Originally Published December 14, 2005

Mayan `Sistine Chapel' leaves
archeologist in awe

By Peter Gorner
Tribune science reporter

Archeologists said Tuesday that they had uncovered the final portion of the earliest known Mayan mural ever found, declaring that the find--which dates to 100 B.C.--overturns what was previously known about the origins of Mayan art, writing and royalty.

"It's really breathtaking how beautiful this is," said William Saturno, an archeologist with the University of New Hampshire and the Harvard Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology who discovered the mural in Guatemala.

"I was awestruck by its state of preservation," he said. "Its brilliant colors and fluid lines looked as though they could have been painted yesterday."

Scholars are calling the discovery the "Sistine Chapel" of the Pre-classic Maya world and one of the most significant archeological finds in decades.

Saturno spoke at a briefing organized by the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C. The society came up with emergency funding when the site was discovered, and the magazine has covered the saga from the beginning. The latest research will be featured in the January issue of National Geographic.

"Our original dating of the murals to approximately A.D. 100 was a conservative estimate based largely upon stylistic comparisons," Saturno said. "We now know from the radiocarbon dating of the murals and of the construction and ancient debris that buried them that they more accurately date to 100 B.C."

The 30-foot by 3-foot painting was the last section of a room- size mural to be excavated since the site was discovered in 2001 at the ruins of the Mayan city of San Bartolo in the lowlands of northeastern Guatemala.

The mural was painted with pigments on smooth plaster by skilled artisans who had to work while the plaster was moist.

It tells the story of creation, the mythology of kingship and the divine right of a king. The mural has a highly developed hieroglyphic script, only some of which can be read by scholars, Saturno said.

It features four deities, all of which are variations of the son of the corn god, a young deity and patron of kings, he said. The deities provide a blood sacrifice and an offering in four cardinal directions as they set up the physical world.

The first deity 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, establishing the sky. The fourth stands in a field of flowers, the food of gods, establishing paradise, where the sun is reborn daily.

Corn god depicted

In another section, the corn god crowns himself king while seated on a jaguar skin-covered throne. The final section shows the corn god's birth, death and resurrection before the wall ends with the coronation of a named and titled Mayan king, newly crowned in the company--and presumably the approval--of gods.

Before the excavation of the vividly painted mural, there was little evidence of the existence of early Mayan kings or their use of elaborate art and writing to establish their right to rule. Preclassic Maya civilization had long been viewed as a loosely organized, largely agrarian society.

Archeologists have told of a frustrating paradox: immense cities and monumental architecture, yet little knowledge of society or system of rulership.

The mural proves that these stories of creation and kings--and the elaborate writing and art to tell them--were well-established more than 2,000 years ago, centuries earlier than previously believed.

"All too often, such carvings are broken or heavily eroded," said the project's iconographer Karl Taube, of the University of California at Riverside, whose job it is to identify and interpret the complex imagery appearing on the San Bartolo murals.

"In contrast, the murals at San Bartolo are in brilliant polychrome and extend for many meters along 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 end of bird wings to denote movement."

No one knew the early Maya were capable of such refinement.

Scholars said the discovery will enable archeologists and art historians to change their view of Mayan culture in the Preclassic period, which is dated from about 2000 B.C. to A.D. 250. The Classic period, when Mayan civilization reached its peak, dates from about A.D. 250 to 1000, when the empire mysteriously collapsed.
The find is 700 years older than the only other Mayan wall painting known, a large depiction of battle scenes discovered in 1946 at Bonampak in Mexico.

At first, Saturno's discovery was kept secret so researchers could further evaluate the site and protect it from looters. Guards were hired and are on the scene today.

The mural must remain in place, Saturno said: "To try and move it is to lose it."

Saturno's finding of the mural came about on a trip to the ruins to check out local reports that had suggested Mayan stelae--carved monuments--could be found in the area. The trip had taken 21 hours by vehicle and foot.

Stumbled on treasure

"All we had was Cup-a-Soup instant mix, but no water," Saturno remembers, wryly. "And we found no carved monuments at the site now known as San Bartolo."

San Bartolo covers about 12 acres. Saturno explored the central plaza of the ruins, where a cluster of three mounds faced a large pyramid temple. He noticed a series of tunnels ringing the 80-foot-tall structure, indicating that looters had already been there in search of artifacts.

Eager to escape the heat, Saturno wandered into a looter's tunnel that led to a small building buried beneath the pyramid. He aimed his flashlight at the walls.

"I started laughing," Saturno said, the heat and discomfort instantly forgotten.

"I had accidentally made the discovery of a lifetime--a small portion of a brilliantly painted mural more than 2,000 years old.

"Maya murals are very rare. The looters had cleared off a section and left it. I felt like the luckiest man on the planet."

Nearby, Guatemalan archeologist Monica Pellecer Alecio also found the oldest known Mayan royal burial site, dating to about 150 B.C.

Hearing rumors of looters just 5 miles away, Alecio and colleagues worked around the clock, sleeping in shifts. Digging beneath a small pyramid, scientists unearthed a burial complex that included two effigy vessels (one of a frog, one of the rain god, Chac), a large green stone figure and the bones of a man with a jade plaque--the symbol of Mayan kingship--on his chest.

That serves as further proof of the existence of early Mayan kings, Alecio said.

"In traditional Maya communities today," she said, "there's relevance when people can have an enduring mythology of how the world works."

Saturno's work has yet to be published in a peer-reviewed scientific publication, so some other Maya experts remain cautiously optimistic.

"Many Maya sites were rebuilt, reused and remodeled over centuries, and garbage from those centuries gets mixed in if you don't have careful excavation," said Gary Feinman, chairman and curator of anthropology at the Field Museum.

"I think the level of significance of this find will increase when, and if, the dating of the murals is securely demonstrated to be 100 B.C. That would give us a new perspective of ancient Maya rulership that we just don't have from other evidence."

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Uploaded: 12-22-05