Sunday, January 1, 2012

Rediscovery of the Maya Era Date 4 Ajaw 8 Kumk'u

Era day passage from Palenque, Temple of the Cross, Main Panel (Photo by  by Paul Johnson)

The rediscovery of the base date of the Maya Long Count was claimed two early Maya scholars: J.T. Goodman and Ernst  Förstemann. But as we shall see, it was Förstemann who must be given proper credit for discovery of the inaugural date. Initially, Goodman surveyed the calendar data largely from the stone monuments and the corpus of inscriptions gathered by A.P. Maudslay while Förstemann analyzed the dates and inscriptions in the Dresden Codex, one of the few surviving handbooks of a Maya priest.
In the commentary “The Archaic Maya Inscriptions” appearing in February of 1897 the Volume VI Appendix of A. P. Maudslay’s great work “Biologia Central Americana”, Goodman (1897:10) described how he labored for well over “seven years” to reconstruct the values of the Maya Long Count from numerical signs (the “bar and dot” and “head variants” of numbers) of the stone inscriptions and from calendar and mathematical data gleaned from the writings of Diego de Landa and Pío Pérez. He states quite emphatically that:
“I ascertained the first cycle [the bak’tun] was composed of twenty katuns . . . I finally deduced a chronological calendar . . . and after reversing the process, succeeded in restructuring the outline of the entire Archaic chronological scheme . . .” (Goodman 1897:13).
Yet curiously on page 93 of his 1897 work, he offers an example of the 4 Ajaw 8 Kumk’u era date reckoning not from the stone inscriptions to which he was intimately familiar but from page 51 and 52 of the Dresden Codex Lunar Tables! This leads one to suspect that Goodman was aware of Förstemann’s previous 1887 deductions from the Dresden Codex concerning the era date and had knowledge of the German scholar’s early discoveries (Thompson 1971:30). Goodman tables do indeed provide the era day base date in conjunction with their Long Counts. About the era date on page 51 of the Dresden Codex, Goodman (1897:93) states that the 4 Ajaw 8 Kumk’u date is “the beginning of the 54th great cycle of the Archaic era.” What does he mean by the 54th great cycle? At the time, Goodman (1897:25) believed that the Initial Series Introductory Glyph (ISIG) represented various Great Cycles where one “Great Cycle” equaled 13 bak’tuns. These “Great Cycles” in turn produced an even larger “Grand Era” that was comprised of 73 “Great Cycles.” At the end of the “Grand Era” the day name and month repeat the same calendar positions[1]. In Goodman’s view the era date was but one of many probable starting points and one that corresponded with the current cycle of 1-13 bak’tuns. Goodman did not offer a straightforward mathematical explanation of how he arrived at the era date. The calculations are inferred from his Long Count charts representing the “54th Great Cycle.” The charts note the “ 54th Cycle” begins with the date 4 Ajaw 8 Kumk’u. Already, Goodman (1897:127, 135) anticipates the idea that the era date and the Great Cycles are related to some great time station by which the calendar returns to a start date and is renewed. Goodman could have reckoned the era date from Maudslay’s drawings of Quirigua Stela C and Palenque’s Temple of the Cross Sanctuary Panel, both of which record the era date which no doubt was verifiable against his Long Count charts and calculations of Maya dates
In the later part of the 1880s E. Förstemann (1904:403) in his examination of the Dresden Codex, reckoned the era date for the Long Count since it served as a base date for the Venus Table calculations as well as several other almanacs. Förstemann saw the zero date being employed for a start date on page 24, 51, 60, 62, 63, and 69 of the Dresden Codex (Förstemann 1906:115, 197, 222, 224, 234). By 1887 in “Zur Entzifferung der Mayahandschrift”Förstemann announced that the Long Count was indeed reckoned from a 4 Ajaw 8 Kumk’ubase date and was able to explain the rational of “Ring Numbers” or numbers that were used to count backward from a base date. In his essay “Aids To Deciphering Maya Manuscripts”, Förstemann restates his earlier discovery:
“A perfectly exact computation was attained only by deciding on some fixed day (the creation of the world, perhaps, or the birth of a principle god) as a point of departure, and by counting the days from zero point . . . this important day is a 4 Ahau 8 Cumku” (Förstemann 1904:399).
Here, Förstemann attaches more than a mathematical importance to the era base date and delves into the possible mythic significance of the day. He conjectures that the date could signify a greater meaning and relate to some cosmogonic or theogenic act of creation. It would be nearly seventy years until such speculation was visually verified with the discovery of the Vase of the Seven Gods (Coe1973:106-109). It was Förstemann then, who was also first to speculate on the mythic significance of the base date.
Eduard Seler (1904:26) in his paper “The Mexican Chronology” also gives credit to his German colleague for the discovery noting that:
“In a paper presented before the International Americanists Congress in at Berlin E. Förstemann, to whom we owe so many discoveries, especially in regard to the mathematics in the Dresden manuscript, furnished proof that . . . the day 4 Ahau (4XX), the eighth of the month Cumku (the last of the eighteen festivals), is to be regarded as zero mark” (Seler 1904:26).
As to Goodmann’s claim of discovery of the era base, the current researcher has not found any written rebuttal by Förstemann noting his opinion on the matter. However, it is clear the German scholar thought lowly of the American’s contributions to field by sourly noting elsewhere :
“In his work “The Archaic Maya Inscriptions,” 1897, which on the whole, contains more imagination than of science  .  .  .” (Förstemann 1906:233)
Thompson (1971:300) finally weighed in on the question of discovery with the evidence against Goodman’s claims:
“Irrefutable evidence, however, that Goodman had read Förstemann comes from his own pen. In discussing the chronological calendar, Goodman writes, ‘It has been known that the Mayas reckoned time by ahaus (e.g. tuns), katuns, cycles (e.g. baktuns), and great cycles (e.g. pictuns).’ That information is in that none of the early sources, but was brought to light only through the studies of Förstemann. Furthermore, Brinton (1895) gives many details of Förstemann’s researches, including the reading of IS [Initial Series], and such matters as the glyphs for the katun and tun, in his Primer of Maya hieroglyphics, which surely must have come into Goodman's hands.”
Ultimately the field of Maya studies benefited from both Förstemann’s and Goodman’s early decipherments and calendar calculations that in the end proved that the mathematics of inscriptions and the codices were based on the same mathematical logic and their Long Count calendars were indeed reckoned from the same base date.

