The Painted Murals of San Bartolo

Date of Submission: 27/04/2012
Criteria: (i)(iii)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Ministry of Culture and Sports
State, Province or Region:
Department of Petén, Municipality of Melchor de Mencos
Coordinates: N17 32 54 W89 24 14
Ref.: 5738
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Description

San Bartolo is located within the biological corridor of the Ixcan River Basin, northeast of the Department of Petén, and 42 kilometers north of Uaxactun.  It has the most beautiful, polychrome murals of all of the archaeological sites found in Guatemala, making it a proposed candidate for Cultural Heritage status for its unique value on an artistic level.

The archaeological site covers an area of 4 kilometers², has several areas that contain monumental architecture, highlighting the groups formed by the main square, including the Pyramid of the Paintings, the Saraguate Group, which functioned as astronomical complex, and the Jabalí Group which has funeral connotations. The area also lies within the Maya Biosphere Reserve, surrounded by a forest concession called the Árbol Verde Community, which is comprised of nine communities: El Caoba, el Remate, Socotzal, El Porvenir, Las Viñas, Ixlu, Macanché, Naranjo and Jobompich.

The most important and impressive part of the San Bartolo site is a structure called the Pyramid of the Paintings, featuring a construction sequence that dates back to the Late Pre-Classic period (250 BC-250 AD).  Here the Maya erected a domed building that within its interior are one-of-a-kind murals, painted with beautiful and bright colors. The murals are complex mythological scenes relating to the Maize God and the creation of the world, as well as the enthronement of a sovereign, which is part of the historical process of the Maya. The outside of the building is decorated with stucco masks flanking the stairways and entrance to the site.  Of all the buildings, the Pyramid of the Paintings is far and away the most complex and showcases, through its murals, a long tradition of painting and story telling.

The beginning of the occupation at San Bartolo dates back to the early part of the Middle Pre-Classic period (± 800 BC) and carried on through to the Late Classic period (900 AD), but with interruptions in between. The first settlers arrived to the site in the Middle Pre-Classic period and occupied what is now known as the south-central section of the site.  Between the years 600-300 BC San Bartolo was a village in training.  Residents were settled in scattered groups, which gradually grew into a larger settlement and the society was organized by groups of families (lineages) that shared culture, language and territory.

As agriculture became more important, more complex irrigation systems were created to increase crop outputs and sustain the increased population.  Next came the ceremonial center, the demand of ceramic utensils and a consolidated social stratification as a result of the division of labor. To this period also belongs the construction of the first of eight architectural phases of Structure 1, known as the Pyramid of the Paintings, and these sub-structures were constructed during short intervals of time.

It was during the Late Pre-Classic (300 BC-150 AD) that San Bartolo became a major center of the Ixcan River region, as confirmed by the evidence of architectural patterns, iconography, and art, expressed through murals, friezes and masks symbolizing mythic stories that reflected their social and political differentiation.  Also during this time, the most complex buildings known to this site were erected.

By the end of the Late Pre-Classic and the start of the Early Classic period there was a dramatic departure from San Bartolo.  The public buildings and known ritual sites were no longer in use and the Xultun archaeological site (located just 8 kilometers away) used this time to develop.  However during the Late Classic period (600-900 AD) new work in San Bartolo appeared again.  It is understood that the habitants at this time used only the residential areas and made pilgrimages or sacred rituals in the abandoned structures and archaeological evidence seems to indicate that this population belonged to the Xultun suburban areas.

From the Late Pre-Classic period (400 BC-300 AD) some farmers built their homes around the city, where they were closer not only to water but also to their fields and the flint resources they needed to make and maintain their tools.  At this same time the first rulers emerged in San Bartolo and one of the fantastic murals was commissioned, circa 100 BC. Unfortunately by the year 250 AD the wetlands had dried up and became the lowlands that they are today. This transformation caused a crisis over water resources and San Bartolo and all of the surrounding areas were abandoned. 

