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Portrait of the Past

Excavating the Pre-Classic Maya Murals at San Bartolo

By Laura Harbold | HUMANITIES, November/December 2006 | Volume 27, Number 6

When archaeologist William Saturno went to Guatemala six years ago, nothing worked out the way he planned. None of the local guides could take him to see the carved monuments he wanted to research, leaving him with nothing to do.

"Not being particularly good at sitting around and twiddling my thumbs," Saturno says, he decided to investigate a rumor that three hieroglyphic Maya monuments had been uncovered by looters in the jungle nearby.

According to the map, Saturno and his guides could reach the monument site by driving forty kilometers and then trekking on foot through the jungle. At the beginning of the road that would take them to the site, however, Saturno's team encountered a sign that read "Camino en mal estado." The sign itself was falling apart, Saturno says. "That should have been an indication of what we were in for."

After an arduous, twenty-two-hour journey, the group finally arrived at the San Bartolo site, which wasn't the one they were looking for. Exhausted and dehydrated, Saturno ducked into a looter's trench to escape the oppressive heat. "I shone my flashlight up on the wall," he says, "and there was the mural."

Saturno made his discovery in March 2001 but kept the discovery under wraps until he could register the site with the Guatemalan authorities and secure funding to work on it. His supporters include the National Geographic Society and NEH, which provided a three-year grant.

The image that Saturno's flashlight had illuminated turned out to be only a fraction of a complex narrative unfolding across the walls of a large stone chamber. Dated about 100 B.C.E., the murals are the earliest known examples of Maya painting. The discovery suggests a level of sophistication in pre-Classic Maya culture previously unsuspected by archaeologists. "Things are a lot more complicated than we thought," Saturno says.

The murals, which depict the Maya creation myth, run along two walls of the nine-by-four-meter chamber. "One of the things that's neat about these murals is that they imply a sort of narrative tradition," Saturno says. "It looks like a Maya screenfold book just unfolded and painted on the wall. You see the page breaks; you can tell where the gutter is." Because the murals depict a cyclical, epic tradition, Saturno says, you can start at any corner and read from left to right.

According to Karl Taube, iconographer for the San Bartolo project, the murals represent an early version of a myth that dominated Maya culture for fifteen hundred years. In the first scene, a man stands in water, sacrificing a fish to the principle bird deity, who perches in the first "world tree." In the second scene, a man stands on land, offering a deer to a second bird in the second world tree; in the third, he floats in the air, presenting a turkey; in the fourth, he hovers in a field of flowers, offering incense. The four trees represent the four cardinal directions or levels of the cosmos: the underworld, the earth, the sky, and the afterlife.

In the final scene, the Maya maize god stands in front of a fifth world tree, establishing the center of the universe. The bird deity lies slain at the bottom of the tree, dispatched for his arrogance and vanity. The maize god crowns himself king, wearing a headdress made from the body of the bird. The wooden scaffold upon which he sits is the same throne depicted in the coronation of Maya kings for centuries, Taube says.

Another series of murals depicts the life cycle of the maize god-his birth in water, his emergence from the earth bearing the harvest, his death represented by diving back into the water, and his resurrection and second coronation. "The whole narrative leads to the coronation of a named individual," Saturno says, establishing the maize god as the foundation of Maya kingship.

The depiction of the maize god in the San Bartolo murals is surprising because of its similarity to later, geographically disparate examples of Maya iconography, Saturno says. "We have this depiction of the bird deity at 100 B.C.E. and see an almost identical carved version of the same bird a thousand miles away in the Pacific highlands of Mexico," he says. The similarity suggests regular circulation of artwork and ideas among Maya cities in the pre-Classic period.

"Archaeologists used to believe that the pivotal aspects of Maya civilization began first in the highlands and moved to the lowlands," Saturno says. "Because of San Bartolo, talking about a singular point of origin and migration doesn't work anymore."

The San Bartolo murals also suggest a staggering longevity of ideas in Mesoamerican culture. According to William Fash, director of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography at Harvard University, "the depiction of the maize god is very Olmec, indicating that Olmec imagery continued to circulate even after the cities were ruined." The Olmec, considered the mother culture of Mesoamerica, flourished circa 1200 to 400 B.C.E.

Similar imagery of the maize god appears in the only four extant Maya books, dated in the late post-Classic period around the sixteenth century C.E. Various incarnations of the Maya creation myth may therefore have existed in Mesoamerica for more than two thousand years, Taube says.

Considering their age, the San Bartolo representations of the maize god are remarkably well-preserved. While contemporary murals were destroyed by fluctuations in the jungle climate, which caused their stone canvases to expand and crack apart, the San Bartolo murals were more fortunate, Saturno explains. In antiquity, the Maya destroyed two of the four walls of the chamber to make way for further building. It was this demolition, ironically, that secured the preservation of the remaining paintings. Sealed underground, the chamber maintained a relatively stable temperature and humidity for two thousand years.

Before Saturno began excavation, he and his team spent two years monitoring the environment to determine whether their presence, and the damage done by looters, had destabilized the chamber. Remarkably, however, the environment remained constant. "It's just lucky," Saturno says.

Although the chamber can accommodate scientific visitation, "touristic visitation would guarantee its destruction," Saturno cautions. "We're documenting it meticulously so that people can experience a replica rather than disturbing the real thing."

A large part of the documentation consists of scale reproductions of the murals by Heather Hurst, an archaeological illustrator. "The reproductions are the most scientific representations we have because they remove the distraction of surface degradation," Hurst says. Due to the narrowness of the tunnels, it is impossible for the excavation team to view the whole mural at once. The reproductions allow for comprehensive examinations of the paintings, she says.

Hurst works from photographs, scans, and tracings made by suspending a piece of clear acetate in front of the murals. However, she says, it's much easier to work with the murals in person because she can see details that fail to appear in the photographs. "It's like looking at an old dollar bill," Hurst says. "Even if it was obscured, you would know where the lines are supposed to be. When I'm looking at a photograph of the murals, I can't tell what's paint and what's dirt."

Although Hurst paints with watercolors rather than the mineral pigments used by the Maya, she is careful to match the colors exactly. The application of color is very flat and simplified, but the murals are "difficult to reproduce because they're so pure," Hurst says. "It's almost like trying to copy Japanese calligraphy. The character of the strokes means a lot." She spends much of her time with the murals measuring the width of lines and the spaces between the lines. "The details are what capture the real thing," she says.

The competence with which the paintings were executed suggests that the artist, or artists, were well trained before beginning work on the murals, suggests Mary Miller, Maya art historian at Yale University. "It's striking how confident the paintings are, how beautiful they are, their quality of line," she says. "We respond to them. They are a bridge to the past which is unusually moving."

For Saturno and his team, the next step is reassembling thousands of mural fragments from the two chamber walls destroyed by the Maya more than a millennium ago. "There's a whole other half of the narrative to piece together," he says.

"One of the most exciting things about San Bartolo is that it suggests that there are a lot more of these things out there," Saturno says. His team has already discovered another room close to the original chamber containing more than ten thousand fragments of a mural with finer lines and a color palette more complex than that of the original painting. "People are going to be working on San Bartolo long after my lifetime," Saturno predicts.

According to Fash, the sophistication of the San Bartolo paintings suggests that the term "pre-Classic" might be a misnomer. "These murals are actually some of the most beautiful in all of Mesoamerica. It's silly to call them pre-anything. They've astounded everyone."

Laura Harbold is a writer in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

William Saturno, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of New Hampshire, received $210,000 in NEH funding for the excavation, documentation, preservation, and interpretation of the Maya murals at San Bartolo in Guatemala.