WASHINGTON (March 14, 2002)–The oldest known intact wall painting of Maya mythology, dating from about A.D. 100, has been discovered within an 80-foot-high pyramid at the ruins of San Bartolo, a Maya ceremonial site in Guatemala. Unknown to archaeologists until now, the site lies in a large tract of uninhabited rain forest in northeastern Guatemala. Research on the mural is funded by the National Geographic Society’s Committee for Research and Exploration.
Archaeologist William Saturno found the pristine, 4-foot-long mural section in a small structure attached to one of the site’s earlier pyramids. Stylistic comparisons with pre-Classic Maya art, along with associated ceramic and architectural remains, confirm that the mural is the earliest intact wall painting known from the Maya region. The Maya pre-Classic period dates from around 2000 B.C. to A.D. 250.
“This painting is among the most important finds in Maya archaeology in the last few decades,” said Saturno. “It opens a window into the mythological and courtly life of the ancient Maya during the pre-Classic period.”
Prior to this discovery, which is reported in the April 2002 issue of National Geographic magazine, no early mural of comparable size or state of preservation had ever been found. The only previously known paintings from this time period are from Tikal, one of the largest Maya ceremonial and political centers discovered in Guatemala.
Although some of the visible imagery from the Tikal paintings has helped to determine the date of the San Bartolo mural, the Tikal paintings are not nearly as extensive or as well-preserved as the newly discovered San Bartolo mural.
Despite years of looting at the site over the last decade, the ruins at San Bartolo were unknown to the archaeological community. Saturno believes that looters may have hoped to find opulent late-Classic tombs at San Bartolo. However, the site was likely abandoned by the Maya about A.D. 400, before the advent of artifact-rich pyramid graves. Looters left behind a map showing their extensive tunneling routes.
Saturno, University of New Hampshire lecturer and research associate at Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, had initially set out to verify the existence of two inscribed stelae, or stone monuments, at San Bartolo in the Petén lowlands. Told by local guides that it would take about three hours to reach the site, Saturno and his team were ill-prepared for the almost three-day journey and had little food or water. When the team reached the site, no stelae were found. Disappointed and exhausted, Saturno sought shade in a looter’s trench leading into an unexcavated pyramid. Ducking into a tunnel dug by looters, he aimed a flashlight at the walls.
“I started laughing,” recalls Saturno. “There was this Maya mural, a very rare thing. The looters had cleared off a section and left it. I felt like the luckiest man on the planet.”
Using an emergency grant from National Geographic that was obtained by David Stuart of Harvard University’s Peabody Museum, Saturno returned to the site with archaeologists Stuart and Hector Escobedo from Guatemala’s Universidad del Valle. Together they began preliminary work at the site, focusing on the documentation and conservation of the exposed mural. The mural and its architectural context were drawn and photographed. Chemical analyses of the paints and plasters were begun.
Dimensions of the room containing the mural are unknown, but Saturno and Stuart believe that the exposed panel is only 10 percent of the total painting and that the remaining portion of the mural wraps around the room. The visible portion of the mural shows a remarkable scene with at least nine portraits. All of the people stand or kneel above a complex plane or border, which contains numerous geometric designs and elements. The scene is dominated by a standing male figure who strides toward the viewer’s left, looking back over his shoulder at two kneeling female figures behind him. Behind the women there is evidence of at least three other standing figures.
The exposed wall art may depict a mythological scene identified by iconography expert Karl Taube of the University of California at Riverside as “Dressing of the Corn God.” “But,” cautions Stuart, “the painting is so early that we are not quite sure how to look at it.”
Saturno attributes the painting’s survival and high state of preservation to a protective covering of mud applied to it by the Maya before the room, a sacred space, was “ceremonially killed” by being filled with rubble. Fragments of ceramics found in the rubble have been identified as sierra red and date to the pre-Classic period.
The meaning and full significance of the paintings will become clearer beginning this spring when Saturno launches a five-year project to excavate the site and conserve the art. Until then, guards have been placed there to protect the area. Besides the National Geographic grant, funding for the research was provided by the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions Project of the Peabody Museum at Harvard University with permission from the Instituto de Antropología e Historia.
The April 2002 issue of National Geographic magazine is available on newsstands April 1. For more information on this discovery, log onto www/nationalgeographic.com/ngm. AOL Keyword: NatGeoMag