Fascinating discoveries at the newly famous site of San Bartolo have rocked the world of Mayan scholars, completely shattering long-held beliefs about the origin of elaborate Mayan art and writing that narrates the stories of ruling monarchies. It is now clear that Preclassic Mayan societies had achieved a degree of sophistication in art, writing, and government once thought to have been attained only several centuries later.
San Bartolo, deep in the jungle near Río Azul , has yielded the earliest known Mayan mural and the oldest known Mayan burial tomb. The murals are impressive not only for their early date (a.d. 100–200), but also for their quality. The best-known Mayan murals, at the site of Bonampak (Mexico), date to the late 8th century A.D.
San Bartolo’s location, while no longer secret, is known only to a few in the archaeological community. Visitors are not welcome, but there are plans to make a replica of the murals available to tourists in the future. The Mayan site of San Bartolo encompasses more than 100 structures, among them temple pyramids (at least two of which are more than 25 meters high), a palace, and ball court, and is still being excavated.
The mural was discovered in 2001 by Harvard University’s William Saturno when, in search of shade from the midday sun, he ducked into a trench hacked by looters under an unexcavated pyramid. After two years of planning the painstaking excavation, the mural depicting creation mythology was reclaimed from the soil beneath the temple structure. It is similar to one found in the Dresden Codex, one of three Mayan books to survive the wide-scale destruction of ancient Mayan texts by Spanish priests in the 16th century (the other two are the Madrid Codex and the Paris Codex).
Among the themes depicted are the establishment of order to the world, the latter portrayed as upheld by trees with roots leading to the underworld and branches holding up the sky. Stationed at each tree are four deities providing a blood sacrifice and an offering.
In another section, the mural shows the maize god setting up the tree at the center of the world and crowning himself king. This section of the panel traces the maize god’s birth, death, and resurrection. In the final scene, a historic coronation of an actual Mayan king is depicted with his name and title written in hieroglyphics.
Project iconographer Karl Taube believes the writing style differs from that evidenced in later periods of Mayan history, but it is nonetheless sophisticated. He also points to the appearance of similar scenes in the Dresden Codex. Saturno speculates the king depicted in the mural likely claimed the right to rule from the gods themselves and not merely from lineage, as did kings in later times.
The second major discovery is the tomb of an early Mayan king dating to 150 B.C. found in 2005 by Guatemalan archaeologist Mónica Pellecer Alecia about a mile away from the mural, also under a small temple pyramid. The find provides further evidence of early monarchic rule.
A full-length feature on these amazing discoveries can be found in the January 2006 edition of National Geographic magazine and online at www.sanbartolo.org .