Maya Art. The meaning of the polychrome murals:

The San Bartolo murals are within the Pyramid of the Paintings, Sub-1A, on the northern and western walls of the site. The paintings show a detailed portrait of Maya mythology and their beliefs in the creation of the world.  Its existence is dated back to 100 BC and is important to note that the reading of the murals are done from left to right and top to bottom. These murals also have a dimension of 2.00 x 1.50 m (on the northern wall) and 9.45 mx 2.20 m (on the western wall).

The murals located within the Pyramids of Paintings, on the north wall, show mythical scenes that narrate the birth of the first men through a ritual that is conducted by the Maize God. This scene is further reflected by the images of infants that represent the four directional cardinal points and the mundi axis.  The west wall shows one of the most significant themes of creation and kingship known to the Pre-Classic Maya. The first 10 figures (from left to right) form the basis of directional trees for the four aspects of the Ajaw, embodiment of royalty.  The location of this refers to the four directions concerning the basic obligation of kings, the establishment and maintenance of an area.  Adding to this is the painful act of piercing the penis.  This act denotes an effort and sacrifice, whether in personal terms as the governing body or in a broader social sense such as the human role in war and conflict.

The next portion of the west wall shows the mythical cycle of the Maize God with an ambiguous reference to royalty. Two royal coronation scenes flank the central portion of the mural.  The first character is receiving the Jester God Trifoliate and the other character is shown with a royal headdress displaying the Jester God Trifoliate, which could be a historical individual.  The relationship of the Maize God with royalty probably concerns the widespread identification of a ruler with corn, not only as a personification of the mundi axis, but also as the provider of economic stability and power. The central portion of this section is about three epic episodes, the bird of the aquatic Maize God, his death, and the emergence of the tortoise, all which appear in Late Pre-Classic Maya iconography. These scenes also illustrate the cycle of human life on earth: birth, death and resurrection, and the last is accompanied by dance and music, through which the Maya contact their ancestors.

The north wall shows a scene that includes nine characters. All figures are standing or kneeling on a feathered serpent. The scene is dominated by the Maize God who is standing and moving toward the viewer's left, looking over his shoulder at two kneeling female figures behind him. In turn, behind the women is another woman who is participating in another activity and who is described to be the wife of the Maize God. To the right of this woman are two characters that are carrying sacred bundles and in front of these characters are hieroglyphic texts that unfortunately are not possible to decipher. It is however possible that these texts indicate the names or functions of these people or the contents of the sacred bundles.

To the left of the Maize God you can see two kneeling figures.  The first is a male with a blackened face carrying a gourd, pumpkin or chuj, while the second figure to the left is a woman, carrying a basket or bowl of tamales. To the left of the serpent with the nine characters, is a different scene where a character is carrying an ax (possibly a warrior), as well as a scene consisting of five infants symbolizing birth and the four cardinal directional points with the mundi axis in the center.  In this center there is again an image of a gourd, pumpkin or chuj, symbolizing breath and blood.

On the southern half of the western wall is a depiction of the five trees of life, within the context of sacrificial offerings, including a bloodletting ritual showing the offering of blood to four individuals.  On the other portion of the western wall there are characters going through the action of piercing their penises, as mentioned earlier, with branches pointed to the four trees. Although the upper portion of Figure 1 is absent, the rest of the body has prominent spots, just like the other three figures, which are displaying large spots at their cheeks. These four young men are the quadripartite aspects of the hero twins known as Hunahpu in the Popol Vuh and Hun Ajaw in Classic Maya texts. In Classic Maya writing the Ajaw day, meaning God or King in Mayan languages, commonly appears as a personified form and in these texts and iconography, Hun Ajaw is often identified by a white band on a head and displaying a red stripe across the forehead, which is seen in one of the better preserved figures in this section of the mural.  This band, portrayed in this scene, is partially obscured by the prominent Jester God jewelry, a symbol of royalty, and other elaborate headbands extending around the headdress and chin, moving from the back of the head to the front. The same type of headband seems to be carried by four other individuals. Further, this strip of cloth, when knotted, denoted high status during the Late Pre-Classic period.  Stela 25 of Izapa shows the Late Pre-Classic period form of Vucub Caquix and Hunahpu with the Hero Twins who are wearing the knotted headdress. This same band on the heads of royals appears on many of the contemporary conquest works such as Mound J at Monte Alban, monuments exhibiting the defeat of the Zapotec gods under toponymic signs from their communities.

