& CULTURE HIGHLIGHT
San Bartolo—Window to the Maya World
In the tropical rainforests of Guatemala, an archaeological team
is revealing Mayan secrets from thousands of years ago at a site
called San Bartolo. Originally discovered by Dr. Bill Saturno in
2001 by accident, this site has quickly become one of the "hotspots"
of archaeological discovery.
The site at San Bartolo is comprised of more than 100 stone structures
and open areas, including residential sites, a "palace,"
a large central plaza, and a ball court. In addition, there is a
large pyramid with colorful narrative murals that are recognized
as the most important body of known painted scenes for the Late
Preclassic Maya Period. Not only are San Bartolo's murals well preserved,
but they are exceptional in composition and in technical skill.
Already, the San Bartolo murals promise to provide new information
about the Maya during this period, but first they must be restored,
conserved, inter-preted, and protected. Already, looters have re-moved
a wall below the murals, which has affected their integrity, resulting
in loose fragments and cracks. Furthermore, the entire San Bartolo
site must be excavated further to add to researchers’ understanding
of the murals.
The Petén Archaeological Conservation Trust (PACT), led
by Dr. Bill Saturno, has tackled the San Bartolo Project with technology
and archaeological training. With a $35,000 grant from ICF’s
Reinhart Foundation Fund, $20,000 from an anonymous ICF donor and
additional support from National Geographic, PACT is documenting
the murals using digital cameras and pen-and-ink drawings, conserving
them with mortar and support structures, and finally, continuing
its excavations. The researchers have uncovered elaborate scenes
of birth and resurrection, in addition to the earliest evidence
of kings and writing in the Maya lowlands.
PACT is also conducting a transect survey of the nearby site of
Xultún and a regional survey using remote-sensing and satellite
imagery. This data provides an extensive look at the developmental
demography of the site and the Petén region overall. Using
these techniques, PACT has been able to locate and map previously
unknown archaeological sites in the region around San Bartolo for
The discovery of the murals at San Bartolo has sparked discussions
about possible eco- and cultural tourism in this remote region,
which would create a viable economic alternative for local residents
that currently rely on extractive activities, such as logging, for
The San Bartolo Project is featured in National Geographic’s
December 2003 article, "Sistine Chapel of the Early Maya."
|Left to right: Wall Painting Conservators
working to restore a mural at San Bartolo, Guatemala; actual
depiction of ‘kneeling attendant’ section of mural.