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Assembling the World’s Most Difficult Puzzle: The Broken Maya Murals of San Bartolo, Guatemala

Dr. Heather Hurst presented BEARC’s Virtual Lecture on YouTube February 24, 2020).

NEW! – Check out an excellent new San Bartolo – Xultun website with lots of details referred to in Heather’s lecture

“We are excited to have Heather present this incredible story as part of our Virtual Lecture Series on YouTube,” said Maxime Lamoureux St-Hilaire, BEARC’s president.

Photos: Christopher Massa/Skidmore College


The outstanding origin mythology depicted in the San Bartolo murals was a remarkable discovery from a previously unknown Late Preclassic period Maya site. Ten years of excavation, conservation, and documentation brought the in situ north and west walls of the buried chamber named Sub-1A into focus, significantly advancing studies of ancient Maya iconography, religion, and governance. Yet this was only half the story. In contrast to the excellent preservation of the in situ walls, the east and south walls of the temple were intentionally broken and buried by the Maya as part of its ritual termination in the 1st century. It took several additional years to recover over 3000 mural fragments during archaeological excavations of the Sub-1A chamber, and then slowly piece sections back together based on iconographic and stylistic characteristics. The “second chapter” of the San Bartolo murals is becoming visible in numerous reassembled scenes. This presentation will share our methodologies for reassembly and recent results in solving this challenging puzzle.

Imagine 7,000 fragments of stucco over 2000 years old, painted bright colors. Pieced together, they form a stunning panorama of scenes depicting the Maya maize god, blood-letting sacrifices, turtle caves and a principal bird deity.

“Seeing this today brings back the thrill of discovery,” said Hurst. “…I’m reminded of the moment we found the beautiful calligraphic lines that were fluid and precise. The awe of seeing the intense colors of black, red, yellow and white…the precise yet stylized images of men, women and deities.” (from Skidmore College’s website by Julia Marco.)

Part of Hurst’s work was conducted at BEARC’s Library, where she collaborated with David Stuart, Karl Taube and Astrid Runggaldier during a workshop. For several days Heather guided them with Photoshop images of the individual mural fragments to put the puzzle together.

Hurst’s current project on the murals of San Bartolo has support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Guggenheim Foundation, National Geographic Society, and the Mesoamerica Center of the University of Texas at Austin.

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