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A detail from a sacred Maya mural at San Bartolo - the earliest known Maya painting, depicting the birth of the cosmos and the divine right of a king - shows the son of the maize god, patron of kings, floating with a pair of birds tied to his woven hunting basket and offering a sacrificed turkey before one of five cosmic trees. The 30-foot-long mural dates from around 100 B.C. (Photo by Kenneth Garrett © National Geographic)

Three weeks in tiny tunnel pay off

Maya creation mural makes toil worth the trouble

By Alvin Powell
Harvard News Office

After three weeks in a tiny tunnel 50 feet below an ancient Maya pyramid in the Guatemalan jungle, Peabody researcher Bill Saturno finally got to view his prize. Fine lines and dramatic colors emerged from the tunnel's gloom, depicting a story of the gods who created the Maya world.

"It's really like a Mayan book opens up," Saturno said of the mural. "I was awestruck by its state of preservation."

Pellecer Alecio, Saturno
Guatemalan archaeologist Mónica Pellecer Alecio takes a green stone figurine from the oldest known Maya royal tomb, dating from about 150 B.C. and found at San Bartolo, an ancient Maya ceremonial site in Guatemala. Assisting her is San Bartolo project director William Saturno, research associate of Harvard's Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. (Photo by Kenneth Garrett © National Geographic)

The 30-foot mural depicts the patron god of kings making sacrifices at the four trees that Maya mythology say are holding up the corners of the world. The Maya maize god then emerges and sets up the fifth tree in the center, completing the world's creation. Then, the mural depicts the Maize god's birth, death, and rebirth, and ends with the coronation of a king, who Saturno said could be a flesh-and-blood king at San Bartolo.

National Geographic map

The find is the latest groundbreaking discovery at San Bartolo, an ancient Maya site stumbled upon by Saturno while on a field expedition for the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology's Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions in 2001.

Saturno, a research associate at the Peabody and assistant professor of anthropology at the University of New Hampshire, had planned to examine hieroglyphics at known ruins in the area during that 2001 trip. But a mix-up in plans had him heading to unknown San Bartolo.

After an arduous two-day journey, Saturno was dismayed that San Bartolo held none of the hieroglyphics he had been seeking. Instead, the site contained several monuments and numerous trenches and tunnels dug by looters on the lookout for burial chambers and artifacts.

While seeking shade in a looters' tunnel before heading back, serendipity played a hand. Saturno shone his flashlight on the tunnel wall and saw the corner of a painted mural.

That initial find, announced in 2002, pushed back the earliest date of Maya wall painting by 700 years and began to shed new light on the Maya's preclassic period, which runs from roughly 2000 B.C. to A.D. 250.

On Tuesday (Dec. 13), Saturno and Guatemalan archaeologist Monica Pellecer Alecio announced new finds at San Bartolo. Saturno described the 30-foot mural adorning the back wall of the mural room he initially found in 2001. Alecio described her own find of the earliest known Maya royal tomb, containing what is believed to be the body of a king. The finds will be described in the January issue of National Geographic magazine. National Geographic is partly funding the research.

pyramid cutaway view
This cut-out view of the pyramid complex at San Bartolo shows the mural room located at the base (bottom center) of the pyramid. The room's recently excavated west wall, adorned with the earliest preserved Maya mural, abuts the edge of the pyramid. (Art by Vlad Dumitrascu © National Geographic)

San Bartolo lies in Guatemala's northeastern Peten region, which was thickly settled during the Maya's Preclassic Period but is largely jungle today. The site covers about 1 square kilometer and contains about 140 buildings.

The larger buildings, ball courts, and monuments were probably built beginning in 400 B.C. with the city abandoned at around A.D. 100. It was reoccupied several hundred years later, Saturno said, with people resettling the area and many residential structures being built between A.D. 600 and 700.

The large mural uncovered by Saturno was probably designed to be the room's centerpiece. It adorned what was the room's long back wall, across from the doorway. Despite the years of painstaking work, the room is still only 30 percent excavated, Saturno said.

Carbon dating of the murals indicate they are roughly 200 years older than initially thought, Saturno said, dating to about 100 B.C. Saturno said carbon dating has dated the remains in the royal tomb to about 150 B.C., putting it roughly contemporary with the drawings in the mural room and making it at least possible that the king being crowned in the mural is the same person buried in the tomb.

greenstone figurine
This green stone figurine was found with other artifacts at San Bartolo in the oldest known Maya royal tomb, dating from about 150 B.C. (Photo by Kenneth Garrett © National Geographic)

"Mythic and material evidence of kings are showing up at the same time," Saturno said. "It could be our guy [in the tomb]. It could be our guy's dad."

The two murals already uncovered are all that is to be found in the mural room, Saturno said. Following the traditional Maya practice of building new buildings on top of older ones, the other two walls were broken down to rubble to help fill the room before the new construction began. Bits of other murals are all around, he said, but it will be a long process to reconstruct them, if it can ever be done.

"This is the end of the standing murals. The rest will take years to put back together, if ever," Saturno said.

The murals contain legible writing, but the symbols predate Maya writing that scholars understand by 300 to 400 years. Saturno said a few symbols are known - the ones for king and "Lord Starman" for one of the deities depicted - but the rest will have to await future deciphering.

Much of the work uncovering the murals was done by Saturno and a Guatemalan associate, Humberto Amador, an expert at working in tunnels at digs. The initial looters' tunnel ran along the mural room's 4-meter-long north wall. Saturno and Amador dug a trench outside along the east wall and then re-entered the building in the middle of that wall. They dug until they reached the long west wall, where the creation mural announced Tuesday was discovered.

Saturno said he and Amador spent three to four weeks during 2004 working in a tunnel just 1 meter by 11/2 meters in diameter, uncovering the new mural. They dug all but a thin layer of dirt and rock away from the face. Then they called in wall painting experts to make sure the final removal didn't accidentally damage the mural.

"We were on our knees for three weeks to a month," Saturno said. "It's sort of a rock by rock operation. The excavation of the mural took another one and a half to two weeks."

Though researchers know a lot more about the room than they did initially, they still don't know its purpose, Saturno said. It is large enough that several people could fit inside so it could be used for teaching. Its location at the bottom back of the pyramid suggests it could also have been used as a preparation chamber for the king before ceremonies.

Saturno said new finds will keep him busy at San Bartolo for several more years. A second mural room flanking the initial one was found this year. Though the murals inside have been destroyed, Saturno said researchers believe a third room may exist. In addition, he said, researchers recently found 9,000 mural shards in a small area in the front of the pyramid, probably from a mural that had initially rested high up on the structure.

San Bartolo indicates that the Maya practice of wall painting - and writing for that matter - stretch much further back in time than thought just a few years ago. While San Bartolo provides concrete evidence that the practice was going on at around 100 B.C., the quality of the painting indicates it was already a highly developed art by then.

"We know looking at it that this isn't the first mural [the Maya painted]," Saturno said. "[And] you don't develop writing by plaster wall calligraphy. This is like finding out that a Renaissance happened. We know there's this florescence, but where are the Dark Ages?"


Related stories:

  • Oldest Mayan mural found by Peabody researcher
    Jungle ordeal leads to surprise treasure

  • Pathway to the Past
    Mayan staircase project preserves ancient history

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