In traditional Maya thought the four trees at the corners of the world's four sides denoted the socially constructed space of straight lines as in a house or milpa, in contrast to the chaotic growth and winding paths of the wild jungle. For the ancient Maya the relationship of authority and government with the four directions was not limited only to the community but referred also to the greater political and territorial domains.  By appointment of the personified form of the kings or Ajaw, before four trees in the world, the San Bartolo artists from the Late Pre-Classic period exhibited their reign as an ancient institution, despite going backwards in time of creation.

Three of the four figures of Ajaw appear as fishermen or hunters, submitting their prey on the fire as sacrificial offerings to the world's trees. All creatures of sacrifice are facing upward with tripod stands smoldering in their abdomen and chest.  In the background one can see black blood dripping from a wounded a fish, a large fish on an offering plate in front of the world’s trees, one of the hunter figures taking a deer and offering it to another tree, as well as a pair of birds on a woven bag attached to the other character identified as the hunter of birds.   Finally, the last figure is standing in front of another tree and instead of an animal sacrifice, the base of the fourth tree is covered with yellow sprouts or buds letting off an aroma, and these are the same buds in fact seen in the feathered serpent on the northern wall mural. 

Along with the fisherman and hunters there is a large mythical bird holding a two-headed snake in its beak, perched on each of the four trees of the world.  This creature is an early form of Vucub Caquix, the bird monster defeated by the Hero Twins. The art of the Late Pre-Classic and Classic Maya contain explicit scenes of the mythical battle between the Hero Twins and this bird monster. The four Ajaws in the sequence shown in San Bartolo show no antagonism, but only offerings in front of each bird and the trees of the world. The fourth tree corresponds more closely to the fruit tree in which the Vucub Caquix from the Late Pre-Classic and Classic period is perched.  This tree is also seen in the XVI Century Popol Vuh and is called the nance, a pine plant with large, round fruit and pine leaves, however in the Late Pre-Classic and Classic period was identified as the Calabash tree (Crescentia spp.).

North of the fourth tree is another figure, the representation of the Principal Bird deity. In view of their virtually identical attributes, this is certainly the same bird in the tree as seen in the pumpkin mentioned earlier, but in this case it is descending from heaven to the tree branches. Similarly, Stela 2 of Izapa shows the bird being thrown into the tree and the pumpkin resting at its base.

Below the descended bird and the celestial band is another interesting figure, a duck-billed figure that is dancing and singing and is accompanied by three songbirds. The physical proportions of this being similar to the Tuxtla statuette dated to the mid-second century BC.  Both duck-shaped beings are probably early forms of the Aztec Wind God, Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl, who usually wears a mask with a beak of a duck. A step cut of Structure 33 of the Late Classic period of Yaxchilan, denotes epigraphically a being with a duck-bill, knows as IK 'K'UH or "God of Wind" and the Classic art of this deity shows the sign Ik' marked on its wings and body.

Along with the four trees of the world with the figures of birds and the mythic Hero Twins, there is a fifth tree accompanied by the Maize God. The fifth tree most likely represents the center of the world, being surrounded by the other trees representing the directional points. Among the classic Olmec, Maya and Aztec civilizations, the deities of corn were closely identified with the mundi axis.

