Arts & Culture

The story behind ‘Storied Walls’

6 min read

Exhibit, talk illuminate Maya mural

In March 2001, Bill Saturno, a newly minted Harvard Ph.D., was in Guatemala searching for recently uncovered hieroglyphics as a research associate of the Peabody Museum. It turned out that his guides were overbooked and his planned expedition had to be canceled. As a sort of consolation prize, the company offered Saturno a three-hour Land Rover ride to San Bartolo in the Peten jungle, an area unexplored by archaeologists, to take a look at a Maya pyramid. Three hours turned into an overnight stay, then an arduous eight-hour hike in 100-degree heat to the pyramid.

Saturno took shelter in a trench dug by looters and trained his flashlight on the wall, exposing a small section of an ancient mural depicting the maize god, a principal figure in the Maya creation myth.

He knew he had found something important: The only other known complete Maya mural was the Bonampak mural, which dates from 800 A.D. and depicts a military scene. He hastened back to Cambridge with photographs, and then he and his colleagues at the Peabody scrambled to get emergency funds to seal the site and guard it until studies could begin.

On March 11, 2008, Saturno left his tent in San Bartolo, where he lives with his wife and three sons during the three-month fieldwork season, took a seven-hour Jeep ride overland to Flores, Guatemala, a plane to Guatemala City, then two more planes, and was in Boston by 1 a.m. on March 13. Saturno arrived at Harvard’s Yenching Institute later that day in time to deliver a talk that evening to launch the new exhibit at the Peabody Museum, “Storied Walls: Murals of the Americas.”


It is almost seven years to the day since Saturno’s remarkable discovery. The mural is now uncovered and opened like a book. It has been photographed with an ordinary desktop flatbed scanner, ideal for the narrow conditions in the trench, and pieced together, then redrawn by Heather Hurst, an archaeological artist, which lends it a startling freshness. Saturno puts an image of it up on a screen and reads it like a Renaissance painting.

The mural is in an odd room with an unknown purpose, 4 meters wide and 9.5 meters long, with five doorways open to the outdoors, and attached to the back of a large pyramid. Perhaps it is a backdrop for a ceremony. It depicts a transfer of power from an avian deity to the maize god. The principal bird deity is seen four times, at the four corners of the world, receiving a sacrifice each time, and losing power with each sacrifice. The sacrificial victims — a deer, a turkey — are remarkably realistic, as are the fountains of blood from the humans’ ritual cutting. At the end of the picture story, the bird is defeated and the maize god is victorious. “It is,” Saturno says, “a divine charter for kingship.” It is similar to the Popul Vuh, the Maya sacred book of the 16th century, but it dates from 100 B.C.

There are still tens of thousands of fragments of painting to study at San Bartolo, says Saturno. There is another mural, with fine detail. In addition, in 2006, a piece of early writing was found at the site (Science, March 2006) in deposits securely dated to 300 to 200 B.C. It is unlike Mayan writing found anywhere else.

Saturno’s discovery has reset the clock on Maya culture and writing, and there is more to come. As Saturno said in concluding his talk, “There are more storied walls in the near future.”


In an interview at his office at Boston University, where he is an assistant professor of archaeology, Saturno says he has had an interesting affirmation. A group of shamans from the small lakeside village of Santiago Atitlan heard of the mural from a North American charity worker, who undertook to fly them by helicopter to San Bartolo. They brought musical instruments and food offerings to the maize deity. “It was the first time in 2100 years that Maya music had been played there,” said the delighted archaeologist, “but what they really wanted to know was, why was I chosen to find this mural?”

“I thought about it,” Saturno said, “and then I thought — I knew how to excavate using tunnels. I knew the archaeological illustrator, the importance of conservation; I had the tools to interpret the mural. I had a team from my thesis days in Copán to work jointly on this. Few people could have walked in and known what to do. I was not conscious of all I had learned, until I found this and had to deal with it.”

The shamans told Saturno that they dream of him, and they dream that he will find many more things.


In “Storied Walls: Murals of the Americas,” the sparkling new Peabody exhibit, visitors can see a video of Heather Hurst, the archaeological illustrator, drawing the San Bartolo mural. The mural, in digital scans in real size, is pieced together on the wall. There is the modern, painterly reconstruction by Hurst and a diorama of the room, as well as a video of Saturno navigating his blue Jeep through jungle mud. The famous statue of the maize deity, from the Peabody expedition of 1895 to Copán (Honduras) stands guard over all, as if to remind us of the Peabody’s long involvement in Maya archaeology.

The exhibit gives equal attention to four different murals and their contexts, sites that have long been studied and supported by the Peabody Museum: San Bartolo, Guatemala; Bonampak, Mexico; the ancient Hopi pueblo of Awatovi in Arizona; and the northern coast of Peru. Sam Tager, the designer of the exhibit, has assigned the wall of each section its own color (red oxide for San Bartolo).

“We wanted to have an exhibition about the pre-Columbian world that visitors don’t usually see,” explains Jeffrey Quilter, deputy director of curatorial affairs. “It is very difficult to access murals because they are mostly in situ. New technology for recording and examining the murals and replicating them is now feasible to do in an accurate and interesting way.”

For example, the Bonampak mural, one of the most magnificent artistic creations in the Americas, is shown in several versions, the latest painted in 2004 after infrared photography revealed new detail.

“It’s Peabody research in action, “ says Pamela Gerardi, the Peabody’s director of external relations. “Each of the four sections had its own curator. What binds the choice of subjects is Peabody involvement.”