Oldest Intact Maya Mural Found in Guatemala

D.L. Parsell
National Geographic News
Updated March 22, 2002
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."

Hidden Treasure

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 paintings—notably 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.

David Freidel, a professor of archaeology at Southern Methodist University and an expert in Preclassic Maya culture, called the San Bartolo mural "a remarkably important discovery."

"This is a really beautiful work," he said. "What's going on in the mural, even from only the glimpse we have, it's clear it will provide significant knowledge of Maya religion and Maya rulership in a period at the beginning of Classical Maya civilization."

Familiar Theme

Saturno and David Stuart, a curator of Maya hieroglyphs at the Peabody museum and a senior lecturer in anthropology at Harvard, went to San Bartolo last June with art specialists and Guatemalan archaeologist Héctor Escobedo to assess the mural and develop a preliminary conservation plan. Looters in recent years had removed a large section of the wall below the mural, leaving parts of it with little support.

San Bartolo, a site previously unknown to archaeologists, covers about 12 acres (5 hectares). Its ruins include a large complex built around an 80-foot-tall (24-meter) pyramid that encompasses at least six earlier phases of construction. The building in which the mural was found was completed in the most recent phase of construction.

Full-time guards have been posted at the site, and Saturno will return next month with a field team to continue excavation and restoration activities.

Karl Taube, an archaeologist at the University of California-Riverside and an expert in ancient Mesoamerican history, religion, and art, said the part of the San Bartolo mural that's visible appears to show the dressing of the maize god.

The deity—recognizable by his characteristic slanted eyes and flattened and elongated head—is surrounded by several other people. He gazes over his shoulder at two half-clothed maidens kneeling behind him.

The scene, Taube said, is part of a mythological story in which the maize god travels through the underworld and is eventually resurrected. Aspects of the corn god myth can be seen on many vases and other artwork from A.D. 600 to 800, he noted. It was very common during the Classic period because it plays into the Maya creation myth."

The San Bartolo mural, he added, is the first known depiction of this particular myth in narrative form.

Until now, Saturno said, examples of Maya artistry from about A.D 100. have been limited to ceramic pieces, stone monuments, and architectural sculptures, especially large stucco masks that adorned the facades of buildings. "Although we have individual artifacts, there [have been] few narratives or images of historical or mythological events," he said.

A Maya "Masterpiece"

Several Maya experts who have seen the San Bartolo painting or photos of it said it is unexpectedly sophisticated for the period in which it was painted, which casts new light on artistic achievement in Preclassic Maya civilization.

"It points to the highly cosmopolitan and sophisticated nature of Maya society and culture during the Late Preclassic," said Taube.

Norman Hammond, a professor of archaeology at Boston University who has excavated Preclassic Maya sites in Belize, called the San Bartolo mural "arguably the most significant find since Bonampak."

The murals discovered at Bonampak, Mexico, in 1946 cover the walls and ceilings of three rooms with colorful depictions of Maya court ceremonies, battles, and daily life. They were painted about A.D. 790, not long before the Maya civilization collapsed in A.D. 900.

"Bonampak is the acme of Classic Maya mural painting, but the San Bartolo mural shows that this semi-naturalistic style was in existence half a millennium before," said Hammond.

Freidel said the mural "is a masterpiece of Maya art, regardless of what else has been found." For the paint to bond onto the plaster wall of the room discovered at San Bartolo, the artists had to work quickly and with great confidence while the plaster was still damp, he explained.

"Sometimes archaeologists have been able to detect drip lines on Preclassic painted monumental masks, where the artist was unable to control the flow of paint," he said. "The San Bartolo mural was painted by a great master, with fine-line exquisite details all perfectly rendered."

The discovery of the mural has generated much excitement among Maya scholars, who say they are eager to find out what lies behind the obscured panels.

"There appear to be many more scenes and figures behind the dirt and fill of the chamber," said Houston, noting that the full significance of the mural will only become clear with fuller excavation.

The discovery, he added, "is rather like finding a new Maya book, and all of us are drooling to see what's to come."

The National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration partially funded the expedition to San Bartolo last June. Current funding for the project is being provided by the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Harvard's Peabody Museum, and Dumbarton Oaks.

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