Through the large gash into the darkness of the hill, jewel tones jumped to life under the flashlight beam. No, that couldn’t be right. Surely dehydration was playing tricks on him. After all, American Archaeologist Dr. William Saturno, with the rest of his team of archaeological explorers and native guides, had spent the last three days in the jungle of northern Guatemala with very little food or water.

Their excursion in March 2001 was intended to be a one-day trip to investigate a site where carved stelae (upright monuments) had been discovered by looters. Poor road conditions and a difficult wilderness multiplied the estimated length of the journey and decimated the group’s meager provisions.

After hiking 20 kilometers into San Bartolo—more than triple the estimated 6 kilometers—the group was in rough shape. They stopped at a pyramid disguised as a small hill by centuries of jungle growth. The pyramid was pierced through by a looters’ trench—an unfortunately all-too-common sight.

The group set up camp for the evening and went in search of water. Saturno walked to the rear of the pyramid and shined his flashlight into the dark trench, looking for drips down the walls of the cavernous chamber. Surprisingly, what he found was not a trickle of water but a flood of artistic and cultural insight into ancient Maya theology. Under the beam of his flashlight, painted Maya deities danced the world into creation.

Oldest in the
Maya World

The murals at San Bartolo are a game-changer for Mayanists (scholars who study the Maya) because in the humid climate, discovering intact Maya paintings is very rare. So rare, in fact, that Saturno’s find is one of only a handful of Maya paintings ever discovered—the other significant set being the frescoes at Bonampak, brought to light by British photographer and filmmaker Giles Healey in 1946.

The San Bartolo murals are significant beyond just their rare status, though; they are by far the oldest murals yet discovered in the Maya world. These Pre-Classic murals—circa the first century BC—outdate the Late-Classic Bonampak murals—circa AD 790—by almost nine centuries. Nothing of this scope or artistry has been found from this earlier time period.

Dr. Allen Christenson, renowned Mayanist and translator of the ancient Maya religious text the Popol Vuh, explains, “The next significant fresco cycle would be Tikal in the 300s. San Bartolo predates this by four or five centuries.”

The greatest significance of these murals, however, goes beyond just their age. The murals give something visually that, up until their discovery, was known only in word: they visually depict the creation of the world in Maya theology. While carvings and other records explain the creation story, the San Bartolo murals provide a complete and concrete depiction of the creation in sequence.

Living Ceremony

Understanding Maya theology is essential for appreciating the theological significance of these murals. Maya theology is cyclical: the world is re-created on a daily basis as it sinks into the underworld every night and is reborn into this world at dawn.

The principal creator god in Maya theology is the Maize god, who frequently appears in Maya art in the act of creation. He exists in a symbiotic relationship with mankind: as mankind worships him, he is sustained, and he then sustains mankind. In this immanent Maya theology, deity exists in a very interactive way in the lives of the Maya. This interactivity sanctifies everyday actions. Thus, the act of harvesting and eating maize is the very sacrifice of the Maize god for his people.

What a Western view might see as symbolism, the Maya reality knows as active ceremony. Similarly, Maya art is not decorative—there is no Maya word for art. For the Maya, visual representation is a living, perpetually executed ceremony.

The Murals

The San Bartolo murals give a complete account of the five stages of the world’s creation and then a scene of a king’s coronation in shades of red, black, and yellow. The west wall depicts the creation process, and the north wall gives the coronation scene.

The Maize god is, of course, involved in the creation depicted on the walls of the temple. But in addition, there is another significant figure: Jun Ajaw (Hoon-Ah-HOW). Jun Ajaw is one of the hero twins from the Maya theological text mentioned earlier, the Popol Vuh. He, along with his brother Yax Balam (Yahsh Ba-LAM), is a being of power because he transcended death—he went into Xibalba (She-bal-BA), the underworld, and returned to this world. Literarily, Jun Ajaw is a symbolic form of the Maize god. He is seen four times in the murals—recognizable by his jaguar-spotted clothing.

The West Wall

Along the west wall, Jun Ajaw creates each of the four layers of the universe and then the fifth (the center). In each stage, he offers his own blood in sacrifice, represented in a distinctive motif of dagger-like flows that contrast with the elegant curling lines of the rest of the narrative. Along with his blood, he provides additional offerings to generate creation. The offerings at each stage respectively are fish, from the sea; deer, from the land; turkey, from the air; and a germinating seed, symbolic of life. Behind each scene of creation is a beautiful twining tree, intricately patterned and topped with a magnificent bird. The trees are representative of the World Tree—the first tree and a symbol for creation.

In the fifth and final scene, the Maize god creates the final layer of the universe: the center. The tree in this scene is different because the bird resting on its branches is the Principal Bird Deity. Its presence alerts the viewer that the object it is associated with is charged with life-renewing power. This deity’s appearance at the last stage seals the creation.

The North Wall

The north wall tells a more human story. Now that the universe has been created, a kingship can be established. The king sits atop a patterned scaffold, awaiting the crown carried by a bowing, well-dressed lord. The king’s coronation depicted on this much shorter north wall describes the divinity of the role of king.

“The discovery completely changed our perspective on early Maya kings in the lowlands, and the use of creation mythology to justify their existence,” explains Dr. Saturno. The mural reinforces the understanding that the role of the Maya king is inexplicably linked to the role of the Maya creator god.

The king has royal blood—the blood of a god—which allows him to carry on acts of creation. Where the sprawling creation scene functions as the hearty novel, the coronation scene functions as an revelatory epilogue—maybe even a teaser trailer for the sequel, the future when the humans, through their deified kings, will be able to carry on the godly act of creation.

San Bartolo Today

Archaeologists finished excavating the actual mural chamber in 2010, but conservation is ongoing. Environmental conditions are continuously monitored to ensure the safety of the artwork. Additionally, the portions of the wall shattered by the looters were left in fragments on the ground, and archaeologists are still piecing these fragments together. It is a complicated and intricate high-stakes puzzle, but the reward is something unseen by human eyes for over a thousand years—a pretty exhilarating thought.

Though the site is not open to the general public, the murals are catalogued and documented using digital imaging and scanning. From there, artistic reproductions are made. Artist and archaeologist Heather Hurst has drawn and painted the bulk of these recreations. Currently, the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University has an exhibition called Storied Walls, which includes photographs and reproductions of the murals. The museum is open seven days a week; admission is $12 per adult.

Rare, Universal Gifts

The staggering reality of this discovery cannot be overstated. “There’s been nothing like this before,” Dr. Christenson attests. “There were little bits and pieces that you can piece together, but nothing that actually showed the entire sequence of creation with the creator gods, and it’s done in polychrome!”

Maya art may seem confusing—even unintelligible—to unaccustomed eyes. But the powerful beauty Mayan artists created can be universally accessible. Dr. Saturno sees this power of connectivity as central to the art’s importance. “I think the most important aspect of the discovery for those unfamiliar with the Maya is that it instantly communicates their incredible artistry and humanity,” he explains. “You don’t need to know much about the Maya to recognize its beauty, and once you are told the story it conveys and learn how long that story has endured, you can feel a connection with a foreign people that you didn’t have before.”

The discovery at San Bartolo is not just for archaeologists. As Dr. Saturno suggests, the beauty of the art is an open doorway to understanding. For the visitor who steps inside that doorway, just as Dr. Saturno stepped into the pyramid at San Bartolo, a change of perspective is guaranteed.

By Jill Hacking