Oldest Preserved Maya Mural
Reveals Mythology Of Kings And Highly Developed Hieroglyphs
Earliest Known Maya Royal Tomb Also
Found at Guatemalan Site
Contact: Erika Mantz
UNH Media Relations
Dec. 13, 2005
Editors: A bio of William Saturno is available; contact Erika
Mantz. For photographs, contact National Geographic picture editor
Eduardo Rubiano, firstname.lastname@example.org,
(202) 857-7760. B roll is available.
WASHINGTON/GUATEMALA CITY — Archaeologists at an ancient Maya
ceremonial site in Guatemala have uncovered the final wall of a
large Maya mural dating from 100 B.C. that shows the mythology surrounding
the origin of kings and a highly developed hieroglyphic script.
Before the excavation of the vividly painted mural, there was scant
evidence of the existence of early Maya kings or of their use of
elaborate art and writing to establish their right to rule.
The site, known as San Bartolo, contains a pyramid complex and several
buried rooms. To the west of the pyramid where the mural room was
discovered, archaeologists led by Guatemalan Mónica Pellecer
Alecio found the oldest known Maya royal burial, from around 150
B.C. The latest finds at the site will be reported in the January
2006 issue of National Geographic magazine.
Project director William Saturno, of the University of New Hampshire
and Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology,
said the mural room’s recently excavated west wall is a masterpiece
of ancient Maya art that reveals the story of creation, the mythology
of kingship and the divine right of a king. The 30-foot by 3-foot
west wall mural shows two coronation scenes — one mythological,
the other the coronation of a real king.
Archaeologists have determined the mural is about 200 years older
than originally thought. As previously announced, Saturno found
the mural room in 2001 through sheer chance. To seek some shade,
he had ducked into a trench that looters had cut into the unexcavated
pyramid, and when he shone his flashlight on the walls, he saw the
mural. Saturno and his team are now in the midst of a five-year
project to uncover the mural and reveal its story.
“In Western terms, it’s like knowing only modern art
and then stumbling on a Michelangelo or a Leonardo,” Saturno,
36, said. “With its fine painting and its elaborate mural
showing the mythic basis of kingship, the chamber has upended much
of what we thought we knew about the early Maya. The mural shows
that early Maya painting had achieved a high level of sophistication
and grace well before the great works of the Classic Maya in the
The mural is wonderfully preserved. Parts of it look like they were
painted yesterday, Saturno noted.
The work at San Bartolo has been supported by grants from the National
Geographic Society, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the
Peabody Museum, the Annenberg Foundation and the Reinhart Foundation.
The work is authorized by the Guatemalan Institute of Anthropology
“It is in the interest of the Guatemalan state to support
the archaeological research, the mural restoration and conservation
program undertaken by Dr. Saturno and his team. We are also interested
in implementing a conservation project with the objective of preserving
the murals,” said Ervin S. Lòpez Aguilar, director
of the Department of Prehispanic Monuments.
The first part of the west wall mural shows the establishment of
order to the world. Four deities, variations of the same figure
— the son of the maize god — provide a blood sacrifice
and an offering in four cardinal directions as they set up the physical
world. The deities move through the Maya universe. The first god
stands in the water and offers a fish, establishing the watery underworld.
The second stands on the ground and sacrifices a deer, establishing
the land. The third floats in the air, offering a turkey, thereby
establishing the sky; and the fourth stands in a field of flowers,
offering fragrant blossoms, the food of gods, and establishing paradise
in the east, where the sun is reborn daily.
The next section of the mural shows the maize god establishing the
world center and crowning himself king upon a wooden scaffold. The
final section traces his birth, death and resurrection, bringing
sustenance to the world. The last scene shows a historic coronation
of a Maya king, named and titled, receiving his headdress from an
attendant. By acceding to the throne in the company of gods, the
mural likely shows the king is claiming the divine right to rule
from the gods themselves.
Project iconographer Karl Taube of the University of California,
Riverside, said the San Bartolo murals provide an unparalleled view
of the early development of Maya mythology and art. “All too
often such carvings are broken or heavily eroded,” he said.
“In contrast, the murals at San Bartolo are in brilliant polychrome
and extend for many meters along the chamber walls. Elaborate red
spirals indicate wind, breath and aroma and can be seen exhaling
from the mouths of serpents and other beings, and at the edge of
bird wings to denote movement. The maize god appears no less than
seven times in the currently exposed portion of the mural, giving
us an unprecedented understanding of his attributes and mythology
at this early date.”
Although painted almost 1,500 years after the San Bartolo murals,
the Maya book known as the Dresden Codex features a very similar
sequence of directional trees and sacrificial offerings.
Because the surviving glyphs within the mural room date to centuries
before most other Maya texts (of the Classic period), they remain
hard to read. David Stuart, Schele Professor of Mesoamerican Art
& Writing at the University of Texas at Austin, who is working
on deciphering them, says they are probably captions for the figures
they accompany. One legible example from the west wall shows one
of the sacrificing young gods named by his accompanying caption
as “star man.” “It’s enigmatic, but emphasizes
his cosmological role within the larger creation myth represented,”
About a mile from the mural room, Mónica Pellecer Alecio’s
team of archaeologists excavated beneath a small pyramid and found
a vaulted tomb under heavy capstones, likely the burial place of
one of the early Maya kings. The tomb contained a burial complex.
The first part housed five ceramic vessels; the second, some human
bones and six ceramic vessels; the third, the bones of a man, with
a jade plaque — the symbol of Maya royalty — on his
chest, plus a large, green stone figurine and seven vessels, including
a delicate frog-shaped bowl and a vase bearing an effigy of the
rain god Chac.
During the past year, archaeologists working nearby the mural room
have found remains of two other rooms, one that faced the mural
room and one on top of the pyramid, as well as thousands of mural
fragments, more than 9,000 from a small excavation near the top
room alone. In these fragments, the painting is finer and the figures
smaller and more intricate. Saturno and his team hope to be able
to piece the fragments together to get a sense of what these murals
“The artistic and physical evidence of the Maya’s earliest
kings revealed at San Bartolo is among the most important finds
in Maya archaeology in the last few decades,” Saturno said.
“It has opened a window into the very origins of Maya civilization.
As we excavate the site further and piece together more images and
glyphs from the mural fragments we have discovered, new surprises
could be revealed.”