As we hurtle toward the end of 2012, the conversation about a certain date with roots in an ancient Maya calendar has reached a fever pitch.
Dec. 21, 2012, has taken over popular culture this year: It's been the subject of movies, books and news shows. The date and its supposed prophecy that the world will come to an end has been the subject of water cooler conversations and international media attention.
But the truth regarding the date, according to renowned Maya scholar and University of Texas at Austin art history professor David Stuart, is that the day is indeed meaningful -- but not in the way you might think.
"The Maya never actually predicted the end of times," says Stuart, who recently won a UNESCO medal for his lifetime contributions to the study of ancient Maya culture and archaeological sites, including UNESCO World Heritage Sites. "In the Maya scheme of time, the approaching date was thought to be the turn of an important cycle, or as they put it, the end of 13 bak'tuns. The thing is, there are many more bak'tuns still to come."
Earlier this year, Stuart was working with colleagues at the ruins of La Corona in the Guatemalan jungle, where they excavated many inscribed stones that had been part of a staircase. As the world's leading epigrapher of Maya script, Stuart was brought in to decipher the 56 glyphs carved into the stones. He discovered 200 years of political history and, to his surprise, the second known reference in Maya culture to the so-called end date of Dec. 21, 2012.
But despite the popular misconception, the date doesn't predict the end of times. Rather, it was intended to promote continuity during a time of crisis.
"The hieroglyphs emphasized seventh century history and politics, linking the reign of an ancient king to the turn of the 13th bak'tun many centuries later," Stuart explains. "The point was to associate the divine king's time on the throne to time on a cosmic scale.
"The monument commemorated a royal visit to La Corona in AD 696 by the most powerful Maya ruler of that time, a few months after his defeat by a longstanding rival in AD 695," said Stuart. "This ruler was visiting allies and allaying their fears after his defeat. It was a time of great political turmoil in the Maya region, and this king felt compelled to allude to a larger cycle of time that happens to end in 2012."
Rather than prophesy, the 2012 reference served to place this king's troubled reign and accomplishments into a larger cosmological framework. In times of crisis, the ancient Maya used their calendar to promote continuity and stability.
Assuming 21st century soothsayers are incorrect about the impending end of the world, Stuart's research will continue in 2013, starting in January with the Maya Meetings, an international conference held, alternately, in Austin and Antigua, Guatemala, each year. Stuart has served as director of the event since 2004, and this year it is a family affair. Stuart's father, George E. Stuart, will be the keynote speaker at this year's meeting, which will be in Austin.
The elder Stuart was hired as a cartographer for the National Geographic Society and remained on staff for nearly 40 years working in a variety of capacities, including as editor for archaeology of National Geographic Magazine and chairman of the Committee for Research and Exploration. He founded the Center for Maya Research in 1984.