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Oldest Mayan calendar found, and it goes way beyond Dec. 12, 2012 (+video)

A Mayan calendar was found deep in the Guatemalan rainforest. But this ancient Mayan calender refutes claims that the world will end Dec. 21, 2012

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"There were 24 units of time they actually could have incorporated into their calendar," Stuart said. "Here, we're only seeing five units and they're still really big."

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In one column, the ancient scribe even worked out a cycle of time recording 17 baktuns, the researchers found. In another spot, someone etched a "ring number" into the wall. These notations were used to record time in a previous cycle, thousands of years into the past. The calendar also appears to note the cycles of Mars and Venus, the researchers said. Symbols of gods head the top of each lunar cycle, suggesting that each cycle had its own patron deity.

"There was a lot more to the Maya calendar than just 13 baktuns," Stuart said.

Scratching the surface

This ancient "wall calendar" is a major find, because the first known calendar and astronomical tables before this time came from the Dresden Codex, a book that dates to the 11th or 12th centuries. Most likely, Saturno said, the wall calendar and the Dresden Codex both arose from earlier books that long ago rotted away. [8 Grisly Archaeological Discoveries]

The mural room gives an unprecedented glimpse into the work lives of Mayan scientists, Stuart said. The mural room is in a compound with several other rooms, which were collapsed and built over in later years. The murals only survived, because, instead of collapsing the room, Mayan engineers filled it with rubble and then built on top of it.

"This is clearly a space where someone important was living, this important household of the noble class, and here you also have a mathematician working in that space," Stuart said. "It's a great illustration of how closely those roles were connected in Mayan society."

Kings would have been extremely interested in timekeeping, Stuart said, because part of their job was to conduct rituals of renewal at certain times. Unfortunately, the name of the king pictured in the mural room has been lost.

Although Xultun was first discovered in 1915, less than 0.1 percent has been explored, Saturno said. Looters damaged much of the ancient city in the 1970s, meaning much of historical significance has been lost. But archaeologists still don't even know how far the boundaries of the town extend.

"[That] investigations can begin and in a house like this we can find something we've never seen before only speaks to the great wealth of scientific material that remains in Guatemala in the Maya area for us to discover," Saturno said.

The excavations of the mural room were funded by the National Geographic Society.

You can follow LiveScience senior writer Stephanie Pappas on Twitter @sipappas. Follow LiveScience for the latest in science news and discoveries on Twitter @livescience and on Facebook.

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