Excavation by UNH Archaeologist
Featured in National Geographic
Contact: Erika Mantz
UNH Media Relations
December 1, 2003
Editors: Electronic images are available from Christopher
Pollock, picture editor, National Geographic Communications, at
202-857-7760 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
William Saturno, assistant professor of anthropology, is available
DURHAM, N.H. -- The excavation and preservation of what is being
called the “Sistine Chapel” of the pre-Classic Maya
world by University of New Hampshire archaeologist William Saturno
is documented in the December issue of National Geographic.
Two years after Saturno first uncovered a slice of the oldest known
intact wall painting of Maya mythology while seeking refuge from
the hot sun in the jungle of San Bartolo, Guatemala, he returned
last spring and continued to chip away at the rubble packed around
the red and yellow mural that portrays the most elaborate depiction
of Maya origins ever discovered. It is the first known portrayal
of the corn God's journey from the underworld to Earth, and it completely
reshapes how researchers look at later mythology.
Maya mural found in Guatemala
“Imagine you didn't know the Sistine Chapel existed or that
the stories of Christianity extended back that long ago” Saturno
says, “and then one day you poke through the roof and see
the finger of God touching the finger of Adam. What we've found
is the Sistine Chapel of the pre-Classic Maya world.”
The mural is 2,000 years old, hundreds of years older than what
anyone thought existed. “We're seeing things that are not
supposed to be around,” says Saturno, including the earliest
printed inscription, one so old that no one knows how to read it.
And what's even more amazing, he says, is that this is all being
discovered in an area he describes as small and insignificant. “This
was never an important place in the grand scheme of things. It's
obvious that there was a long and developed history in place before
this was painted.”
Saturno, assistant professor of anthropology at UNH, spends close
to half of every year in Guatemala, some in the tunnel originally
dug by looters, working over his head in a space so tight there
is no room for him to wear a protective helmet and the rest in a
lab, analyzing broken pieces of the mural. The mural is in a small
building that was added on to the back of a pyramid, Saturno says.
What the building was used for remains an unanswered question.
Loosening 100-pound rocks with a small pick the size of a hammer,
he has uncovered the entire north wall, about three feet on the
west wall and three of the four corners. He believes the mural ran
around all four walls totaling nearly 90 feet, and although some
sections were destroyed to build a second pyramid over the original
structure, Saturno says he hopes to piece the entire mural together
over the next five years.
“I'm itching to go back,” he confesses. “I think
about it every day. For every question I answer there are five more,
and our trip back in January can't come soon enough.”