16th-century Aztec-Franciscan mural

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Salvador Guilliem dangles on a narrow beam over the sunken remains of a mural painted by Indians shortly after the Spanish Conquest. Guilliem, an archeologist, points out the newly excavated red, green and ochre flourishes in one of the earliest paintings to show the mixing of the two cultures.

The vivid scene of animals real and mythical cavorting around the edge of lakes that once shimmered in Mexico City was painted by Aztec Indians in the early 1530s during a rare, brief moment of tolerance in an era when Spaniards were obliterating Aztec culture to cement their own rule.

Guilliem, who found the mural beneath the floor of a former Spanish convent, uses the beam to avoid treading on or touching the painting, done on the sides of a water holding pool that was later ceremonially crushed and buried. Because of the burial, the bottom half of the 16-yard-long mural was preserved. But the top half -- about one yard in height -- was broken into about 25,000 fragments, which archeologists must now painstakingly reassemble.

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