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Mayan Mural Discovered in Guatemala


William Saturno, an archeologist at Harvard University's Peabody Museum - walked for three days in the Guatemalan rainforest searching for a stone monument he never found. This is an area where the Maya, from 2000 BC to 1500 AD, had built great temples and pyramids.

Exhausted and nearly out of food and drink, William Saturno and his guides stopped in a swampy low-lying area at the foot of the ruins of a ceremonial pyramid.

The 26-meter high pyramid vandalized by looters over the last decade - seemed to offer shade from the sun, but little else.

"As I walked in and shined my flashlight on the side walls of this tunnel, maybe 4.6 meters in, there was this Mayan Mural," he explains.

SKIRBLE: "Did you know what you were looking at?"
WILLIAM SATURNO: "Yeah. The last time a Maya mural to this extent of preservation was found was 1946. I knew immediately that finding a Maya mural in a good state of preservation was a very rare occurrence. I immediately started laughing because it had been such a terribly long journey that I thought it had resulted in finding absolutely nothing, and here I was standing in front of this masterpiece."

The work that is exposed and most of it is not - is a two meter section that appears to wrap around the top of the room at the rear of the pyramid.

"The central figure is a beautiful rendition of a Mayan maize god. It's painted in black and red and yellow. The black brush stroke looks like it's calligraphy. It's very undulating and wavy," he explains. " And the pigment, say on the man's thigh - the thigh is painted red, but there's actually a space between the black outline and the solid red paint that is left unpainted which creates this three dimensional sense of the picture. The way light would shimmer off the edge of his thigh. So, it's really wonderfully painted."

The scene shows at least nine portraits. All the people stand or kneel above a complex border filled with geometric designs.

William Saturno says the remainder of the mural is buried under rubble and debris from the pyramid built on top of it. In recent years looters dug elaborate tunnels, but showed little interest in the mural.

"They were looking mainly for tombs and valuable pottery, polychrome vases and things like that, that are easily transported and sell quickly on the black market. The mural is a tough thing to deal with. It's a tough thing for us as archeologists with a great deal of funding to preserve it intact, uncover it without destroying it. All those things are very difficult," Mr. Saturno says.

William Saturno says the mural which dates from about 100 AD represents the oldest intact wall painting of Maya mythology. He says a well-preserved mural from this time period could significantly broaden our understanding of Maya civilization.

"We just don't have any painting this early, and we would expect early painting to be experimental and not in the same style of application as we find in 700 or 800 AD. All of a sudden what we had assumed was the pinnacle of Maya painting achievement is now part of a very long tradition of Maya painting," he says. "That it is a narrative scene will give us a great insight into the mythological life of the ancient Maya at the northern Peten [Northern Guatemalan wilderness] at this time which is also something that we are lacking."

William Saturno who heads back to Guatemala next month - expects he'll gain a clearer picture of how the mural was used as he and others work to excavate the site and preserve the art. Until then, guards have been placed at the pyramid to protect the area.

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