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Doomsday exhibit, planetarium event to demystify Maya calendar

POSTED: November 3, 2012 1:30 a.m.

Don’t worry, Virginia. There will be a Christmas. At least, according to the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Curators there are launching an exhibit designed to demystify the Maya and debunk the myth that the ancient culture predicted doomsday on Dec. 21, 2012.

Visitors will walk darkened halls lined with pottery, jade carvings and black-and-white rubbings of jungle monuments, all tied in some way to the sophisticated Maya calendar. They’ll sit in replicas of large, mural-filled buildings that still grace the jungles of Mexico. And they should come away with at least one thought: The sun will rise on Dec. 22.

"The calendar is there, and it will continue, so nobody ought to be afraid of what Dec. 21 will bring because there will be a Dec. 22 and, yes, there will be a Christmas," said Dirk Van Tuerenhout, curator of the "Maya 2012 Prophecy Becomes History."

The date coincidentally lines up with a rare event. In 2012, the sun will pass through the center of the Milky Way during the winter solstice, when it is at its weakest — an event that occurs every 26,000 years.

This connection, experts believe, might be behind some of the doomsday scenarios; however, there is no evidence the Maya were aware this astronomical phenomenon fell on the same day as the end of their long count.

"Most of the Maya scholars think it comes from the Christian West where the whole idea of doomsday and apocalypse is an important part of Christianity," Rebecca Storey, an anthropologist at the University of Houston, said. "It’s mostly outsiders that have made that link that somehow the end of a time cycle can be a time of destruction."

Lee Cheek, professor of political science and religion at Gainesville State College, disagrees.

"It is incorrect to blame Christianity or any of the major world religions for the rise and persistence of apocalyptic theories," said Cheek.

Most visions of an impending doom upon civilization are of a secular nature, especially in the contemporary world. One need to look no further than the advocates of Y2K, radical environmentalism, or state-sponsored terrorism or any other myriad examples to witness "end times" worldviews."

Nearly every item on display circles back to the Maya calendars: complex, cyclical countdowns that helped an ancient people who dwelled in the jungles, mountains and coastal regions of Central America track crucial events — especially the rain — and build large cities, some with as many as 90,000 people.

The exhibit explains the calendars through videos showing the wheels introduced by Europeans to wed the Maya count with their own, as well as Maya inscriptions and writings. It shows how the Maya calendars — while advanced and complex — largely focused on the daily needs of a society by counting what we call days, months and years.

"So you could have time to get your festivals organized and your king ready to bleed and your sacrifices, so the astronomer actually controlled the timekeeping of the Maya," said Carolyn Sumners, the museum’s vice president for astronomy, who helped create a 3D movie to accompany the exhibit. "The power of that priest and the power of that king depended on feeding these people."

The king, however, needed a "long count" to create a legacy, Sumners explained.

The Maya did this with several calendars, each with a different count. The "ritual" cycle was 260 days long, the time between the planting of the corn, or possibly, the time from human conception to birth, experts say. They also had a 365-day calendar, similar to our own, and the two met once every 52 years, which also matched the average life expectancy of a person living at that time, said Storey.

It is this count, which begins with Maya creation and ends three days before Christmas Eve, that is the focus of the end-of-the-world beliefs. This count is broken up into 13, 400-year segments, or baktuns. The last one ends on Dec. 21, 2012, and the ancient Maya believed that on Dec. 22 they would start counting again from zero, Storey said.

The Maya ended their long count at 13 because it is, for them, a sacred number, Storey said. They believe the end of a count is a time of renewal, and this will be the theme of many of the modern-day Maya celebrations to be held in Central American cities on Dec. 21, she added.

Joseph Jones, a North Georgia College & State University physics professor and director of the Coleman Planetarium, is conducting a show at the planetarium on the Mayan calendar and its relation to astronomy.

Titled "2012 — The End of Time?," the main thrust of the show, he says, is an explanation of the seasons using the planetarium projector to show the daily motion of the sun throughout the year.

"Most Mayan scholars set the beginning of the current Mayan Long Count calendar to Aug. 11, 3114 BC. But if that’s the beginning, when is the end?"

One writer, Michael Coe, calculated the end in his first book as Dec. 24, 2011, but in subsequent revisions it changed to Jan. 11, 2013, then Dec. 23, 2012, and finally to Dec. 21, 2012. We do our own ‘calculation’ at the end of the show, but you’ll have to attend to find out the result."

In reality, the Maya did suffer an "apocalypse," said Sumners, but it occurred around 900 A.D., when the classic Mayan civilization collapsed. It appears years of drought had stopped the rain.

"The reason it was such a catastrophe for them, such a collapse that they never really recovered from, it was that they overbuilt," Sumners said. "They did not create a sustainable culture if the rains didn’t come, and that’s what we face today."

"Unless someone reminds me about the ‘Long Count’ that day, I’ll probably forget about the Mayan calendar altogether," said Jones. "Which in my opinion, is the best response to this latest apocalyptic deadline."


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