College of Arts & Sciences


The Writing on the Wall

Faint red lines on a partly exposed wall lead archaeologist William Saturno and his team to astonishing finds from ninth-century Maya civilization.

By Courtney Humphries

Photo by Tyrone Turner © 2012 National Geographic

“We’re looking at a room in which scribes, astronomers, scholars are working things out. It’s this constant have this natural cycle that you’ve observed and measured, but you want to record it with a calendar and predict it.” —William Saturno

In a former Maya city in the Guatemalan rain forest, a team of BU researchers discovered a buried room whose walls hold paintings and hieroglyphs dating from the ninth century. The writing includes complex numerical calculations for the Maya calendar. It was the first time such paintings had been unearthed in a private dwelling, and the Maya astronomical tables were the earliest found to date. “This is our first look at ninth-century astronomy from the New World,” says team leader and Assistant Professor of Archaeology William Saturno. “We’ve never seen anything like it from this time.”

The announcement came this past May, published in Science and National Geographic, describing the excavation that offers an unprecedented view into the lost Maya civilization, famed for its sophisticated writing, art, mathematics, and astronomy, but much evidence of these feats had been destroyed by succeeding cultures.

One of the room’s walls was first spied by College of Arts & Sciences undergraduate Max Chamberlin (CAS’11 in archaeology, CAS’12 in psychology), while on the Study Abroad Guatemala Archaeology Program. For Saturno, who headed the program and led the subsequent excavation of the site at Xultún, it’s not the first time such serendipity had struck.

In the same region in 2001, while ducking into a looters’ tunnel to get out of the hot sun, Saturno had made another incredible discovery: he found traces of a Maya mural that turned out to be a depiction of a creation story dating from the first century BC. It was a career-altering find, but excavating the mural—which had to be carefully conserved from the elements—involved several years of arduous work and millions of dollars in grant funding.

This more recent discovery came in 2010, while Saturno was completing his earlier dig at San Bartolo, and the BU students were doing fieldwork a few miles away at the Maya site of Xultún. Chamberlin keenly wanted to replicate Saturno’s epic discovery: he had announced that he was going to go find a mural on his lunch breaks. Saturno’s response had been a slightly skeptical “Okay, Max, have at it.” He knew how lucky his own discovery had been; although the Maya created many wall paintings, they were rarely ever preserved. At San Bartolo an enormous building had been built over the room, burying it 15 meters underground and thus protecting it from the elements. It was a special circumstance.

On the very day of the new discovery, Saturno had finished placing the last stone in the conserved San Bartolo site. In the process, he’d been hit on the head with a falling rock, suffered a mild concussion, and been seen at a nearby hospital. Chamberlin returned to camp bursting with excitement: he said he’d found a mural in Xultún. “You couldn’t pick a worse day to bring me that news,” Saturno says with a laugh, looking back. “Max saw it as this exciting find; I saw it as what research and conservation needed to be done for the foreseeable future.”

Chamberlin had seen dim red lines on a wall that had been partially uncovered by a looters’ tunnel in one of the mounds of rubble at the Xultún site. Saturno and his team quickly started excavating the room, doubting they would find more painting still preserved.

What they found was astounding: on one wall, a beautiful depiction of a blue headdress—the portrait of a king. It was the first painting ever seen on the walls of a Maya house. On another wall, they found dense, tiny glyphs representing numbers, something that had only been seen before in the Dresden Codex, a book from centuries later. Saturno’s “once-in-a-lifetime” discovery had happened again.

A Mysterious Ritual

Xultún is a 12-square-mile site that once held a city of tens of thousands of a people whose culture existed from about the first century BC to the tenth century AD. It had been discovered by local workers a century ago and mapped out subsequently by archaeologists, but thousands of its structures have not been explored and much of it has been looted. The room Saturno’s team found was part of an elite residential complex on the outskirts of the excavation, away from the main palace.

Saturno obtained emergency funding from the National Geographic Society to continue the excavation, and returned the following year with further funding to complete it. Many of the images and texts on the walls were indistinct and incomplete, so after the team took photographs, the next task was to use image processing and enhancement to piece together the walls’ contents.

