An Archaeological View on Maya 2012
Photo of El Pilar Courtesy of Macduff Everton
I was as far away as I could be from the Maya forest, and my research at El Pilar. I was in Kandy, Sri Lanka, when archaeologist Sudharshan Seneviratne posed the question: what does 2012 mean for the Maya? Honestly, I can answer very briefly that it meant nothing. The Maya long count calendar works on an entirely distinct system reckoned in base 20, written in our short hand as numbers of baktun . katun . tun . uinal . kin that have elapsed since the Maya origin day. The 1st of January 2012 would be written 188.8.131.52.5 with the calendar round of 13 Kankin 13 Chicchan. Nothing about 2012.
The multiples of 20s ripple through the whole calendar: 20 kin makes a unial with a total days of 20, 18 unial makes a tun with a total days of 360, 20 tun makes a katun with a total days of 7,200, 20 katun makes a baktun with a total days of 144,000 days. Their calendar does not end with baktun, it goes on where 20 baktun makes a pictun or 7,885 years. Their calendar system is said to continue by 20s to calabtun, kinchiltun , and even alautun that would envelope more than 63 million years! It hardly stops at 13 baktuns.
“…..there is a lot of hype going on about the Maya calendar. Is it the need for the end of something?”
The Maya long count calendar closing of the 12th Baktun, or 184.108.40.206.0, is converted to our Gregorian calendar (via the Julian calendar based on ethnohistorical records and astronomical references) using the GMT correlation (not Greenwich Mean Time but Goodman-Martinez-Thompson). So while the opening of the 13th Baktun was something that the ancient Maya knew about, nothing was ever referenced in our calendar system of 2012.
But there is a lot of hype going on about the Maya calendar. Is it the need for the end of something? We had Y2K and now 21 December 2012. Why is this news? There are many other calendars. In fact, in Sri Lanka there is one called the Litha, an astrological almanac where the year ends on 13 April in 2012. Might we start some celebrations based on that one?
“The real point is that the calendar we use, like that of the Maya or the Romans, was for the governing elite and their control of the system.”
The real point is that the calendar we use, like that of the Maya or the Romans, was for the governing elite and their control of the system. The Maya calendar expropriated and embedded the themes of the everyday farming – the Maya milpa-forest garden cycle – into the institutional calendar since that was well-known and practiced. They built their institutional ideology on that which was already accepted.
We might think of the calendar as a convenience; we can set up dates and times for meetings, lunch, and travel. But in reality, the calendar we use is for the convenience of those that govern, and we accept that. In the US we have April 15th as the day of reckoning of income tax. And like the Sri Lanka Litha, our calendar names dates of celebration—4th of July, Thanksgiving Day—and we can predict what people are doing at that time. They are watching fireworks or eating turkey. These are the real powers of a calendar. That the Maya can inadvertently control us now is astronomical!
Anabel Ford is the Director of the Mesoamerican Research Center at the University of California at Santa Barbara, as well as President of the nonprofit organization Exploring Solutions Past (ESP~Maya). She is a distinguished Maya archaeologist who has decoded the ancient Maya landscape. Her discovery of the ancient Maya city ceter of El Pilar on the contemporary border of Belize and Guatemala promises to be the first binational cultural and natural park of the world. Her passion for the common people of the ancient Maya together with contemporary international politics, conservation and development, and interdisciplinary research has inspired the vision of Archaeology Under the Canopy. With over thirty years of field experience and her broadly inquisitive mind, she sees the Maya forest as a garden created by the ingenious Maya. Her work, now internationally acclaimed, brings to the fore the importance of exploring solutions past.
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