Harvard Team Discovers Mayan Murals

A team of Harvard-led archeologists in Guatemala have discovered a section of what they say appears to be the oldest intact example of Mayan wall murals.

The archeological team, headed by Peabody Museum Researcher William Saturno, discovered the mural in the ruins of a previously unknown Mayan ceremonial site at San Bartolo in northeastern Guatemala last summer. The find was first announced to the public last Wednesday.

“The painting is really in excellent condition,” said David Stuart, a senior lecturer in Harvard’s anthropology department, who has joined Saturno on subsequent visits to the site.

“The only problem might be the poor condition of the plaster; it crumbles easily when we work with it,” he said.

So far only a few feet of the painting has been uncovered, but the quality is surprisingly good considering the artifact’s age, according to Stuart. The mural promises to provide insights into the Maya civilization, especially with respect to their myths and courtly customs.

“It’s like having the Sistine Chapel, but only finding a couple of feet of it,” Stuart said.

So far, the exposed portion of the painting seems to depict religious ceremony, he said. Stuart identified most of the visible figures as deities of some form, including a vibrant depiction of the maize god.

Excavation of the areas surrounding the wall will commence later this spring, and preliminary findings will be released in the April issue of National Geographic magazine.

There is only one other known piece of Maya wall painting, and its quality is vastly inferior to the new piece, Stuart said. By comparing the two artifacts, archeologists have concluded that the new mural predates all other existing Mayan art by at least 500 years.

Stuart said that the only reason such an ancient artifact survived in good condition was that the Maya buried the mural under another religious pyramid.

Scholars have high hopes for what they can learn from the new painting.

By applying their prior accumulated knowledge of the Maya culture, scholars will be able to draw new ideas about the culture, according to Rudenstine Professor of the Study of Latin America and Anthropology Professor David L. Carrasco.

“The most effective interpretations of these discoveries come when we are able to use an ‘ensemble’ approach, i.e. which first means being able to relate the mural’s images, location and age to the social and geographical context,” he wrote in an e-mail.