National Geographic News
Archaeologist William Saturno traveled to northeastern Guatemala last year to explore Maya ruins and search for ancient carved monuments. In part to escape the broiling tropical sun, he slipped into a tunnel that had been dug by looters.
The tunnel led to a small building buried beneath a Maya pyramid. When Saturno beamed a flashlight at an interior wall, he was stunned at the sight before him: an ancient Maya mural in remarkably pristine condition.
Scholars say the mural, which dates from A.D. 100, is one of the most important finds in Maya archaeology in recent decades both for its artistic merit and because of the insight it will provide into the Preclassic period of the Maya.
The mural adds a significant piece of evidence to a growing body of archaeological discoveries that is forcing archaeologists and art historians to change their earlier views of Preclassic Maya culture [see related sidebar].
The mural was found at a Maya ceremonial site called San Bartolo, in Guatemala's Petén lowlands. Petén was heavily occupied by Maya in the Preclassic period, which scholars date from about 2000 B.C. to A.D 250.
"This is an extraordinary find," said Stephen Houston, a professor at Brigham Young University who is an expert on Maya archaeology and writing. "The parts of the mural that are visible show a complex iconography and rich palette that we barely suspected for that period."
Only a six-foot-wide (1.8-meter) section of the mural is exposed on one wall of the room. But a team of experts who visited the site last June believe the painting extends around the entire room.
The mural is unusually well preserved because it was covered with mud and then the room was sealed, said Saturno, a research associate at Harvard University's Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology and a lecturer at the University of New Hampshire.
Although the Maya are known for their highly decorative ceramics and architecture, few Maya murals have been discovered. For one thing, the moist tropical climate works against the preservation of such delicate artwork.
Archaeologists have found traces of other early Maya wall paintingsnotably at Tikal and Uaxactûn, both also in Guatemala. The San Bartolo mural, however, is far better preserved and more finely executed than those examples, according to Maya experts.
"We're not yet certain this mural is the absolute oldest, but it's certainly the oldest in this condition. For this early time period, there's really nothing comparable," said Saturno.
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