Penn Museum's 2012 Prediction?
(Don't Stop Payments on Your Life Insurance Just Yet)
Prognostications for the year 2012 are piling up, with multiple books, magazine articles, and now a blockbuster movie (2012, in theaters November 13, 2009), all concerned with the topic. What is said is intriguing, and for some genuinely worrying, but how much of it has a basis in ancient Maya culture and belief? Specifically, did the Maya really predict that the world will end on December 21, 2012?
"Not at all," says Simon Martin, Associate Curator, American Section at the University of Pennsyvlania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. A specialist in ancient Maya writing, he explains that this is simply the end date of one long cycle of time, and the beginning of another one. "The Maya made calculations spanning millions of years and the 5,200-year cycle that ends in 2012 is a rather short one. The date itself is mentioned only once in all the many thousands of Maya inscriptions, where it is used as an arbitrary anchor date for the matters under discussion and not associated with any particular prophesy. We know that the Maya believed in a world after 2012 since they mention events set well beyond this, with an inscription at Palenque, Mexico, describing one in the year 4772."
"Just remember," says Elin Danien, curator of the Museum's exhibition Painted Metaphors: Pottery and Politics of the Ancient Maya, "all calendars have arbitrary starting dates, created by different cultures to allow them to measure the passage of time in particular ways.
"The predictions of global calamity may be said to originate in deep antiquity, but they really stem from the troubles and anxieties of our own time. What is truly remarkable about the Maya," says Dr. Danien, "was their ability to create accurate calendars, and use a unique writing system to record their history, cosmology, and the events that shaped their world.
"Their real accomplishments can be seen at the Penn Museum, in objects displayed in the Central American Gallery and in Painted Metaphors. We don't have to create fantasies about them. They were an extraordinary people who developed a unique civilization that still fascinates the modern world."
Caption: Visitors at Painted Metaphors exhibition.