On the northern half of the western wall, the central scenes are flanked by two scenes of royal ascent depicting at least two such examples known at this early date. The scene to the south shows a strip or cloth marked with a human footprint, hanging on a platform, a feature also found in the four scenes detailing the rise in Piedras Negras.  The San Bartolo murals also show in the background a jaguar chained to a tree and it is assumed that these creatures correspond to human victims in the events that took place during the ascension to power during the Late Classic period.

The two male figures involved in the royal ascension are sitting on a platform on the western wall, marking themselves front of center stage, concerning the mythical cycle of the Maize God. The ascendant ruler sits on a jaguar skin while receiving a royal jewel from the second individual. The accompanying figure is clearly the Maize God.  Although most of the head of the seated god is absent, except for the profile, including its extended upper lip, indicates that it is most likely the Maize God. The figure also shows an aspect of the Maize God bird, wearing a headdress of bird wings and a tail. The Maize God offers the Jester God the symbol of royalty, ascending the deity. Incised plates at the Dumbarton Oaks museum show the ascending god with such a fixture on his head and another example of this is found on Stela 11of Kaminaljuyu.

The ascension scene on the northern part of the western wall is better preserved and shows a figure showing a royal robe subsidiary to the upward figure. In contrast to the pair of deities that appear on the stage of succession further south, the figures hear appear to be very human and this scene could be showing a historical rather than mythical event. The final glyph in the accompanying text is clearly the glyph Ajaw but it could be that this is an appropriate title to a God or also the historical king. 

After the partially reconstructed avian figure of the Maize God, there is about 20 centimeters of the mural missing until the next series of figures concerning the mythology of the Maize God and its dynamic relationship with the land, here shown as a large turtle.  The only part of the missing section that can be identified of this complex scene is at the top center portion of the southern bank and it is a human leg.  The rest of this important scene that is visible depicts the Maize God infant being cradled in the arms of another man kneeling in the water. In many regions of the ancient and contemporary Mesoamerica, when there is an image of an infant it is typically related to the concept of short corn seed, which grows corn.

To the right of the figure is a massive turtle with a curved beak and a cave-like quadripartite body. This turtle denotes the soft, round, earth floating in the primordial sea, a widespread metaphor, amply used among the ancient Maya.  On the mural there are individuals seated around both sides of the cave turtle.  The figure on the south side of the turtle is Chaak and the figure to the north is the Terrestrial Water God that appears in Classic Maya inscriptions in personified forms during the Tun period of 360 days and the numeral 13.  Both figures have a flexed or extended arm pointed towards an enthusiastic dancing Maize God who is touching a turtle shell drum with a bird's claw leg, an early version of a major episode of the classic Maya creation mythology, Maize God dancing out of the tortoise.

On the north side of the turtle, opposite of the baby Maize God, is another figure, the Maize God in a diving position with his legs over his head. This figure is in a contortionist position, a position commonly adopted by the Maize God and the Reptile World Tree from the Classic Period reptile referring to individuals as the axis mundi, growing the underworld skyward. In the case of this character, however, the Maize God does not hold itself to the land, but falls from the sky with outstretched arms and directly below the Maize God is a band of black, wavy, vertical water. This scene most likely refers to the death of the Maize God, using the Classic Maya expression of death, och ha, meaning "enters the water".  It is important to note that it is also extremely rare to find a depiction of the water Maize God.

The epigraphic information contained in the murals are a valuable source for scientists to track the initiation, development and consolidation of the Maya script, which lasted all the way until the period of the Spanish conquest.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

Polychrome murals discovered at the site of San Bartolo have scenes depicting the creation myth and worship of the Maize God from the worldview of the ancient Maya and are dated to 100 BC, becoming one of the few examples that date back to the Pre-Classic Maya area. These paintings also have representations associated with the Popol Vuh, the sacred book of the Quiche and one of the most important literary documents from pre-Hispanic civilizations in the Americas. Finally, these murals’ hieroglyphic texts are extremely valuable, given they were written in a grammatical system before the structure of the Classic Maya was put in place, which together with other evidence, turns out to be unique in Mesoamerica.

