Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The San Bartolo Code: Archeologists Begin To Trace The Outlines Of A Preclassical Early Mayan Renaissance

"On the sacred walls and inside the dark passageways of ancient ruins in Guatemala, archaeologists are making discoveries that open expanded vistas of the vibrant Maya civilization in its formative period, a time reaching back more than 1,000 years before its celebrated Classic epoch.

The intriguing finds, including art masterpieces and the earliest known Maya writing, are overturning old ideas of the Preclassic period. It was not a kind of dark age, as once thought, of a culture that emerged and bloomed in Classic times, at places like the spectacular royal ruin at Palenque beginning about A.D. 250 and extending to its mysterious collapse around 900.

At the derelict ceremonial center of pyramids and wide plazas, a site in remote northeastern Guatemala known as San Bartolo, archaeologists have uncovered the unexpected remains of murals in vivid colors depicting the Maya mythology of creation and kingship.

The murals date to 100 B.C., and nearby, a column of hieroglyphs, a century or two older, attests to an already well-developed writing system.

News of the discoveries, announced in the last six months by an American-Guatemalan team led by William A. Saturno of the University of New Hampshire, is reverberating through the small community of Mayanists.

They see these and other recent finds as strong evidence for the early origin and remarkable continuity of the culture's concepts of cosmology and possibly governance over more than a Preclassic millennium.

The Classic splendor was no sudden, unanticipated efflorescence.

Coming away from a visit to San Bartolo, Michael D. Coe, a retired Yale Mayanist who was not involved in the work, called the murals "one of the greatest Maya discoveries of all time."

Stephen Houston, of Brown, said, "We are entering a golden age of Preclassic study," adding that the discipline of Maya research "will be marked by a time before the discovery of these paintings in the jungle of Guatemala, and a time thereafter." Other experts have already focused new research on Preclassic ruins, some dating at least to 900 B.C., and are reinterpreting finds in light of the San Bartolo evidence.

"San Bartolo has created excitement and momentum for investigations deeper into the Preclassic period," said Julia Guernsey, a specialist in art history and Maya iconography at the University of Texas. "More attention is being paid to the antecedents of the Classic Maya." ...

New attention, Dr. Guernsey said, is centered on the common monumental motif in the Classic period that has now been increasingly recognized as early as the middle Preclassic era, 900 to 300 B.C. It is known as the quatrefoil. The design is something like a four-leaf clover and is found in the arrangement of stones or carved in stone or crated with packed earth and painted clay at a ceremonial site, as at La Blanca on the Pacific coastal plain in Guatemala....

Other Preclassic examples are being examined at Izapa, across the Mexican border from La Blanca, where quatrefoils and monuments date to between 300 B.C. and 50 B.C. An Izapa throne is framed in a quatrefoil. Similar imagery has been uncovered in Mexico at Chalcatzingo, dating from as early as 700 B.C. Dr. Guernsey said this was "the clearest expression of the links between quatrefoils, animal mouths, caves and portals."

Archaeologists think the quatrefoil, often in association with water channels and basins, may have been part of the iconography in ceremonies to the rain god and fertility. In other cases, it is formed around a cave entrance, perhaps symbolic of creation and the supernatural....

Today, the quatrefoil can be seen as a symbolic portal through which archaeologists are passing to explore mysteries of Maya culture far back in Preclassic time.

One new puzzle yet to be solved is the Preclassic Maya script found at San Bartolo. The column of 10 glyphs, painted in black on white plaster, is definitely Maya writing from 300 B.C. to 200 B.C., experts say, but so far it is unreadable....

This inability to read the text, Dr. Houston said, may be because the Maya system underwent a major change at the time the Preclassic culture collapsed, around A.D. 100 to 200, with widespread evidence of destroyed or abandoned cities.

Even though the disruption was sharp, scholars say, the similarities between the few samples of Preclassic writing and the Classic style testify to a measure of continuity. But it was not as obvious, say, as the transitions from Chaucerian English to Shakespeare down to that used on blogs.

As in any code breaking, Dr. Stuart said, success usually depends on having many text samples to work with. Even computers would not speed up decipherment. "Computers would be overwhelmed by the virtual variations," he said. "There's a human element to it. A computer code breaker would be fabled, and the human mind is the only thing that can access this, because the glyphs were created by humans." ...

The 100 B.C. murals at San Bartolo, one 30 feet long, were found in a pyramid chamber below 50 feet of rubble. Dr. Saturno found the first painting when he ducked into a trench for shade and saw the face of a maize god on the north wall. It took two years of careful digging to expose the entire chamber.

Examining the painting on the west wall, scholars recognized figures and mythic scenes common to much later Maya art. It was the traditional Maya depiction of creation as it has been described in manuscripts some 13 centuries later. The world is supported by trees with roots running into the underworld and branches hold the sky. The trees represent the four corners of the world and water, earth, sky and paradise.

In the mural, the maize god is setting up the tree at the center of the world and crowning himself king. Scenes depict the god's birth, death and resurrection. Other deities make blood sacrifices at each tree." ...

John Noble Wilford "On Ancient Walls, a New Maya Epoch" New York Times, May 16, 2006

A panel from Cancuen, above, in Guatemala, uses the quatrefoil as a supernatural frame for the ruler and attendants. The mouth of a creature, below, has the quatrefoil shape on a Preclassic monument from Chalcatzingo, Mexico.

Photo credits: (c) 2006 Copyrighted by and courtesy of Michael Love and Julia Guernsey via With thanks.


Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco: De Young Museum, Golden Gate Park

Art of the Americas: 2,500 Works, 1,000 Digitized, including outstanding Mayan art

Dumbarton Oaks Museum and Gardens, Trustees of Harvard University, Washington, D.C. (closed for renovations and research center construction through 2007)

"Pre-Columbian Art" digitized images, including outstanding Mayan Art


Beginning tonight, the San Francisco Symphony, under Michael Tilson Thomas, will be performing American composer Edgar Varese's "Equatorial"; along with American composer William Schuman's Violin Concerto, and German composer Robert Schumann's Symphony No. 3, "Rhenish." Gil Shaham is the violin soloist.

Tickets, if available, are $20 to $107.

[Program information on the Edgar Varese work may be available at the SFS site; which was being updated at time of posting.]


Blogger montag said...

Thank you for an absolutely beautiful place on the web.
Thanks again. Montag

(You seem to have a small problem in your links)

8:06 AM  
Blogger Garth Trinkl said...

Thank you very much for reading, Montag.

And a deep thank you also to all my other readers, whose silent presences sustain me. I was planning to thank you all next month upon my aniversary.

Montag, I'm sorry that the links are not functioning and I appreciate your pointing this out and bearing with me as I seek to restore them.

Another deep and sincere thanks go to my silent team members at Thank you.

8:55 AM  

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