling, trillions of years from now."
Their calendar most likely also flipped over on Dec. 23, 2012, not on the winter solstice date, Dec. 21, the exhibition notes, judging from the latest translations of Maya inscriptions, which have become decipherable only in the last quarter-century. That more recent decipherment, Traxler suggests, compared to Egyptian hieroglyphics or the Babylonian cuneiform, may explain why the Maya have seemed so mysterious and why prophecies about them may enjoy a more romantic reception than otherwise. "Now we have a much greater understanding of the histories as recorded by the classic Maya that play out as inscriptions on these ancient monuments," she says. "Their kingdoms, the rituals they carried out, their ruler's biographies and the conflicts that play out on these monuments. Those are what we now understand to be the content of these carved texts."
It's certainly a lot more fun than worrying about the end of the world. And worth a look if you find yourself wondering what the ancient Maya were really all about.