Maya Marvels

After a short flight to Flores, the main city in Petén, Guatemala, archaeologist Vilma Fialko and I drove to the site of Naranjo to inspect the conservation work carried out at the Hieroglyph Stair Structure, thought to be an astronomic observatory associated with Reina VI Cielo, the iconic queen who ruled this Maya city between A.D. 682 and 741.

The next day, we drove through Tikal, Uaxactun, and a couple of fallen trees had to be macheted out of the way to arrive in Xultun, a monumental, early classic Maya site discovered in 1915 by a chiclero, or rubber tree collector. Xultun means “last stone”--so named by Sylvanus Morley in the 1920s because it contained a stele with the latest recorded date known in Maya history at that time. It has been recently excavated by Bill Saturno, who discovered an extraordinary mural painted within a private residence depicting the Lord of Xultun with his court jester, a rare find.

One of the three most important finds in Maya archaeology (the other two were the Bonampak murals and the tomb of Pacal in Palenque) are the 1st-century B.C.mural paintings that Saturno found ten years ago at the site of San Bartolo. These are the earliest Maya murals found, predating the famous Bonampak murals by 800 years. They were painted on the walls of a large rectangular room that was buried less than 100 years later, and illustrate the creation of the world and the birth of civilization. The first scene depicts sacrifice and bloodletting led by the son of the Maize God and performed at the four cardinal points, a Maya symbol of civilization. The second scene shows the self-crowning of the Maize God, the Maya patron god of civilization and agriculture, and the third illustrates humans, water, and agriculture rising from the underworld. Above this buried treasure of murals rises a 26-meter-high pyramid topped by a temple decorated with additional murals.

Near this extraordinary structure lies a mound containing a small pyramid with identical façades articulated with monumental stairs, plumed serpents, shields, and jaguars, and a miniature ball game with a unique painted marker still to be deciphered. This can only be seen through glimpses of defining architectural elements such as corners and medallions, exposed by tunnels that burrow around the collapsed mound. The tunnels are safe according to the archaeologist, but they are low and narrow, and inhabited by bats and spiders, which makes the visit somewhat challenging and certainly not for the claustrophobic.

On the return to Flores we encountered a large fallen tree that prompted the driver to yell ”moto!” calling for the ”motosierra,” or chainsaw, once he saw that the magnitude of the obstacle was too large for the machetes. We did however make it safely back to Flores, Guatemala City, and finally, the jungles of New York.