Ancient Mayan symbols and architecture continue to fascinate academics and members of the public alike, in part because the complex system of time keeping and symbols largely fell from use after the leading Mayan cities were taken by the Spanish in the 16th century, leaving many mysteries behind. Now, in an area where fragments of Mayan civilization dating back to the 1st century BCE were found, a mural fragment depicting a new day name (“7 Deer”) was found and it’s the oldest piece of a Mayan calendar found to date.

Las Pinturas at San Bartolo
Via: The Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs/Exchanges Photos

The symbol, which depicts a deer head and Mayan symbol for 7, was found in 2 pieces at the Las Pinturas pyramid complex in San Bartolo, Guatemala. This symbol was part of a 260-day divinatory calendar. The Mayan had many calendars which overlapped and kept track of different events, including a 365-day solar calendar.

The fragments date to between 300 and 200 BCE, the oldest of any known currently. In the Mayan tradition larger temples and pyramids were built over smaller ones as time passed, leaving in some cases a collection of artifacts and murals from many centuries. To make way for the new, the older walls were often smashed or reconfigured, meaning may of these murals were smashed to dust or crumbled and used as construction fill.

There were 7 phases of construction at the Las Pinturas complex, where the oldest of these phases dates to 400 BCE. The later phases date to the 1st century CE. The murals and mural fragments were uncovered between 2006 and 2010.

The findings were published in the April 2022 edition of the scientific journal, Science Advances. According to the authors a Deer day represents a day on which a new year can begin, called a Year Bearer day. But, it remains unclear to what event this newly-discovered symbol might be referring to.

The authors describe the process by which the important buildings were decorated. A lime plaster was applied to the masonry blocks, then painted with either 1 or more colors. Some murals only appear to have a simple process using 1 color, whole others contain complex depictions rendered in multiple colors for a dazzling effect. 2 different types of black paint were used differently in the murals and hieroglyphics, showing an advanced attention to detail when it came to painting and writing.

The Mayans were united in religion, diet, and culture, but they held a system of power that was decentralized. Various settlements and groups held relationships that changed over time. Temples like the one at San Bartolo were built in areas of large populations, but they didn’t necessarily rule over the smaller, more rural villages. San Bartolo was a regional center during the Preclassical period of Mayan history.

Las Pinturas at San Bartolo underground entrance
An underground entrance to some of the intact murals. Via: The Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs/Exchanges Photos

This decentralized system meant that after the Spanish took over and demanded large tributes of gold and cotton, these smaller villages were often left largely to their own devices, where Mayan culture was never fully stamped out. It is in these more remote areas that some Mayan calendars and symbols are still in use today in Southern Mexico and in Guatemala, despite different writing styles across Mesoamerica.