The room contained a mural spanning the west wall (which Chamberlin had first spotted) and the north wall. On the west wall were three figures, painted in black and wearing white loincloths, white medallions, and headdresses with a single feather. On the north wall, opposite the doorway, stood another figure wearing the same medallion but a different headdress, and was painted in orange. He held what appears to be a stylus in his hand, suggesting he may be a scribe. In a niche in that wall was the figure of the king, in a blue feathered headdress, with an attendant in white peeking out from behind. The niche had an indentation for a curtain rod, allowing a curtain to reveal or conceal the king’s figure.

The meaning of the scene is a mystery. “We’re getting a look at some ritual event that everyone’s present for and that someone wanted to depict on the walls of this room,” Saturno says. Not only is the mural itself puzzling, its presence in the structure is also a mystery. It’s a rare look at informal Maya writing—most of what has endured are in written codices, carved on public monuments, or inscribed on pottery. “This isn’t a public space; it’s not the house of the royal family; it’s some guy’s house,” Saturno says. “We don’t know how common it is because we never get to see it.”

At the Excavation Site

In this video, join William Saturno and his team at Xultún, site of their discoveries.

Video courtesy of National Geographic

It’s being used as a blackboard for text, well-prepared text. It’s not scribbled on the wall; this is formal writing.”

An Ancient Blackboard

The west wall had another black figure on it, but most of the wall was completely covered with faint, detailed writing unrelated to the mural. “They’re sort of using and reusing the wall space of this room,” Saturno says. “Beyond it being painted with this narrative mural, it’s being used as a blackboard for text, well-prepared text. It’s not scribbled on the wall; this is formal writing.”

The lines, some only a millimeter thick, were difficult to see. Saturno specializes in interpreting satellite images to look for archaeological ruins; now, instead of deciphering traces of a building or road in a landscape, he was looking for outlines of text on a worn wall. “I simply started using the same processing techniques—of high-lighting contrasts, of reducing variation, of focusing our interest towards particular colors,” he says, which allowed him to make the faded lines of text stand out against the background.

To interpret the glyphs, Saturno collaborated with David Stuart, Schele Professor of Mesoamerican Art and Writing at the University of Texas-Austin, and Anthony Aveni (CAS’60), professor of astronomy, anthropology, and Native American studies at Colgate University.

Though not all the numbers were visible, Saturno and Stuart could use the ones they saw to calculate those they couldn’t. “It’s sort of a Sudoku puzzle,” Saturno says. The bottom numbers were ever-increasing sums, separated by either 177 or 178. Stuart knew that these numbers represented a Maya lunar semester: this was clearly a lunar table.

Time Recycling

Another area of the wall held a series of red glyphs with extremely large numbers, into the millions. “Maya calendars were vital, and they had lots of them,” Saturno explains: solar and lunar calendars, a 260-day ritual calendar, as well as calendars for cycles of Venus, Mars, and Mercury. The numbers in red appear to be “super numbers” that are factorable by all of these cycles that the Maya valued.

The discovery shows that the Maya were making these sophisticated calculations centuries earlier than previously known. The calendar extends 7,000 years into the future, debunking the popular idea that the Maya predicted the world’s end in 2012. “The press has had a field day on how the world isn’t going to end—this isn’t the news,” Saturno says. What fascinates him is the room itself: all of these calculations were being written down in different ways by different people. Some text is painted, some incised, some correcting other calculations. “We’re looking at a room in which scribes, astronomers, scholars are working things out,” he says. “It’s this constant dance . . . You have this natural cycle that you’ve observed and measured, but you want to record it with a calendar and predict it.” It’s a window into the process through which the Maya achieved their sophisticated mastery of time and natural cycles. The Maya were often interested in predicting the recurrence of days that intersected the solar, lunar, and planetary cycles. “For the Maya the world doesn’t end,” Saturno says. “For the Maya, the world repeats.”

Last April, PhD candidates on Saturno’s team, Franco Rossi (GRS’15) and Aviva Cormier (GRS’16), uncovered even more pieces to the puzzle. Beneath the floor in the house with the murals and glyphs, they found an ancient ceramic vessel in what could be a tomb. While brushing dirt from the artifact, Rossi detected a small fragment of human skull. Further excavation led to the discovery of the remains of six people, whom they believe lived between 250 and 950 AD. The researchers suspect that a large mural on the wall might depict the people whose remains they found. Saturno says the Xultún site—though extensively looted—may reveal more surprises. “This is from one room in one house among thousands of houses,” he says. “We’ll be there a while.”