Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Site of Bonampak -- "Painted Walls"

In the eastern part of the Lacanha Valley, in the rainforest of the Mexican state of Chiapas, lies Bonampak (meaning "Painted Walls" in Yucatecan Maya). Near a tributary of the Rio Lacanja, this ancient Maya site is about 12 miles south of the site of Yaxchilan.

Thought to be under the control of Yaxchilan (though their relationship seems to have stayed peaceful), Bonampak reached its height in the Late Classic period (about 600 AD to 800 AD). Rediscovered in the 1940s, it is the home of the famous Bonampak murals.

General Layout
The main area of construction at Bonampak looks vaguely u-shaped. A large group of structures forms the bottom of the "u" while longer structures heading away from the group of structures form the sides. The base of the "u" is where the acropolis and various temples and two stelae exist. The space within the "u" is the main plaza. In the middle of the "u" are two stelae, and at the mouth of the "u" are four structures.

Beyond the "u" is an airstrip, and across the river is a group of buildings called the Quemado Group. Beyond the airstrip is the Frey Group.

It is not entirely clear who rediscovered Bonampak. However it is currently believed that the western world first came into contact with the site when a member of the Lancadon people named Chan Bor (or Chan Bol) showed two travellers -- John Bourne and Charles Frey -- the ruins in 1946.

A man named Giles Healey told everyone about murals he'd seen at Bonampak the same year that the two travellers were shown the site by Chan Bor. These murals -- dating from the Late Classic Period (ca. 600 to 800 AD) --  are located in the three rooms of a building (designated Structure 1, Temple 1 or Templo de las Pinturas). This building, in which each room has a bench, is prominently placed in the site's acropolis.

Archaeologists do not all agree as to what is happening in the murals. They do think that they depict scenes of activities, and it is possible that they are a narrative (they tell a story) that highlights events that happened over a span of time.

Rendering Project
Yale University is conducting a project -- directed by Department of the History of Art's Mary Miller -- to digitally render the murals online, called the Bonampak Documentation Project. This project began in 1995, when National Geographic Magazine published a study where certain photographic techniques were used to make restored images of the murals.

About one year later, the Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia gave its permission, as well as assistance, to the project to make a complete series of color photographs and infrared photographs. The processing of these images is still ongoing, and people working on the project are attempting to give viewers a sense of what the murals are like in the structure.

University of Texas Press: To Be Like Gods

Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University: Storied Walls

Yale University: Bonampak Documentation Project: Overview

"To Be Like Gods: Dance in Ancient Maya Civilization"; Matthew George Looper; 2009

"Moon Chiapas"; Liza Prado, Gary Chandler; 2009

"Lonely Planet Yucatan"; Ray Bartlett, Daniel C. Schechter; 2006

 "Shadows of Bonampak"; S. Roeling

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Coming Soon

Ancient Maya Life will be on hiatus for a while for the author to research and schedule more fascinating posts on the Maya civilization. Check back regularly!

Friday, June 8, 2012


At the beginning of Guatemala’s Rio Azul (also called the Ixcan River) lies the site of Xultun (“end stone” or “closing stone”), about 17.4 miles northeast of the site of Uaxactun. Recently, Xultun has been a source of Classic period information on the Maya calendar -- as opposed to the codices, which are understood to be Late Postclassic sources.

Precise descriptions of Xultun have been difficult for the author to find. It has different groups of structures, which have been classified using a combination of numerals and the alphabet. Other than structures, the site has a sacbe, a ballcourt, plazas and -- originally -- around 25 stelae. The largest plaza is in Group A and the largest structure is called B-7. The closer to the center of the site one gets, the more closely built and the larger the structures are.

Brief History
By 396 AD Xultun may have had its own emblem glyph, a kind of glyph that cities used as their names. Around the time of the Early Classic period, Xultun is thought to have been a secondary site under the control of the famous site of Tikal. When Tikal had a cultural explosion in the late 600s, Xultun, along with other sites, displayed similar styles -- as seen in the site’s pottery, architecture and monuments.
However, by the Late Terminal Classic period, Xultun may have become a city under the control of Calakmul. This is because during the Terminal Classic, stelae at Xultun do not have the same kinds of ending glyphs as in the rest of the Tikal dominated area of the time.

For a while, Xultun was lost to everyone. Then in 1915, a chiclero (chicle harvester) by the name of Aurelio Aguayo rediscovered it. After that, various archaeological digs have taken place there.

The first organization to have a dig at Xultun was the Carnegie Institute of Washington (CIW), which currently has conducted three digs there. During the first dig, which lasted three days, two men -- named C.E. Cuthe and S.C. Morley -- gave the site its name based on a stela they found.

Archaeological Importance
Since its rediscovery, Xultun has been looted many times. There are at least 50 trenches dug by looters, and one stela even disappeared (several others were damaged). Despite the looting, Xultun is not without archaeological significance. An archaeologist named REW Adams found a screw-top jar at the site. And also, last year, archaeologists found murals on the ceiling and walls in a small room that they say come from the 800s AD.

Both the ceiling and wall murals contain human figures, while two walls contain astronomical tables – some painted with red or black paint and some that are cut into the walls. The archaeologists think the tables are connected to the Maya calendar, as they seem to calculate the moon’s cycle and may also calculate Venus’ and Mars’ cycles.


Maya Political Science: Time, Atronomy, and the Cosmos; Prudence M. Rice; 2004

Western Belize & Guatemala: Belmopan, San Ignacio, Caracol, Tikal & Beyond; Vivien Lougheed; 2011

 PubMed: Ancient Maya Astronomical Tables From Xultun, Guatemala

Peabody Museum: Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions