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Journey into the Maya Underworld

Part one: A hidden chamber, a sacred mural, a lucky escape

Click above to watch a slide show about Bill Saturno’s perilous discovery of an ancient Maya mural in Guatemala.

On a steamy afternoon in March 2001, in the remote jungle of northeast Guatemala, archaeologist William Saturno flashed his headlamp on the wall of a tunnel and gazed on a 2,100-year-old mural depicting an ancient Maya creation myth. His first thought: “I’ve just made the discovery of a lifetime.” His second: “I’ll never make it out of here alive.”

Saturno, a new College of Arts and Sciences assistant professor of archaeology, hadn’t been looking for the mural. What he really wanted was a cool place to rest. He and several guides had come on what was supposed to be a day trip to find some recently uncovered stelae. It was now day two and they were out of water and nearly out of food, so the guides had gone off in search of water. A dehydrated Saturno crawled into the tunnel simply to escape the scorching sun.

On seeing the mural, Saturno says his “immediate thought was, nice — I had made this discovery, and somebody would find me and it 20 years from now.”

But Saturno did make it out alive. His guides returned with water vines, which yielded enough liquid for the group to survive the night and walk out of the jungle the next day.

The mural, now part of a major archaeological excavation known as San Bartolo, shows five deities standing beneath the five sacred trees of the ancient Maya cosmology. 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. A similar creation myth is depicted in a much newer Maya manuscript called the Dresden Codex, which dates back to the 13th century, and in the 16th-century Popol Vuh text. The fact that the San Bartolo mural predates these classic works by more than 1,000 years is hugely significant for both scholarship and the modern Maya, who still hold sacred this story of creation.

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

As it turned out, the tunnel where Saturno found the mural had been built in the base of a pyramid that was part of an ancient Maya city. Two of its four walls were found intact, but the other two were destroyed in antiquity, and pieces of the mural remain 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.

“How did this mural fit within the San Bartolo site?” he asks. “How did the San Bartolo site fit within Maya culture in the first century B.C.?”

The answers to those two questions will be sought this spring by BU students, who will work at the site during a semester abroad in the new Guatemala Archaeology Program. The deadline for applications is October 15, 2007.

To read more about Saturno’s discovery, click here.

To read "Part two: Touched by the gods," click here.

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