Pages from the Dresden Codex show Maya hieroglyphics that track the planet Venus.

Ancient Mayas developed astonishingly accurate calendars by studying the sky. They interpreted the movements of the sun, moon, and stars as glimpses of the mystery of creation. They used enclosed cave-like spaces to contemplate big questions about time, creation, mathematics, and the cosmos.

“Their interior spaces were designed for divination, vision questing, and for mathematical calculations,” says anthropologist David Freidel, a Maya iconographer and professor at Washington University in St. Louis.

For the last two years, scientists with the Maya Working Group at the Santa Fe Institute, organized by Freidel and supported by SFI Trustee Jerry Murdoch, have been studying archaeological data pertaining to how the Mayas considered time. The group focuses on how those ancient ideas influenced other parts of their culture, including architecture. In late August, the members convene in Santa Fe to brainstorm ways to integrate the interdisciplinary analyses into a finalized, unified anthology scheduled to be published next year.

In addition to discussions of ancient calendars, topics addressed in the book include how the Mayas organized ceremonial spaces and temples to reflect ideas about the past, present, and future; how they calculated time; how interior spaces were used for divination and prophecy; and how they considered creation and the cosmos.

The book on Maya time will be the second from the SFI Maya Working Group, which has been meeting since 2012. The first, published in the summer of 2017, collected studies of E Groups — the ancient Maya buildings that served as ceremonial centers.

Freidel says discussions about the book are occupying most of the working group. For the rest of the time, they have been launching into a new theme, “Being Maya,” which focuses on the cultural identity of the lowland Maya civilization and what sets it apart from other Meso-american peoples of the same time period. Scientists have long debated what’s culturally Maya and what’s not, says Freidel. The August meeting includes presentations of new archaeological data that can help inform the field.

The new theme will elucidate what makes the lowland Maya distinct, he says, as well as how their identity and interactions with other societies set the foundation for modern nations with Maya roots.

“In the spirit of the SFI, we are working with complexity in terms of the Maya civilization,” says Freidel, “but we’re also looking at how that complexity unfolds over time, over millennia.”

Read more about the working group, "On Time and Being Maya."

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