Jose Luis Romero has been quite busy lately, attempting to explain to journalists why the world will be just fine after December 21, 2012.
We met with the veteran archaeologist in a brand new museum in the city of Villahermosa, where he kindly translated the hieroglyphics carved on Monument Six of Tortuguero, a Mayan stone from the 7th century AD.
Gazing at a series of three hieroglyphics that depicted two stars, the tip of a lance, and a jaguar head with three dots on top of it, Romero explained that the massive stone in front of him talked mainly about the wars undertaken by lord Bahlam Ahaw during the late 7th century. Bahlam Ahaw ruled the ancient city of tortuguero from 644 AD to 679. Archeologists believe that Monument Six was a plaque of sorts built in 1667 to inaugurate a new building that was also made in the ruler´s honor.
"There is nothing here that talks about the end of the mayan calendar. Nothing here says the world will end," Romero said with a modest smile.
The above section of Monument Six describes how Ahaw waged war against a neighboring kingdom. The third glyph to the right on the top row, depicts a spearhead and a shield.
Yet Monument Six has become known around the world as the stone that predicts the coming of a new era, or the "end of the world."
Most of this speculation arises from the last six hieroglyphics on the T shaped stone. These glyphs, placed on the top right hand corner of the T, count the number of days to go until the end of Baktun 13, a 400-year-long period of the Mayan calendar, which finishes roughly on December 21, 2012.
This is the segment of Monument Six that talks about Baktun 13 and the god Bolon Yokte. Part of it was broken off and is now held by a private collector in Boston.
The glyphs also say that when the 13th Baktun ends, Mayan deity Bolon Yokte, will descend on earth, or will be "invested" in a great ceremony in a place that is not specified, as one of the glyphs is eroded, and is unrecognizable.
But what does that have to do with the end of the world?
New age theorist Geoff Stray points out that Bolon Yokte is a god associated with the underworld, conflict and war, social unrest and even natural disasters like earthquakes.
"He appears at the end of baktuns, assisted at the creation of the current world, and will be present at the next creation in 2012," Stray writes in an article that has been shared on several new age websites.
But several archaeologists that are familiar with Monument Six claim that Maya scribes who carved this stone only bothered to include Baktun 13 and Bolon Yokte in there for political purposes, and not because they were making any prophecies.
These experts suggest that mentions of Baktun 13 and the god linked to this date on Monument Six are really just rhetorical devices aimed at bolstering the status of Tortuguero leader Bahlam Ajaw.
A sign in the Villahermosa archaeological museum interprets the section of Monument Six that talks about Baktun 13
During a workshop on the tortuguero monument, organized by the Mexican government in December, German archaeologist Sven Gronemeyer explained that for the Mayas, Baktun 13th marked an important milestone in the creation of the world, kind of like how westerners view New Year´s eve as an important date to make plans, and think about their lives.
"The (end of Baktun 13) was charged with a symbolic value to the Mayas, as this was an opportunity to reflect on creation" Gronemeyer says in a release published by Mexico´s National Institute for Anthropology and History. He adds that by including Baktun 13 and Bolon Yokte in a stone that talks about a building inaugurated during his reign, "The lord of Tortugero, is assuming a position where he is the guarantor of that important transition (in the Mayan calendar), and suggests that he has the backing of its patron gods."
Archaeologist David Stuart explains this issue more bluntly in his blog.
"Let's imagine that a scribe living in New York back in the year 1950 wanted to immortalize some great happening of that year on a stone monument. One momentous event of the time was the New York Yankees' four-game sweep of the Phillies in that year's World Series. If our imaginary scribe were to use the particular ancient Maya rhetorical device under discussion, he or she might say something like this: "On October 7, 1950, the New York Yankees defeated the Philadelphia Phillies to win the World Series. It happened 29 years after the first Yankees victory in the World Series in 1921. And so 50 years before the year 2000 will occur, the Yankees won the World Series"
But new age theorist Geoff Stray contends that there is another reason why Monument Six could be making prophecies.
Stray point out that the name of Bolon Yokte, the god that appears on the monument, means the God of Nine Strides. He writes that for other Native American cultures, such as the Hopi, the number nine is related to important prophecies.
"There are…nine (Hopi) prophecies that will be fulfilled before the Day of Purification that precedes the Emergence," Stray writes. "These are the coming of the white man; covered wagons; longhorn cattle; railroad tracks; power lines & telephone lines; concrete roads; oil spills; the coming of the hippies; the Blue Star kachina. Only the last of these nine remains to be fulfilled."
Stray sees cultural connections between the Hopi and the Maya that could indicate that the number nine was also a prophetic number for the Mesoamerican group. He points out that monument mentions the anniversary of a sacred steam bath known as a Pibnah. The Hopis, Stray writes, had similar steam baths known as Kivas, and these buildings were associated to the number nine.
Archaeologists that we spoke to in Mexico, find that such theories are somewhat of a stretch, especially because historical records indicate that ancient Maya did not have the habit of predicting apocalyptic scenarios, changes of consciousness, or the comings of new eras.
At the Villahermosa museum, archeologist Jose Luis Romero said that Mayan priests were mostly focused on making predictions about practical things. "They were interested in predicting when it would rain, when there would be good crops, or when it was a good time to hunt," Romero said. "You have to remember that the Mayas were a culture that was based on agriculture."
Erik Velasquez, an expert in Mayan texts, added that the Maya only began to make end of the world predictions during colonial times, some 800 years after scribes carved Tortuguero´s famous Monument Six.
Over the phone, Velasquez explained that the Maya began to make end of the world predictions, after Spanish priests indoctrinated them in biblical concepts, like the Apocalypse, and other end of the world texts that were popular in the renaissance.
He mentioned a Mayan book from 1637 known as the Chilam Balam de Ixtan, which says that the world would end in 150 years, due to a demographic explosion that would leave people without food.
Velasquez said that other Maya texts from that era talk about floods and catastrophic incidents but mention no specific date for the end of the world. He scoffed at theorists that contend that pre-hispanic monuments like Tortuguero´s Monument 6, are actually making predictions about a new era.
"After this date is over, new fantasies about the end of the world will come about," Velasquez said. "This is something that comes in our DNA."