William A. Saturno

National Endowment for the Humanities and Weatherhead Resident Scholar


Let There Be Kings: Creation Mythology and the Origins of Maya Divine Rule

The ancient Maya are widely recognized for their masterful ceramic and mural painting traditions, as well as their elaborate architecture and stone monuments. The 1946 discovery of murals at Bonampak, Chiapas contributed insights into Classic Maya courtly life, ritual, warfare, and astronomy. Murals from Tikal, Uaxactn, and Ro Azul on temple walls and in painted tombs illuminated the Early Classic period. Thanks to the recent discovery and excavation of exquisite murals in San Bartolo dating to the 1st century BC scholars now have a unique window into the very origins of ancient Maya religion and government during the Late Preclassic period.

When William A. Saturno relates the tale of the San Bartolo murals’ serendipitous discovery in 2001, his voice still carries a tinge of wonder. Sent by a colleague to find carved stone stellae, Saturno was seeking shelter from the sun in a looters tunnel when he noticed the murals. “Pure happenstance,” he admits. “Brilliantly painted in a rich array of colors, the murals are extremely refined and detailed, and offer a broad new corpus of iconographic information concerning mythology, cosmology, costume, and deity attributes,” wrote Saturno. As thrilling as the murals promised to be, however, he would wait two years before beginning excavation. “Never in the history of Maya archaeology have murals been excavated in a way that preserved them appropriately,” Saturno explains. “Focusing on mural conservation concerns, we planned for two years so that conservation would not be an afterthought but fully integrated into the excavation.”

The San Bartolo chamber measures nine and one-half meters by four meters, a brilliant open space with elaborate depictions on all four walls. Involving more than forty interacting figures, the creation myth shows the Maize God and his son Hunahpu directing the construction of the four-sided world and participating in the original coronation of kings. Saturno's book, Let There Be Kings: Creation Mythology and the Origins of Maya Divine Rule, will be the first definitive monograph on these murals by a scholar involved in their initial discovery and subsequent excavation.

Affiliation at time of award:
Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of New Hampshire

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