Back in 2012 there was a roiling debate amongst those who believed that the conclusion of the 13th Baktun of the Maya long count calendar represented a significant event. The question was, did this momentous moment signal apocalypse or instead a moment of rebirth. While popular media outlets (and Hollywood) focused on the apocalyptic interpretations, in reality the more positive interpretations of the Maya calendar were more widely supported in the community of believers.
But, 2012 has come and gone. There was no apocalypse … I think, and most of the former believers seem to hold that the rebirth of sorts did not happen. So, why bring it up five years later?
For one, everyone should revel in this ash tray! What better way to celebrate the “Inicio de una nueva era” then with a commemorative ash tray.
The serious reason, however, is that there is a lesson that archaeologists should head in the 2012 story. Prior to the momentous date, several archaeologists and scholars spoke out labeling the claims of apocalypse and rebirth as pseudoarchaeology. One of the best responses was Anthony Aveni’s book The End of Time (a title that I suspect was not his idea). Aveni and others took this moment to explain what scholars actually know about the Maya, and to show that there was no support from ancient sources for either apocalyptic or rebirth claims.
I deeply appreciate that scholars spoke up at this critical moment, but a trip into any bookstore back in 2012 showed that “Pro-2012” books easily outnumbered critical books in a landslide. In fact, having been in a bookstore last night, one can still find numerous “Pro-2012” books floating around. Having given several 2012 lectures myself before the event, a majority of my audience members seemed quite dissatisfied when I pointed out that the Maya records didn’t actually predict anything would happen. Overall, there was much more interest in prophecy then there was in academic inquiry.
The point for archaeologists comes down to what is good evidence. Archaeologists are accustomed to digging holes, counting pot sherds, and putting lithic blades under the microscope. We are ensconced in the material interpretation of a material focused discipline. Labeling 2012 claims as pseudoarchaeology was easy. The claims did not match the material record, done! <Dusts off hands, exits stage right>
But, for many members of the public, this was not a story about materialism. While the apocalyptic interpretations might have gotten more popular attention, as stated above it was the spiritually inclined rebirth claims that enjoyed more serious engagement and belief. For spiritualists, the material record of archaeology tells only one story, and thus archaeologists using labels of pseudoarchaeology were seen as naïve rather than authoritative.
This contradiction between materialism and spiritualism continues to echo through the contentious relationship between archaeologists and popular perceptions of archaeology. This contention most recently came to a head with the dust up over claims that the monuments of Gobekli Tepe contained prophetic warnings! (See the archaeological response here.)
If archaeologists wish to work against distortions of the past, we need to understand how spiritualists view the past and the huge effect they have had on public perceptions. This is a hard and narrow line to walk, but I think vital to efforts to protect cultural heritage.