Mayan `Sistine Chapel' leaves archeologist in awe

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Archeologists said Tuesday that they had uncovered the final portion of the earliest known Mayan mural ever found, declaring that the find--which dates to 100 B.C.--overturns what was previously known about the origins of Mayan art, writing and royalty.

"It's really breathtaking how beautiful this is," said William Saturno, an archeologist with the University of New Hampshire and the Harvard Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology who discovered the mural in Guatemala.

"I was awestruck by its state of preservation," he said. "Its brilliant colors and fluid lines looked as though they could have been painted yesterday."

Scholars are calling the discovery the "Sistine Chapel" of the Pre-classic Maya world and one of the most significant archeological finds in decades.

Saturno spoke at a briefing organized by the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C. The society came up with emergency funding when the site was discovered, and the magazine has covered the saga from the beginning. The latest research will be featured in the January issue of National Geographic.

"Our original dating of the murals to approximately A.D. 100 was a conservative estimate based largely upon stylistic comparisons," Saturno said. "We now know from the radiocarbon dating of the murals and of the construction and ancient debris that buried them that they more accurately date to 100 B.C."

The 30-foot by 3-foot painting was the last section of a room- size mural to be excavated since the site was discovered in 2001 at the ruins of the Mayan city of San Bartolo in the lowlands of northeastern Guatemala.

The mural was painted with pigments on smooth plaster by skilled artisans who had to work while the plaster was moist. It tells the story of creation, the mythology of kingship and the divine right of a king. The mural has a highly developed hieroglyphic script, only some of which can be read by scholars, Saturno said.

It features four deities, all of which are variations of the son of the corn god, a young deity and patron of kings, he said. The deities provide a blood sacrifice and an offering in four cardinal directions as they set up the physical world.

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