Oldest Known Maya Mural, Tomb Reveal Story of Ancient King

John Roach
for National Geographic News
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.

Stephen Houston, an expert on Maya archaeology and writing at Brown University, said the San Bartolo finds have "blown away" Maya scholars.

"It contains information we had known about from later Maya sources, but we now realize these ideas were present long, long before and expressed in an amazingly sophisticated fashion," he said.

Careful Excavation

Saturno found the mural room in 2001 by chance: Exhausted and in search of shade, he ducked into a trench looters had cut under an unexcavated pyramid. There he spotted the face of a maize god painted on the north wall.

Though colleagues wanted Saturno to immediately uncover the rest, it took two years of planning before he and a colleague began the painstaking excavation of the west wall, the centerpiece of the room. The wall rests below 50 feet (15 meters) of rubble, helping support the pyramid overhead.

"When we excavate, tunnel into this, we need to remove the rock and hope the ones on top of it won't come with it," Saturno said.

When the 30-foot-long (9-meter-long) tunnel was complete, Saturno slowly chiseled away the final layer of stone covering the mural.

He found a stunning story of creation quite similar to one told in the so-called Dresden Codex, a 13th-century Maya manuscript.

"Now we have basically a whole room that's a codex of creation," said Karl Taube, the project iconographer, based at the University of California, Riverside. "It's like an ancient book, and we can read passages."


The first part of the mural shows the establishment of order to the world.

The world is propped up by trees with roots leading to the underworld and branches holding up the sky, Saturno said.

Four deities, who are representations of the maize god's son, provide a blood sacrifice and a unique offering before each tree.

"The story starts with this deity, who is patron of kings, standing in water. He's running a large spear through his own penis, letting blood. Blood is squirting all over the place," Saturno said.

The sacrificial bloodletting is accompanied by the offering of a fish to represent the watery underworld.

The second offering is a deer to represent the land, the third a turkey representing the sky, and the fourth is the scent of fragrant blossoms wafting from the flowery east.

The east is the direction of paradise and where the sun is reborn every day, Saturno explained.

Next the mural shows the maize god setting up the tree at the center of the world and crowning himself king.

This section of the story traces the maize god's birth, death, and resurrection, which brings sustenance to the world.

The final scene shows a historic coronation of an actual Maya king.

His name and title are written in hieroglyphics. Taube said the writing style is different than that known from later periods, but is nevertheless sophisticated.

By receiving the crown in the company of the gods, the king in the mural likely claimed the right to rule from the gods themselves—not from parents, as did later kings, Saturno said.

Royal Burial

Saturno's colleague, Guatemalan archaeologist Mónica Pellecer Alecio, also found a Maya royal burial dated to 150 B.C. about a mile (1.6 kilometers) from the mural.

The find is further evidence of early kingly rule.

The burial complex contained ceramic and stone figurines as offerings, human bones, and on top of the bones a jade plaque, a symbol of Maya royalty.

"Essentially you have an image on a mural at 100 B.C. of a king, which is one line of evidence for the existence of kings," Saturno said. "Another line of evidence is finding one."

Saturno and his team plan to continue excavating at San Bartolo for years to come.

"This is a tip of iceberg," he said. "The site is one square kilometer [0.4 square mile] in area. This room we've spent so much time in … it's a four-meter-by-nine-meter [13-by-30-foot] space."

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