World news in brief: early Maya calendar, Mesolithic mummies, and a sacred Phoenician pool

Maya calendar fragments from Guatemala

Two fragments of a mural revealed during excavations at San Bartolo, a Maya site in Petén, Guatemala, may be the earliest evidence yet of the Maya ritual calendar, according to new research published in the journal Science Advances (

Image: scans by Heather Hurst and illustration by David Stuart, Science Advances.

The fragments of painted plaster were found beneath the site’s pyramid, known as ‘Las Pinturas’, which was rebuilt seven times between 400 BC and AD 100. They have been securely dated to the pyramid’s third phase (c.300-200 BC), which consisted of a radial pyramid, a ballcourt, and a long raised platform.

The fragments fit together to form the Maya number seven: two dots over a horizontal line (though the left dot has been lost), above the head of a deer. This symbol represents ‘7 Deer’, a date in the 260-day Maya ritual calendar, which used combinations of 13 numbers and 20 signs to represent distinct dates.

Motya’s sacred pool

An artificial basin on the Phoenician island city of Motya (modern San Pantaleo Island, off Sicily), previously identified as a Punic harbour, has been reinterpreted as a sacred pool.

The 52.5m-long and 37m-wide basin was interpreted as a kothon (an artificial inner harbour) in the early 1900s, but excavations in the 2000s instead found a temple dedicated to the Phoenician god Ba’al. A decade of investigations since 2006 then revealed the basin to be a freshwater pool, fed by three natural springs, and two more temples were located, alongside further features of a circular monumental sanctuary in use from c.500 to 397/396 BC.

The research, which interprets the centrally located pool as a reflective surface designed to track the movement of the stars, was published in Antiquity (

Mesolithic mummies in Portugal?

Hunter-gatherer communities in Portugal may have been practising mummification 8,000 years ago, according to new research published in the European Journal of Archaeology (

The researchers studied newly rediscovered photographs of skeletal remains excavated at the Mesolithic burial sites of Poças de São Bento and Arapouco, using archaeothanatological techniques to analyse the human remains by observing the spatial distribution of the bones in the context of knowledge about how human bodies decompose after death.

At least one of the burials displayed an unusual degree of flexion in the position of the body, as well as an absence of disarticulation among the bones (even around the fingers and toes, where this would normally be expected), leading the team to suggest that some of the individuals may have been deliberately mummified.