[1]Spinden (1969:36) sums Goodman’s argument for a “Grand Era” as follows: “Goodman sees a neater finish to the chronological problem in a round of 73 times 13 baktuns, which would bring not only the day but the month position back again as a terminal date of a great cycle. He argues that the great wheel of time began from a great cycle of 73 ending on a day 4 Ahau 13 Yax and that the great cycle of the era recorded in the inscriptions was really the 54th in order from this far off beginning.”

Works Cited
Förstemann, Ernst
1887    Die Maya-Handschrift der Koniglich-Sachsischen Bibliothek zu Dresden. Ascher, Dresden.
1904    Aids to The Deciphering Of The Maya Manuscripts. In: Mexican And Central American Antiquities, Calendar Systems, And History, Bureau Of American Ethnology, Bulletin 28 Edited by Charles P. Bowditch, pp. 397-407. Smithsonian Institution, Washington.
1906    Commentary of the Maya manuscript in the Royal Public Library of Dresden. Papers, 4(2), pp. 53-266.  Harvard University, Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology: Cambridge, MA.

Goodman, J.T.
1897    Archaic Maya inscriptions. In: Biologia Centrali-Americana; or Contributions to the 
Knowledge of the Fauna and Flora of Mexico and Central America. R. H. Porter
Washington D.C. 

Seler, Eduard
1904    The Mexican chronology, with special reference to the Zapotec calendar. In: Mexican And Central American Antiquities, Calendar Systems, And History, Bureau Of American Ethnology, Bulletin 28 Edited by Charles P. Bowditch, pp. 11-56. Smithsonian Institution Washington.

Spinden, Herbert J.
1969    Reduction of Mayan dates. In: Papers, 6(4)  Harvard University, Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology., Cambridge, MA

Thompson, J. Eric S.
1971    Maya hieroglyphic Writing: An Introduction. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

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