Of Gods and Kings: Painting the Maya Creation at San Bartolo, Guatemala

November 14, 2004 @ 10:00 am – 11:30 am

The 2004 Lewis K. Land Lecture

 by William A. Saturno, University of New Hampshire

Reviewed by Michel Quenon

With the blockbuster Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya exhibition ongoing, it was befitting that this year’s Land lecture be dedicated to a recent and major archaeological discovery coming out of the jungles of Central America. We were very fortunate to have Dr. William Saturno describe and interpret for us the earliest polychrome  murals ever found in Mesoamerica.

Using a highly interactive and colorful PowerPoint presentation, Bill captivated his audience with the details of the murals’ discovery and proceeded to analyze their meaning and importance in the ever-changing field of  Maya archaeology. The site of San Bartolo located in the Northeastern corner of the Peten is in an area that was, until recently, very rarely visited due to its remoteness and difficult access. In March 2001, expecting a relatively short journey, Bill, accompanied by local guides, reached the site with much difficulty. Looking for some relief from the overwhelming heat, he stepped inside a looter’s trench to find himself facing a painted mural of extraordinary workmanship. Since then, archaeological excavations have revealed the extent of this discovery and dated the murals before AD 100, well into the Preclassic Period.

The importance of the murals comes from their antiquity, exceptional beauty, and state of preservation. Until their discovery, the Preclassic period had been viewed as a period when Maya civilization was just forming. However, the level of artistry and technical achievements necessary to produce these elaborate murals are drastically changing our view of this period. Coming 60 years after the discovery of the Late Classic Bonampak murals, this discovery is already having a profound impact on our understanding of what went on at such an early time.

The murals were painted at eye level inside an unusual flat-roofed, one-room building measuring roughly 4 meters by 9 meters. The building, located at the base of a pyramid, had been partially destroyed to accommodate a new structure. Fortunately, portions of some the walls and murals had enough protection, allowing us to admire them 2000 years later. Extensive monitoring of the building and pyramid took place before any restoration and investigation could proceed.

The currently exposed North and West walls show detailed scenes of creation mythology and accession to rulership. The North wall starts with a “birthing” scene of babies, complete with still-attached umbilical cords, emerging from the split of a large gourd amidst a splash of blood. Very little is understood about its meaning. But what follows is an amazing rendition of a creation myth, portraying four couples standing on a plumed serpent extending from the mouth of a mountain cave. Central to this scene is a Maize god receiving tamales and a gourd (of water) from a couple inside the cave. Outside of the cave, two kneeling women with arms outstretched are waiting to receive this primordial gift from the Maize god. The head of the Maize god depicted in profile has unmistakable Olmec features.

The West wall iconographic program unfolds like the scenes on a codex. In fact, it depicts the setting up of the five directional world trees in a rendition similar to the ones found in the Dresden Codex (pages 25 – 28), a book likely to have been written 1300 years later. Here the main actor is Hunahpu, the son of the Maize god, dressed in various costumes and standing with his penis pierced by a giant bloodletter in a scene of auto-sacrifice. In front of the first tree, he is dressed as a fisherman and makes an offering of fish. For the second tree, as a hunter he offers the body of a deer with its heart excised. The third tree has Hunahpu as a birdhunter making the offering of a bird. For the fourth tree, Hunahpu offers flowers. Although the offering in the Dresden codex is of copal, both offerings are scent-related. In front of the fifth tree (central axis) is the Maize god dressed as a bird, who officiates.

The mythological section of the West wall is followed with what is perhaps an historical event where a ruler, seated on a scaffold, is receiving a royal headdress from an attendant. This accession scene is reminiscent of those depicted 800 years later on Piedras Negras Stelae 6 and 11.

Bill ended his dynamic presentation by introducing us to some of the remote sensing technology tools used in modern archaeology. Noteworthy was a photographic sequence from a NASA mapping project that shows the deforestation signature caused by the chemical contents of the soil as modified by the extensive use of stucco in the building of Maya settlements. More than 2000 years later we can still witness the impact this practice has had on the environment. As a bonus, we were offered the opportunity to examine at close range a six-foot-long polychrome reproduction of the creation scene as recorded by archaeological illustrator Heather Hurst.♦