In March of 2001 archaeologist William Saturno found himself deep in the jungle of northern Guatemala, a two-day journey from civilization, without food or water. He was standing in what had once been a plaza at San Bartolo, a largely unexplored Mayan ruin. The plaza had been reclaimed by the jungle over the past thousand years, and was distinguishable from its surroundings only by the presence of several steep, vegetation-covered mounds on its periphery. The largest of these mounds was an 80-foot-high pyramid, consumed by earth, vines, and trees, that stood on one side of the plaza. As he approached the pyramid Saturno noticed a fresh trench crudely sliced into the side of the structure by looters. Dehydrated and exhausted, he entered the looters’ trench, trying to escape the oppressive 90-degree heat and dense jungle air. The trench led to the base of the pyramid where the looters had continued on, digging a tunnel into the pyramid’s center. Saturno followed the tunnel to a small, dark room, which had been backfilled with rubble almost two millennia ago. Turning on his flashlight he passed the beam across a section of exposed wall illuminating the stern features of the Mayan maize god rendered in brilliant crimson paint. Other paintings appeared to stretch around the entire room, but most of them were obscured by rubble. It was a mural. In fact, it was the oldest intact Mayan mural archaeologists have ever discovered. It was a big deal.
Two days earlier Saturno had set out with a group of guides for what they expected would be a day trip to San Bartolo. Saturno was in Guatemala to document examples of ancient Mayan writing and the guides had heard rumors that looters had recently uncovered carved monuments at San Bartolo. The group left by SUV but driving conditions quickly deteriorated until the road was entirely choked out by dense vegetation. They then set out on foot, thinking they could reach San Bartolo and return to the vehicles within several hours. But the jungle was so thick that they had to cut a path with machetes as they walked. The trip dragged on so long that they were forced to spend the night in the jungle and only reached San Bartolo the following morning.
Saturno stumbled across the mural while his guides were searching for water. He was awestruck by the beauty, rarity, and significance of the find, but at the same time he was understandably concerned that he may not make it out of the jungle alive. It was the end of the dry season and the guides did not find any water. They tried to filter sap from vines through a shirt but could only obtain a small amount of liquid. Exhausted, they began the long hike back to the road. Saturno was so severely dehydrated that he began to drift in and out of consciousness toward the end of the hike. Through an heroic summoning of strength, the motivations for which can only be fully understood by Saturno himself, and more than a little luck he made it back to the vehicles alive. Had he expired on the return trip, the jungle surely would have absorbed his desiccated remains along with any chance that the public would learn about the San Bartolo murals.
In the years since the discovery of the mural, San Bartolo’s past has slowly begun to emerge from beneath more than a thousand years of jungle growth and architectural decay. The Maya liked to build pyramids on top of already existing structures. The thinking seemed to be: if you’ve already got a pyramid but want a bigger pyramid it’s easier to just slap another layer of stonework on top of the existing one instead of building from scratch. So the mural room that Saturno stumbled into in 2001 was part of an earlier construction that was later backfilled with rubble and buried beneath a new pyramid. This earlier construction and the mural it contained turned out to be old. Really old. Radio carbon dating placed the mural’s age at over 2,100 years, meaning it was painted during what archaeologists call the Preclassic period of Mayan civilization. Relatively little is known about this formative period, but the findings at San Bartolo provide an important glimpse of Mayan cultural development at the time. Parts of the mural seem to depict aspects of a creation story that has survived to this day in sources such as the Popol Vuh and the Dresden Codex. But the meaning of other scenes depicted in the mural remain mysterious.
Further excavation has uncovered additional backfilled rooms deeper within the pyramid that contain even older paintings dated to between 300 and 200 BC. These older paintings also contain an archaic version of Mayan writing, which is so different from later, better-known, classical Mayan writing that it is mostly illegible to archaeologists. One important glyph, however, is recognizable as ajaw, a title meaning ‘lord’ or ‘ruler,’ which is generally associated with the Mayan concept of divine kingship during the Classical period. The idea of a divine ruler was central to Mayan politics and society and contributed to the rise of the great Mayan cities of the Classical period such as Tikal and Copan. The Preclassic text at San Bartolo not only indicates that the Maya had developed a literate culture much earlier than previously thought, but also that the Maya established divine monarchies centuries before the rise of Classical Mayan civilization.
Saturno WA, Stuart D, & Beltrán B (2006). Early Maya writing at San Bartolo, Guatemala. Science (New York, N.Y.), 311 (5765), 1281-3 PMID: 16400112