Piecing Together Maya Creation Stories
Archaeology|November/December 2021
Thousands of mural fragments from the city of San Bartolo illustrate how the Maya envisioned their place in the universe
Zach Zorich

SOME 2,000 YEARS AGO, Maya leaders in the city of San Bartolo entered a temple chamber with vibrant murals depicting supernatural beings and mythical humans painted on its walls. Then they destroyed them.

Although the murals—painted exclusively with black, red, yellow, and white pigments—had been executed by three master artists, some cycle of time known only to the city’s priests had ended, and so too had the murals’ life span. The artwork had probably been commissioned by the city’s rulers and had been on display for 50 to 100 years, but the time had come to build a new temple over the old one. This renovation meant tearing down part of the mural chamber, which was located at the base of the temple, known today as the Pyramid of Paintings.

Many of the figures painted on the chamber’s south and east walls were broken by hammer blows, and the plaster fragments containing their faces were removed. The walls were then knocked down. The chamber, which was just above ground level and opened onto a public plaza, was sealed off by a new wall. Builders faced the entire pyramid in a new layer of stone, and a new structure was built. Most of the chamber, which had been created during the sixth such renovation of the pyramid, was left relatively intact. But its remaining murals were hidden from view until 2001, when University of Boston archaeologist William Saturno discovered the chamber during a survey in Guatemala’s Petén rain forest. Until then, the site had been known only to the local Maya community.

Close study of the intact San Bartolo murals revealed that the narrative they told is an ancient version of the creation story Maya people were still recounting when the Spanish arrived in the sixteenth century. This story was recorded in an eighteenth-century text known as the Popol Vuh. These murals are among the earliest known Maya wall paintings, but their style and iconography seem to researchers to reach even further back in time. “One of the beautiful things about the discovery of San Bartolo is that it’s a distillation of a lot of key concepts of Maya cosmology in one place,” says archaeologist David Stuart of the University of Texas at Austin. “We’re looking at a system of iconography that’s already quite developed and quite old by 100 B.C.”

The chamber’s destruction initially obscured the narrative’s beginning and end. According to Skidmore College archaeologist and National Geographic Explorer Heather Hurst, who codirects the San Bartolo Project with her colleague Boris Beltrán, also of Skidmore College, the destruction was not simply part of the building’s renovation. It was also part of a ritual that commemorated the end of one cycle of time and the beginning of another. Since painting the chamber had imbued it with supernatural significance, destroying some of the murals to clear the way for the renewed temple without acknowledging and managing the paintings’ power could have meant angering supernatural beings. “You can’t just bury it,” says Hurst. “As the new temple is built, you are honoring the temple that came before it.”

Not all the fragments from the destroyed murals were removed from the chamber during this ritual. About 3,400 of them remained piled on the floor. It took 10 years, beginning in 2002, to excavate and collect them all. It took another six years for the team to reassemble them under the watchful eye of the University of New Mexico’s Angelyn Bass, who has been the project’s principal conservator since the first mural fragments were collected. This painstaking process involved fitting the plaster fragments together like jigsaw puzzle pieces and studying them using X-ray fluorescence, a technique that allows the researchers to identify subtle variations in the amount of the element barium in the plaster. They used this information to match pieces with similar chemical compositions. The reassembled fragments are now on display at the National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology in Guatemala City.

By the end of the process, the team had reassembled enough painted fragments from the beginning and end of the murals’ narrative to more fully re-create the experience of viewing the murals as they appeared 2,000 years ago. “You would have entered the room and been immersed in a series of stories,” says Hurst. She believes the painted chamber may have been a place where young initiates to the priesthood learned how the cosmos was created.

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