criterion (i): The San Bartolo archaeological site is surrounded by tropical rainforest and has evidence that it was an important Pre-Classic center, given its early ceremonial architecture, but also the wealth of art, which is one of the few examples of Pre-Classic Maya, including painted murals located within the structure of the Pyramid of Paintings, Sub-1A, showing hieroglyphic inscriptions, proving Maya writing was already developed in the lowlands around 300 BC-100 AD. (Garrison, 2005).  These spectacular murals show an established base of figures during the Pre-Classic period that can be seen on stone monuments, carvings and other murals found in Tikal and Uaxactun. Valdés (1990) indicates that at these sites, the paintings were located in a palace complex belonging to the elite ruling class, indicating the importance of the site during the Pre-Classic period.

criterion (iii): The splendid wall paintings, remarkably well preserved, inside the chamber of the Pyramid of Paintings, Sub-1A, promises to be one of the most significant archaeological discoveries in the entire Maya region. The paintings show a detailed representation of the Mayan creation mythology and passages from the Popol Vuh, constituting one of the more developed art programs, devoted to native mythology and known to the Pre-Hispanic New World.  It should also be added that these murals have a unique age, dated to the first century BC.  At the present time the murals are in an extraordinary state of conservation, indicating the quality of how they were created and making it possible to conduct advanced studies about the origin and development of Maya writing.

The preservation and study of this site may reveal the history of mural painting in general and more about the Pre-Classic Maya civilization. Furthermore, it is the only example in the Maya area, from this period, of mural painting so well executed.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

The San Bartolo murals are of great value by being the oldest know Maya pictorial tradition, demonstrating unique characteristics because they are also representative of the beliefs that prevailed throughout Mesoamerica on the religious aspects and those of kingship as descendants of the gods of overworld. These features also show the development of painting, intellectual, cultural, artistic and technological aspects of the Maya society based in this area.  This evidence demonstrates that the Pre-Classic, pre-Hispanic population of the Maya lowlands had already reached a high level of complexity and sophistication, dismissing the theory that the Pre-Classic period was the beginning of the Maya civilization.  Further, the Maize God and the Hero Twins stories of the Popol Vuh was an ongoing thematic topic seen in other artistic representations until the time of the conquest.

Another fact that contributes to its unique features is its content, as it shows the Maya worldview related to the creation story, the four cardinal points and the Popol Vuh (sacred book of the Quiché Maya). These creationists and mythological concepts show a high level of philosophical sophistication and the degree of their artistic skills. These murals are also unique not only for their antiquity, but also for their degree of conservation.

The importance of these murals supports the need to strengthen national identity and awareness in Guatemala and for cultural heritage to be protected by both the local population and the country as a whole.  All archaeological research done on the murals of San Bartolo has been associated with the study and conservation of architecture associated with the murals. The study of these paintings also allows us a glimpse at the working techniques used by the several artists involved in its implementation, as well as types of brushes used and the management of human scale that was in the play, as a single unified concept. This is another reason why it is vital that conservation and preservation steps be taken before the site and the paintings are irreparably damaged by the actions of nature or vandalism by looters and diggers.

Comparison with other similar properties

For its pictorial, stylistic features and architecture, San Bartolo resembles other Pre-Classic cities such as Uaxactun, El Mirador, Nakbé, Cival, Holmul, and Tikal (declared World Heritage by UNESCO in 1979), which also has masks decorating the entrance to the main campus.  As for paintings, there is no other example anywhere in the Maya area.  Although there are known Late Classic period murals at Calakmul and Bonampak, but their uses were different.  In both places the murals are of historical scenes, not mythological as is seen in San Bartolo.

There are very few early examples of writing that can be used to compare to the texts of San Bartolo, however there are some examples: Monument I of El Porton and Kaminaljuyu (in the Guatemalan highlands), San José Mogote and Monte Alban (in the State of Oaxaca, Mexico), Izapa (Chiapas) and Takalik Abaj (in the Guatemalan lowlands).