Maya "Painted Pyramid" Reveals 1st Murals of Daily Life

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November 12, 2009—A series of unusual Maya wall murals, complete with hieroglyphic captions, are providing archaeologists with a priceless look at day-to-day life in the empire circa A.D. 620 to 700.

Previously known Maya murals all depict the ruling elite, victories in battle, or religious themes. (Explore a map of Maya ruins.)

But exterior walls on a "painted pyramid" buried for centuries in the Mexican jungle (pictured, a corner of the pyramid undergoing excavations) have shown Maya scholars something completely different.

The murals—discovered in 2004 at the Maya site of Calakmul—depict ordinary people enjoying much more casual pursuits, according to a new, detailed description of the wall art.

"There's really nothing like this in any of the [known] murals. These are totally unexpected," said Maya expert Michael D. Coe, curator emeritus at Yale University's Peabody Museum of Natural History and editor of the new paper.

"This is everyday life with people who are not upper-crust Maya but rather people engaged in everyday activities."

Maya Food and Fashion

The colorful artwork shows the clothing and jewelry worn by various social classes in Calakmul, one of the largest cities of the Classic Maya period, which lasted from A.D. 300 to 900. (Take a Maya quiz.)

During this era, Calakmul was likely the capital of the Kan (Snake) Kingdom, which held great sway over the Maya world.

The murals also depict common foodstuffs as well as people involved in food preparation and distribution, including a "salt person" and a "tobacco person," as they are labeled in the hieroglyphs. (Related: "Ancient Farm Discovery Yields Clues to Maya Diet.")

Other scenes depict corn products that were essential to the Maya diet: A woman distributes a platter of tamales to a crowd in one panel, while a man and woman in another scene serve maize gruel.

What's more, the Calakmul murals' exterior location surprised experts, since other murals were found secreted away inside pyramids.

"In other words, they were public," Coe said of the Calakmul paintings. "They were to be seen by everybody." Luckily for Maya scholars, the painted pyramid's long burial helped preserve the unusual artwork.

Findings published online this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

—Brian Handwerk

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