Reading 29

This passage is adapted from an article entitled “Portrait of the Past” (© 2006 by Laura Harbold).

San Bartolo

  1. When archaeologist William
  2. Saturno went to Guatemala six
  3. years ago, nothing worked out the
  4. way he planned. None of the local
  5. guides could take him to see the
  6. carved monuments he wanted to
  7. research, leaving him with nothing
  8. to do. “Not being particularly good
  9. at sitting around and twiddling my
  10. thumbs,” Saturno says, he decided
  11. to investigate a rumor that three
  12. hieroglyphic Maya monuments had
  13. been uncovered by looters in the
  14. jungle nearby.
  15. After an arduous, twenty-two-hour
  16. journey, Saturno and his group
  17. finally arrived at the San Bartolo
  18. site, which wasn’t the one they
  19. were looking for. Exhausted and
  20. dehydrated, Saturno ducked into
  21. a looter’s trench to escape the
  22. oppressive heat. “I shone my
  23. flashlight up on the wall,” he says,
  24. “and there was the mural.”
  25. The image that Saturno’s flashlight
  26. had illuminated turned out to be
  27. only a fraction of a complex
  28. narrative unfolding across the walls
  29. of a large stone chamber. Dated
  30. about 100 B.C.E., the murals are
  31. the earliest known examples of
  32. Maya painting. The discovery
  33. suggests a level of sophistication in
  34. pre-Classic Maya culture previously
  35. unsuspected by archaeologists.
  36. “Things are a lot more complicated
  37. than we thought,” Saturno says.
  38. “One of the things that’s neat about
  39. these murals is that they imply a
  40. sort of narrative tradition.”
  41. According to Karl Taube,
  42. iconographer for the San Bartolo
  43. project, the murals represent a
  44. myth that dominated Maya culture
  45. for fifteen hundred years. In the
  46. first scene, a man stands in water,
  47. sacrificing a fish to the principle
  48. bird deity. In the second scene, a
  49. man stands on land, offering a
  50. deer to a second bird in the second
  51. world tree; in the third, he floats
  52. in the air, presenting a turkey; in
  53. the fourth, he hovers in a field of
  54. flowers.
  55. In the final scene, the Maya maize
  56. god stands in front of a fifth world
  57. tree, establishing the center of the
  58. universe. The maize god crowns
  59. himself king, wearing a headdress
  60. made from the body of the bird.
  61. The wooden scaffold upon which
  62. he sits is the same throne depicted
  63. in the coronation of Maya kings for
  64. centuries, Taube says. The depiction
  65. of the maize god in the San Bartolo
  66. murals is surprising because of its
  67. similarity to later, geographically
  68. disparate examples of Maya
  69. iconography, Saturno says.
  70. “We have this depiction of the bird
  71. deity at 100 B.C.E. and see an
  72. almost identical carved version
  73. of the same bird a thousand miles
  74. away in the Pacific highlands of
  75. Mexico,” he says. The similarity
  76. suggests regular circulation of
  77. artwork and ideas among Maya
  78. cities in the pre-Classic period.
  79. “Archaeologists used to believe
  80. that the pivotal aspects of Maya
  81. civilization began first in the
  82. highlands and moved to the
  83. lowlands,” Saturno says.
  84. “Because of San Bartolo, talking
  85. about a singular point of origin
  86. and migration doesn’t work
  87. anymore.”
  88. The San Bartolo murals also
  89. suggest a staggering longevity of
  90. ideas in Mesoamerican culture.
  91. According to William Fash,
  92. director of the Peabody Museum
  93. at Harvard University, “the
  94. depiction of the maize god is very
  95. Olmec.” The Olmec, considered
  96. the mother culture of Mesoamerica,
  97. flourished circa 1200 to 400 B.C.E.
  98. Similar imagery of the maize god
  99. appears in the only four extant
  100. Maya books, dated in the late post-
  101. Classic period around the sixteenth
  102. century C.E.
  103. “One of the most exciting things
  104. about San Bartolo is that it suggests
  105. that there are a lot more of these
  106. things out there,” Saturno says. His
  107. team has already discovered
  108. another room close to the original
  109. chamber. “People are going to be
  110. working on San Bartolo long after
  111. my lifetime,” Saturno predicts.
  112. According to Fash, the
  113. sophistication of the San Bartolo
  114. paintings suggests that the term
  115. “pre-Classic” might be a misnomer.
  116. “These murals are actually some of
  117. the most beautiful in all of
  118. Mesoamerica. It’s silly to call them
  119. pre-anything. They’ve astounded
  120. everyone.”