In 2010, while exploring a looter’s trench in a building at the ancient Maya ruins of Xultún (pronounced “shooltoon”) in Guatemala, a Boston University undergraduate named Max Chamberlin discovered traces of paint on the wall of an exposed room. When the archaeological team led by William Saturno, assistant professor of archaeology at the same university, investigated, they discovered that all four walls of the room were painted with bright murals. Glyphs painted on the wall suggest that the murals date to about 814. One wall at Xultún has a niche originally screened by a curtain, and within the archaeologists found the image of a seated Maya king wearing a huge headdress of quetzal feathers. Two other walls show seated and kneeling men. One holds a painting or drawing implement and is named in a caption in Maya hieroglyphs as Younger Brother Obsidian. The fourth wall shows several groups of painted and incised (in the plaster) glyphs for days and columns of numbers. The images would prove to be the earliest-known Maya astronomical tables, painted on a wall that was frequently whitewashed and that seemed to have served as a blackboard. One of the calculations casts 2.5 million days, or 7,000 years into the future, and is yet more evidence dispelling the idea that the Maya calendar ended four weeks ago, on Dec. 21, 2012.
Although there are traces of painting inside many ancient Maya buildings, well-preserved murals are rare discoveries. Probably the most famous Maya murals were discovered by Giles Healey in 1947 at a site in the Lacandón rain forest of Chiapas, Mexico. They were named Bonampak, meaning “painted walls” in the Yucatec Maya language, by Santa Fe’s resident Mayanist, Sylvanus G. Morley. At the time, Morley was director of both the Laboratory of Anthropology and the Museum of New Mexico. Healey actually discovered the ruins of Bonampak in May 1946, accompanied by Carl Frey and John G. Bourne. As Mary Ellen Miller writes in The Murals of Bonampak (1986), Frey was an American draft dodger who had married a Lacandón Maya woman. And Bourne, who is a long-time Santa Fe resident, was a 20-year-old student from Los Angeles whose grandfather was president of Singer Sewing Machine. Healey was making a film about the ancient Maya. When the local Maya, who still revered the ruins as a shrine, led the trio to the site, they did not show the visitors the building with the murals. When Healey returned in 1947, the Lacandón showed him the murals, and he became their “discoverer,” at least among white men. The murals of Bonampak consist of three rooms painted floor to ceiling with scenes from the life of the king of the city, ceremonial dances, a battle, and a scene with the battle captives presented and sacrificed. There is also a musical band, images of nobles from other cities, and several scenes of Bonampak’s royal family. The murals were painted in 790, just a few years before the city’s abandonment. They were preserved because the limestone roof leaked, coating the painted walls with a quarter inch of calcium carbonate.