A Mayan find, Indiana Jones-style

A Harvard University archaeologist's quest for shade from the searing Guatemalan sun has led to one of the most significant finds in the past 20 years involving the ancient civilization of the Maya.

In a "back before lunch" trek that, instead, became a grueling three-day ordeal, William Saturno discovered an exquisitely preserved mural at the ruins of San Bartolo. Researchers say the find will shed light on a critical period in Mayan history, when it shifted from a farm-based society to one that would be remembered for its art, architecture, and astronomy.

Dating from 100 A.D., the mural is the oldest intact painting of Mayan mythology ever found, Saturno says. "It opens a window into the mythology and courtly life of the ancient Maya" during the end of what researchers term its pre-classical period, which extended from about 2,000 BC to 250 AD

The last time archaeologists hit this kind of paydirt was in 1946, when scientists uncovered the Bonampak murals at ruins in the Mexican state of Chiapas. That find dated to 790 AD, during the late-classical period.

The Bonampak murals "altered our vision of the late classical period," says Saturno. "We could see so many different characters. There were battle scenes, sacrifices, and named individuals."

The newly discovered murals in Guatemala "are going to be in any textbook that mentions the Maya," agrees David Freidel, an anthropologist and Maya specialist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "They will become central to our understanding of Mayan civilization."

Saturno adds that the murals are only the tip of the iceberg at the site, which appears to be a preclassical city of respectable size. Up until now, researchers have found it difficult to piece together details of early Mayan civilization. The Maya would often rebuild atop older structures, turning preclassical artifacts at other ancient cities into rubble. Trying to reconstruct early Mayan life from these shards has been a tedious task for today's cultural sleuths. Thus, the entire site of San Bartolo could well open one of the clearest windows on this period.

The path to the murals' discovery was as tortured as any a Hollywood script writer could devise.

Acting on a tip-off about a pair of Mayan stone monuments covered with inscriptions, Saturno set off on a trip to photograph them last March - the height of Guatemala's dry season. He and colleagues at Harvard University's Peabody Museum wanted to record and publish the complete set of Mayan inscriptions before looters and the region's harsh weather erase them forever.

The site has long been known to looters, but apparently not to archaeologists, Saturno says. According to his guides, the plunderers had vacated the area only a month earlier.

The group set out on what was scheduled to have been a half-day round trip. Twelve hours later, they had covered only a fraction of the distance. Illegal loggers had felled trees across the wheel ruts that passed for a road through the jungle. All the group could do was swing machetes to clear a path for their vehicle.

As Saturno tells it, the guides kept saying "not much farther." That vague encouragement led to an 8-1/2 hour hike covering 20 kilometers before the exhausted, hungry, and thirsty group reached San Bartolo. When they arrived, they found no carving-covered monuments next to the site's 80-foot-high pyramid.

Discouraged, "I went poking around in one of the looters' excavations, in part to get some shade," Saturno recalls. As they were tunneling into the pyramid, the pillagers had uncovered a room and stripped away some of the mud covering its sides. As Saturno swept the walls with flashlight, his beam fell on an exposed section of the mural. "I started laughing," he says. "There was this Mayan mural, a very rare thing."

Given the size of the room, Saturno estimates, the entire painting is up to 20 meters long, running around the perimeter of the underground chamber in which he found himself.

"It was an ugly hike back," Saturno recalls, but when the group returned to civilization, Saturno secured an an emergency grant from the National Geographic Society. He returned to the location with colleague David Stuart, who, with the assistance of Hector Escobedo from Guatemala's Universidad del Valle, performed preliminary surveys.

In addition to the pyramid, the entire site includes another ceremonial structure about half-a-kilometer away. Saturno estimates that the ruins cover about 500 acres, from north to south, but the team hasn't had a chance to gauge its east-west extent yet.

Researchers, who announced their results today and are reporting them in the April issue of National Geographic magazine, say they plan to return to the site next month to shore up the wall bearing the exposed portion of the mural. The wall was undermined by the looters' tunnel and is in danger of collapsing. Then they will begin work to uncover, record, and preserve what is likely to become a very influential piece of Mesoamerican art.

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