Archaeologist William Saturno set out on what he thought would be a short trip into the jungle to photograph Mayan hieroglyphics. Instead, he ended up finding the largest and oldest Mayan mural ever discovered. He talks with host Steve Curwood about the journey.
CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. And coming up, creating art for our ears. But first, all over Central America, there are Mayan archaeological treasures buried within the rainforest. And often, the best way to hear about them is to listen to the local gossip.
That's what Dr. William Saturno discovered on a recent trip to Guatemala to document ancient Mayan hieroglyphics. He'd heard rumors of a site about three hours from his jungle base near Lake Peten, and set out with a team of guides. Dr. Saturno says it was a journey that began with every hope for a quick and rewarding find.
SATURNO: We set out bright and early. We had planned on, sort of, a three-hour drive followed by, essentially, a three-hour walk. And, the drive was planned on this track through the rainforest. It's really just wide enough for the Land Rover. But we came upon numerous obstacles; tree falls, lots of water, impassable parts of this track. And we ended up taking about twelve and a half hours.
CURWOOD: So now, you started in the morning. By now, you're getting pretty hungry.
SATURNO: Yeah, well, we had food for that first day. We stopped at like 7:00 that night, 7:30, and we ate some rice and beans, and drank the water that we had. And we pretty much exhausted our supplies. We knew that we were only a few kilometers away from this site. And now, we'd be able to walk out in the morning, and walk back before lunch.
As it turned out, we had about a 20 kilometer walk ahead of us. So, it took us a full eight and a half hours. We hadn't really had supplies of food. We exhausted our supply of water. And we arrived at the site of San Bartolo around 4:30 in the afternoon, and there are no carved hieroglyphic monuments.
CURWOOD: Nothing. Nada.
CURWOOD: Just big mosquitoes.
SATURNO: Just big mosquitoes, that's pretty much it, and sun. The guide had some emergency rations which he was carrying with him, which was Cup-A-Soup, actually, which, of course, you only need water for. So, we were missing the one ingredient required.
And, while they were off finding water, I decided to explore a looters tunnel that had been dug into one of the pyramids there, mainly to get out of the sun, partly curious as to what was inside. But, mainly it was, "It'll be nice and cool in there. And, I'll just sit in the shade for a little while, while they're finding water."
And so, I went into this tunnel. And just past where the light enters, I sat down, and shined my flashlight up on the walls, and there it is.
CURWOOD: And there was?
SATURNO: This Mayan mural.
CURWOOD: Describe for me just exactly what I would see looking at the part of the mural that's now exposed.
SATURNO: Well, it's a really stunning piece. It depicts the Mayan maize god. It's a central male figure. He's looking backwards over his shoulder at two half-clothed females that are sort of offering up their hands to him. It was really stunning.
I mean Mayan murals, in and of themselves, are exceedingly rare. Finding one in the tropical rainforest, in this state of preservation, is unheard of. And the style of it indicated that it was of a very early date. And so, I was quite pleased.
CURWOOD: What was your first reaction when you saw this mural?
SATURNO: Well, I mean, first shocked. I was very excited when I saw it. But, my real concern was that-- my next thought after thinking, "Wow, there's this Mayan mural here," was, "And, I'm gonna die here right in front of it. And someone will find it and me in 20 years."
I mean I really had genuine concerns about walking back out because we still had no supplies. And, even having found the mural, it was great, and I took my photographs, and did my proper documentation of the find, as any archaeologist would, and then was faced with the journey the next day.
CURWOOD: Tell us, those of us who don't really know much about archaeology will wonder, well, what's so significant about this mural? Can you tell us that?
SATURNO: Well, there are a number of reasons the mural is significant. One is its early date. Traditionally, our ideas about the ancient Maya and Maya art focus around what's called the Classic Maya Period. And, our best example of Maya wall painting comes from about 790 A.D.
And when you have such a limited sample of wall paintings, we tend to focus on that as the pinnacle of Maya painting achievement. And, those paintings are beautiful and impressive. But, now to see something of similar quality, as far as the execution goes, 700 years earlier, or 600 years earlier, that really forces a reconsideration of our general ideas about the canons of Maya wall painting. So it's important for that reason.
CURWOOD: The canons of Maya wall painting. And what about the whole state of the civilization?
SATURNO: Certainly. I mean, putting the mural in its proper cultural context is really my job over the next five years or so. And, having this sort of jewel at this early date, which doesn't seem to be practice, this is a Maya art form that's fully in place at 100 A.D. in a society that is flourishing at this time.
This is a period when we thought everything would be sort of starting up, starting to gel into its classic period form. And now, at 100 A.D., we're seeing things have already gelled, and we need to be looking for these origins much further back in time.
CURWOOD: Now why do you suppose this particular mural survived when others apparently haven't, or, at least, you haven't found them yet?
SATURNO: Well, one of the reasons it survived was due to the way the Maya preserve ceremonial space. When the Maya build a large pyramid, they tend to build it on top of an existing pyramid. And so, they reuse that sort of ceremonial location. They preserve that spot on the map, and they continue to build up, and up, and up, one on top of the other.
In doing that, you're forced to fill in all of the open space in any of the buildings that you want to build over. And that's what they did here. When they filled in this room with mud, and stone, and old ceramics, and things like that, they essentially entombed this painting and then built over the top of it.
Now, these may be in existence at dozens of Maya sites, without the entrance into the earlier periods that the tunnel provides. We likely would never have seen it.
CURWOOD: How long do you think it'll take you to excavate this mural?
SATURNO: Years. The excavation process is a very slow one. This mural has been buried for almost 2000 years. And, it hasn't had any contact with the air in all that time. So, to bring it into contact with the heat and the humidity of this tropical forest, all at once, will shock it. It will destroy it.
And so, the first step to excavating it is getting some solid scientific data on what the environment is, how it changes throughout the year, and to begin doing testing on how we can best preserve the part that's already exposed. Once that's done, we can slowly begin to uncover it. The other problem is that this whole thing is buried underneath an 80 foot high pyramid. This is essentially a mining operation. And, the engineering required to carry out that task is a daunting one. We don't want the 80 feet of fill above us collapsing down upon us, destroying the mural and us in the process.
CURWOOD: It sounds like something that wouldn't be good for somebody to be claustrophobic in your line of work.
SATURNO: Definitely not, not if you plan on spending time in tunnels. You can't be claustrophobic, and you can't hate bats.
CURWOOD: William Saturno is a lecturer at the University of New Hampshire, and a research associate with Harvard's Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. Thanks so much for taking this time with us today.
SATURNO: It's been a pleasure.
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