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Sistine Chapel of the Early Maya

William Saturno is living an archaeologist's dream. Bit by bit, he's unveiling the most elaborate depiction of Maya origins ever discovered, a mural that shows the first known portrayal of the corn god's journey from the underworld to Earth—shattering the time line of early Maya art.

Two years ago in San Bartolo, Guatemala, Saturno spotted a slice of the mural while seeking shade in a looters' trench dug into an unexcavated pyramid. The four-foot-long (one-meter-long) fragment showed the intricate ornaments and muscled thighs of the corn god, a mythic Maya figure. Suspecting that more of the painting lay behind rubble that filled the dark room, Saturno vowed to return.

In 2002 he mapped the site, and in March of this year he began excavation. Working long hours until his arms ached, he gingerly chipped away at the rocks that obscured the mural. Precision was crucial: Removing the wrong stone could cause walls to collapse, harming Saturno or the painting. As the room cleared, black outlines and pigments of red and yellow appeared—the creatures and faces of a lost world.

"The first figure we uncovered was the woman with tamales, in gorgeous Technicolor," says Saturno. "I immediately fell in love." The mystery woman wasn't alone. She and others join the corn god on the back of a mighty serpent emerging from a sacred mountain. "The Maya were probably trying to portray the origin of maize and people," says project iconographer Karl Taube of the University of California, Riverside. "It's the Sistine Chapel of the pre-Classic Maya world, the most elaborate creation scene before the Classic period."

Scholars had believed that the corn god myth first appeared in the Classic period, which started around
A.D. 250. But artists created this mural before A.D. 100, proving, says Taube, that "this myth is more ancient than we thought."

Precise brushstrokes, perfectly formed geometric shapes, and lifelike figures lead Saturno to believe that Maya art also began to develop much earlier than
A.D. 100. "This mural wasn't a practice run, it was a masterpiece." Yet it appeared in a relatively small Maya town with only a few thousand people. "If San Bartolo had murals this early," says Saturno, "everybody had them."

What else will this priceless mural teach? Not even half-finished with his work, Saturno will soon return to resume chiseling. Until then, more clues to early Maya life remain sealed.

—Carol Kaufmann

Web Links

San Bartolo Maya Mural Project
Learn about the special technology used in the excavation along with the process of conserving the mural once it is uncovered.

Harvard University Peabody Museum
View more pictures of the mural and explanations of the characters on it
at this Harvard University website.

Another significant Maya mural site, Mexico's Bonampak is discussed on
this Yale University website.

National Geographic News
Read more about Saturno's discovery of the mural, and what other Maya experts are saying about it.

Free World Map

Coe, Michael D. The Maya (Ancient Peoples and Places). Thames and Hudson,
Freidel, David, and Linda Schele. A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of
the Ancient Maya.
Quill, reprint edition, 1992.


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