December 13, 2005

Wall of Mayan ‘Sistine Chapel’ Unveiled

By Mica Rosenberg

GUATEMALA CITY -- Buried in a tunnel deep in Guatemala's northern jungle, archeologists have uncovered the final and most elaborate wall of a 2,000-year-old Mayan mural, likened to the Vatican's Sistine Chapel by its finder.

Archeologist William Saturno, of the University of New Hampshire, first discovered the sacred mural in the ruins of the city of San Bartolo in 2001 and this year excavated the "crown jewel" of the painting.

The wall proves that the ancient Maya, known for their prowess in astronomy and mathematics, employed the same royal coronation rites for some 800 years.

The Mayans dominated southern Mexico and parts of Central America for some 1,500 years, building advanced civilizations, until the Spanish conquered them 500 years ago. Millions of Mayan Indians still live in the region.

The western wall of the underground room, from around 100 BC, depicts the Mayan creation myth and the coronation of a king, with more colors and elaborate brush work than had ever been seen in Mayan artwork.

"It was like discovering the Sistine Chapel if you didn't know there had been a Renaissance," Saturno said in a teleconference on Tuesday.

"It's like knowing only modern art and then stumbling on the finger of God touching the hand of Adam," he said.

The wall, which measures 30 feet by 3 feet (0.9 meter), is part of a mural showing the birth, death and resurrection of the maize god's son pictured four times with different animals offering a blood sacrifice from his genitals.

First, he stands in water with a fish, then on land with a deer, next in the air with a turkey and then finally in a flowery paradise.


The newly crowned Mayan king is depicted at the end of the mural.

"The coronation is in the same style as the ceremony that takes place during the Classic Maya period," of 600-700 AD, Saturno said. "You see the same crown shown for the next 800 years."

Painted in grayish blues, oranges and flesh tones, the western wall's elaborate designs signal it was the centerpiece of the room, possibly used as a preparation site for royal offerings.

Monica Pellecer, a Guatemalan archeologist working with Saturno on the National Geographical Society-sponsored expedition, excavated the earliest known burial site of Mayan kings just a mile from the mural this year.

She discovered the bones of a man wearing a jade plaque around his neck, a symbol of Mayan royalty. The bones, from 150 BC, are surrounded by seven vessels including a frog-shaped bowl and a vase with the image of the Mayan rain god Chac.

The ancient city lies 32 miles from the nearest town on inaccessible roads and far from drinking water. Saturno first discovered the mural in 2001 by accident while looking for another site.

After traveling for days with little food and no water, he stumbled into a looters' tunnel to find some shade. When he looked up, delirious from dehydration, he saw the northern wall of the mural complex.

Saturno said San Bartolo is older than the famed ruins at nearby Tikal but in its heyday was comparable in size.

"We keep finding new surprises at the San Bartolo site," said Salvador Lopez, director of Mayan monuments at Guatemala's Ministry of Culture. "We are going to make sure it is preserved for future generations."