Oldest Known Maya Mural, Tomb Reveal Story of Ancient King

December 13, 2005

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Archaeologists today revealed the final section of the earliest known Maya mural ever found, saying that the find upends everything they thought they knew about the origins of Maya art, writing, and rule.

The painting was the last wall of a room-size mural to be excavated. The site was discovered in 2001 at the ancient Maya city of San Bartolo in the lowlands of northeastern Guatemala.

"It is really breathtaking how beautiful this is," said William Saturno, an archaeologist with the University of New Hampshire and the Harvard Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.

The mural was painted by skilled artisans and reads like a Maya book, telling the story of creation, the mythology of kingship, and the divine right of a king, according to Saturno, who leads the San Bartolo excavation project.

The painted wall dates to 100 B.C., proving that these stories of creation and kings—and the use of elaborate art and writing to tell them—were well established more than 2,000 years ago ago, centuries earlier than previously believed.

"There are kings, they have art, they have writing," Saturno said. "All these things we attribute to the Classic [Maya period] are all in existence in the Preclassic. Now if we want to talk about origins, we need to be going back further in time."

The Classic period dates from about A.D. 250 to 1000. The Preclassic period dates from about 2000 B.C. to A.D. 250.

Prior to this find, researchers believed sophisticated Maya painting and writing wasn't firmly established until the seventh century A.D.

"In that way it really is like you didn't know the Renaissance ever happened—you have no knowledge that anyone ever painted anything in Florence in the 16th century, then all of sudden you see a Michelangelo," Saturno said.

In addition to the mural, the researchers found the oldest known Maya royal burial, dating to 150 B.C. It serves as further proof for the existence of early Maya kings.

Saturno, whose research has been supported by the National Geographic Society and is conducted with the Guatemalan Institute of Anthropology and History, reports the finds in the January 2006 issue of National Geographic magazine.

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