Archaeologist William Saturno said Tuesday he was awe-struck when he uncovered a Maya mural not seen for nearly two millennia. Discovered at the San Bartolo site in Guatemala, the mural covers the west wall of a room attached to a pyramid, Saturno said at a briefing.
In brilliant color, the mural tells the Maya story of creation, he said. It was painted about 100 B.C., but later covered when the room was filled in.
"It could have been painted yesterday," Saturno said in a briefing organized by the
National Geographic Society, which supported his work and will detail the finding in the January issue of its magazine.
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Archaeologists today revealed the final section of the earliest known Maya mural ever found, saying that the find upends everything they thought they knew about the origins of Maya art, writing, and rule.
The painting was the last wall of a room-size mural to be excavated. The site was discovered in 2001 at the ancient Maya city of San Bartolo in the lowlands of northeastern Guatemala.
"It is really breathtaking how beautiful this is," said William Saturno, an archaeologist with the University of New Hampshire and the Harvard Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.
The mural was painted by skilled artisans and reads like a Maya book, telling the story of creation, the mythology of kingship, and the divine right of a king, according to Saturno, who leads the San Bartolo excavation project.
The painted wall dates to 100 B.C., proving that these stories of creation and kings—and the use of elaborate art and writing to tell them—were well established more than 2,000 years ago ago, centuries earlier than previously believed.
"There are kings, they have art, they have writing," Saturno said. "All these things we attribute to the Classic [Maya period] are all in existence in the Preclassic. Now if we want to talk about origins, we need to be going back further in time."
The Classic period dates from about A.D. 250 to 1000. The Preclassic period dates from about 2000 B.C. to A.D. 250.
Prior to this find, researchers believed sophisticated Maya painting and writing wasn't firmly established until the seventh century A.D.