If you’re worried about the”‘Maya prophecy” that the world will end on December 21, you should have been at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre last week, where archaeologist William Saturno had good news for those concerned with the world’s survival (watch video above). Saturno gave insights into the Maya art world and explained how far from representing the end of time, their calendar is merely indicating the end of a cycle; much like how December 31 indicates the end of one solar year. Spectacular murals he found earlier this year give a colorful illustration of this point (See photos and learn more about the murals at Xultún).
As both a professor in Archeology at Boston University and an explorer in the field, Saturno has been studying the Maya world for well over a decade. In 2001, his discovery of San Bartolo in Guatemala made headline news as one of the oldest-known intact murals ever in the Maya world.
At his National Geographic Live event, Saturno shared his story about how he came to find this remote archeological site. What was originally planned as a 3-hour drive turned into a 3-day trek through the dense underbrush of the Guatemalan jungle. After running out of food and water, Saturno crawled into a looters’ tunnel to get out of the sun and cool down. There he saw a remarkably well-preserved Mayan mural, partially uncovered by the looters. “I just laughed,” Saturno says. “My first thought was, ‘Oh my god, this is an amazing discovery!’ And my second thought was, ‘And I’m going to die right here. I’m going to be the skeleton that Indiana Jones finds later in the movie.'”
While not as romanticized as the Indiana Jones movies, Saturno’s expedition to explore Maya ruins certainly had its share of mystery and near-death experiences. According to traditional beliefs, he did die when he went into that cave. As he entered the underworld, he was given sacred knowledge and allowed to return to bring that knowledge back to the Maya. “[Local Maya] told me they had dreamed of me often and that I would find other great things,” Saturno explains.
One audience member asked Saturno how he planned to celebrate the doomsday countdown on December 21. Saturno simply replied, “very quietly.”