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Journey into the Maya Underworld

Part two: Touched by the gods

Click above to watch a slide show about Bill Saturno's visit with Maya shamans in Guatemala, who believe Saturno was chosen by the gods to uncover an ancient mural showing the Maya story of creation.

When archaeologist William Saturno ventured into the Guatemalan jungle in 2001 and discovered a 2,100-year-old mural depicting the ancient Maya story of creation, he never imagined that he’d become entwined in Maya culture. That day, Saturno had gotten lost, run out of food and water, and crawled into a looter’s pit for shelter, where he found the mural of gods, sacred trees, and sacrifices.

A similar creation myth is shown in a much newer Maya manuscript, the Dresden Codex, which dates back to the 13th century, and in the 16th-century Popol Vuh text. The fact that Saturno’s mural predates these two classic works by more than 1,000 years, however, is hugely significant for both scholarship and the modern Maya, who continue to pass on this story of creation, says Saturno, a new College of Arts and Sciences assistant professor of archaeology.

“It’s like finding a Bible written during the time of Christ,” he says. “It’s that kind of object in their worldview.”

Indeed, last year a group of shamans from a modern Maya community in the jungle highlands made the daylong overland journey to the major archaeological excavation known as San Bartolo to visit the mural, to conduct ceremonies to honor the ancients, and to ask Saturno a lot of questions.

“The idea that a foreigner finds this creation story, and preserves it, and brings it back to the known world meant that a lot of their questions had more to do with me than with the mural itself,” says Saturno. “They told me as they left that they would try to tease out what my role in all of this was, but clearly I had been chosen to bring this mural to them.”

The mural shows five deities standing beneath the five sacred trees that the ancient Maya believed held the cosmos together. The gods bring order to the world through sacrifices of animals, flowers, and their own blood. Another part of the mural tells the story of a kingly divinity — the crowning of the corn god after his death and rebirth.

The tunnel where Saturno found the mural turned out to be in the base of a pyramid that was part of an ancient Maya city. Two of its four walls are intact, but the other two were destroyed in antiquity, and pieces of the mural are hidden in the rubble. Saturno leads an ongoing excavation to piece together the destroyed portions of the mural and to put it all in context. In other words, he says, “How did this mural fit within the San Bartolo site? How did the San Bartolo site fit within Maya culture in the first century B.C.?”

This spring, BU students will be able to take part in the recovery effort during a semester abroad in the new Guatemala Archaeology Program. The deadline for applications is October 15, 2007.

Click here to see part one of this series, “A hidden chamber, a sacred mural, a lucky escape,” about Saturno’s perilous discovery.

Chris Berdik can be reached at cberdik@bu.edu.