THE DAWN OF MAYA GODS AND KINGS
A stunning 2,000-year-old mural at Guatemala's San Bartolo site is rewriting Maya history.
The two artists worked by torchlight and morning sunshine.Perhaps they were twins, like the twin
artist-scribes of Maya myth, although their styles were distinct. Certainly they had trained for their
task since youth, copying images and text from the accordion-fold books that held the sacred
5 stories.Now, under their brushstrokes, the godsand their acts of creation burst to life on polished
Spanning at least two walls of a room at the base of a pyramid, the result was a masterpiece with
two purposes:to honor the godsand to illustratethe divine right of a king. The first made it
timeless; the second,short-lived.After only a few decades the room was buried beneath a larger
10 pyramid, a monument to a new ruler in the ancient city we know as San Bartolo. There the
paintings remained,hidden in the Guatemalan jungle, for more than 2,000 years before those
divine faces again met human eyes.I was the fortunate one to uncover the mural, which reveals
not only the great antiquity of Maya painting but also the long endurance of the Maya stories of
15 The project began in March 2001 with a stroke of pure luck, when I ducked into a trench looters
had cut into the pyramid. My gaze fell on the face of the maize god looking over his shoulder at a
beautiful maiden. I longed to see the rest of the mural, but it took two years of planning to ensure
that further excavation wouldn't damage it. In March 2003 I began to dig a narrow tunnel inside
the mural room, paralleling its longest remain-ing wall. I left a veneer of mortar and stone
20 covering the paintings to protect them. When the tunnel was finished,I began to chisel away the
It was as if an ancient Maya book had been spread open before me, recounting the birth of the
Maya cosmos from the gods' loins.
Aspects of the story were familiar from two much later manuscripts:the 13th-century Dresden
25 Codex and the 16th-century Popol Vuh. But these paintings, more than a thousand years older,
told the same tale-with startling grace and sophistication.Clearly Maya painting had achieved
glory centuries before the great works of the Classic Maya, in the 7th century.In Western terms, it
was like knowing only modem art and then stumbling on a Michelangelo or a Leonardo.
The far end of the mural held another surprise.Some scholars thought that at this early stage in
30 Maya history, the Preclassic, city-states had not yet evolved into full-fledged monar.
the trappings seen later.But here was a king, named and titled, receiving his crown. In short,this
one chamber upended much of what we thought we knew about the early Maya.
Almost a mile west of the painted room lay an actual king-the earliest known Maya royal burial.
Last year Guatemalan archaeologist Monica Pellecer Alecio dug beneatha small pyramid and
35 found signs of a sealed tomb.Hearing rumors of looters working only five miles away,her
crew excavated 24 hours a day,sleeping in shifts.
Just after 2 a.m. on the third day, 20 workmen used a giant wooden lever cut from the forest to
wrest away the heavy capstones.Beneath lay the bones of a man, with offerings including a
delicate frog-shaped bowl and a vase bearing an effigy of Chac, the rain god. On the man's chest
40 rested a concave jade plaque-a symbol of Maya royalty.
After 2,000 years,the power of the ancient gods and kings seemed intact:Just as the team
removed the dead king's Chac effigy, the clouds opened and the region's worst dry season in a
decade came to an end.