Published: January 2006
Dawn of Maya Gods and Kings
A stunning 2,000-year-old mural at Guatemala's San Bartolo site is rewriting Maya history.
By William Saturno

The two artists worked by torchlight and morning sunshine. Perhaps they were twins, like the twin artist-scribes of Maya myth, although their styles were distinct. Certainly they had trained for their task since youth, copying images and text from the accordion-fold books that held the sacred stories. Now, under their brushstrokes, the gods and their acts of creation burst to life on polished plaster.

Spanning at least two walls of a room at the base of a pyramid, the result was a masterpiece with two purposes: to honor the gods and to illustrate the divine right of a king. The first made it timeless; the second, short-lived. After only a few decades the room was buried beneath a larger pyramid, a monument to a new ruler in the ancient city we know as San Bartolo. There the paintings remained, hidden in the Guatemalan jungle, for more than 2,000 years before those divine faces again met human eyes. I was the fortunate one to uncover the mural, which reveals not only the great antiquity of Maya painting but also the long endurance of the Maya stories of creation.

The project began in March 2001 with a stroke of pure luck, when I ducked into a trench looters had cut into the pyramid. My gaze fell on the face of the maize god looking over his shoulder at a beautiful maiden. I longed to see the rest of the mural, but it took two years of planning to ensure that further excavation wouldn't damage it. In March 2003 I began to dig a narrow tunnel inside the mural room, paralleling its longest remain- ing wall. I left a veneer of mortar and stone covering the paintings to protect them. When the tunnel was finished, I began to chisel away the remaining stones.

It was as if an ancient Maya book had been spread open before me, recounting the birth of the Maya cosmos from the gods' loins.

Aspects of the story were familiar from two much later manuscripts: the 13th-century Dresden Codex and the 16th-century Popol Vuh. But these paintings, more than a thousand years older, told the same tale—with startling grace and sophistication. Clearly Maya painting had achieved glory centuries before the great works of the Classic Maya, in the 7th century. In Western terms, it was like knowing only modern art and then stumbling on a Michelangelo or a Leonardo.

The far end of the mural held another surprise. Some scholars thought that at this early stage in Maya history, the Preclassic, city-states had not yet evolved into full-fledged monarchies, with all the trappings seen later. But here was a king, named and titled, receiving his crown. In short, this one chamber upended much of what we thought we knew about the early Maya.

Almost a mile west of the painted room lay an actual king—the earliest known Maya royal burial. Last year Guatemalan archaeologist Mónica Pellecer Alecio dug beneath a small pyramid and found signs of a sealed tomb. Hearing rumors of looters working only five miles away, her crew excavated 24 hours a day, sleeping in shifts.

Just after 2 a.m. on the third day, 20 workmen used a giant wooden lever cut from the forest to wrest away the heavy capstones. Beneath lay the bones of a man, with offerings including a delicate frog-shaped bowl and a vase bearing an effigy of Chac, the rain god. On the man's chest rested a concave jade plaque—a symbol of Maya royalty.

After 2,000 years, the power of the ancient gods and kings seemed intact: Just as the team removed the dead king's Chac effigy, the clouds opened and the region's worst dry season in a decade came to an end.