Category Archives: GUATEMALA

A Stunning Jade mask discovered in the tomb of the Maya King in Guatemala

A Stunning Jade mask discovered in the tomb of the Maya King in Guatemala

A Stunning Jade mask discovered in the tomb of the Maya King in Guatemala

Archaeologists excavating a looted pyramid tomb in the ruins of a Mayan city in Peten, northeast Guatemala, have discovered a mysterious interlocking jade mask believed to have belonged to a previously unknown Mayan king.

Chochkitam, a little-known archaeological site, is located near the Peten Basin, a subregion of the Maya Lowlands in northwest Guatemala.

The area is considered the heartland of the Maya Classic Period, which lasted from 200 to 900 AD.

The site was first reported in 1909, and ongoing studies have revealed three major monumental groups linked by a long central causeway.

In ancient times, the value of jade went far beyond its material value. Mayans considered it a protector of generations, living and dead. For this reason,  jade masks were generally used to symbolize deities or ancestors and were used to reflect the affluence and influence of the entombed individuals.

Archaeologists discovered that grave robbers had excavated a tunnel into a royal pyramid’s core following a LiDAR survey in 2021. Further inspection revealed that the intruders had overlooked a specific area within the pyramid’s inner chamber.

A human skull, and bones, some of them carved with hieroglyphs, a coffin-shaped stone box, ceramic artifacts, and funerary offerings including a pot, oyster shells, and multiple jade pieces that fit together to create a jade mask were found as a result of this oversight.

The name Itzam Kokaj Bahlam is spelled out in carvings and hieroglyphs on some of the bone fragments.

The researchers surmise that this name may belong to the buried Maya king who ruled Chochkitam approximately 350 AD.

The most fascinating feature of all is that a carving on one of the bones shows the ruler clutching the head of a Maya deity, precisely like the assembled jade mask.

All the artifacts and bones discovered in the Chochkitam tomb were brought to the Holmul Archaeological Project (HAP) lab for cleaning and field analysis.

It was there that archaeologists put together the single blocks of jade that they had unearthed, and they were able to reconstruct an entire jade mosaic mask.

Lead archaeologist Francisco Estrada-Belli of Tulane University and his team discovered the burial using LIDAR mapping technology, according to an extensive article in National Geographic. The mask represents a manifestation of the Storm God worshiped by the Mayans.

2,000-Year-Old Maya Civilization Spotted in Guatemala

2,000-Year-Old Maya Civilization Spotted in Guatemala

A team of researchers affiliated with multiple institutions in the U.S., working with a colleague from France and another from Guatemala, has discovered a very large 2,000-year-old Mayan civilization in northern Guatemala.

Triadic structures in El Mirador: (a) LiDAR image showing triadic structures in the civic center of El Mirador (Tigre pyramid is the largest in this section of the city); (b) LiDAR 3D view showing the pyramidal complex of La Danta, located on the east side of the civic center at El Mirador.

In their paper published in the journal Ancient Mesoamerica, the group describes using LiDAR to conduct a survey of the area.

LiDAR is a detection system similar to radar but is based on laser light rather than radio waves. In recent years, it has been used to scan parts of dense tropical rain forests for signs of ancient civilizations.

Lasers used in such systems are able to penetrate vegetative canopies over rain forests, revealing what is on the ground beneath them.

In this new effort, the researchers flew over parts of Guatemala as part of a mapping effort, when they came across what they describe as a vast ancient Maya civilization.

In studying their maps, they were able to see that the ancient civilization was made up of more than 1,000 settlements covering approximately 650 square miles, most of which were linked by multiple causeways.

The researchers were also able to see that the people who once lived in the settlements had been densely packed—a finding that goes against theories suggesting early Mesoamerican settlements tended to be sparsely populated.

The causeways (cleared, raised beds used as roads) added up to 110 miles of traversable pathways, making it relatively easy for the people in the civilization to visit other settlements.

The researchers note that the road network would have allowed for collective labor efforts.

The researchers also found evidence of large platforms and pyramids in some settlements, which, they note, suggests some of them served as centralized hubs for work, recreation and politics. They note also that some of the settlements had ball courts that prior research has shown were used for playing a variety of sports native to the region.

The researchers also found that the people of the civilization had built canals for moving water and reservoirs for holding it to allow for use during dry periods.

The Discovery Of A Maya Shrine Reveals Arrival Of “New World Order”

The Discovery Of A Maya Shrine Reveals Arrival Of “New World Order”

Researchers are surprised with a new discovery consisting of fragments of an ancient Maya shrine which reveals “previously unknown” details of a “Cold War” in the Maya Empire. The fragment of the carved stone monument was discovered at El Achiotal, an ancient Maya site located that depicts the face of an ajaw vassal lord.

This incredible new discovery at the Maya site in Guatemala has made it possible for researchers to understand new details regarding a fierce rivalry which ruled over two great Ancient Maya superpowers some 1500 years ago.

This discovery was announced in Guatemala City and was presented by The La Corona Regional Archaeological Project, co-directed by Marcello Canuto, director of Tulane’s Middle American Research Institute, and Tomás Barrientos, director of the Department of Archaeology at Universidad del Valle de Guatemala.

The Discovery Of A Maya Shrine Reveals Arrival Of “New World Order”

According to researchers and their preliminary study, forces belonging to Siyaj K’ahk’s arrived at the Maya lowlands somewhere around 378 D.C., overturning the rulers of the great Maya city-state of Tikal.

They established among other things, a new political order across the ancient Maya empire.

Siyaj K’ahk’, also referred to as “Fire is Born” was A prominent Ancient Maya political figure commonly mentioned in the Classical Period Glyphs. He is believed to have been the general of the Teotihuacan ruler Spearthrower Owl.

National Geographic Young Explorer and Tulane graduate student Luke Auld-Thomas said:

“We were looking for a stairway and digging test units.” He added, “when an excavator working on a unit backed out of the hole he had dug and told us he found what looked like a stela.”

“We gasped and looked in, and there’s the face of a king just staring straight out at us,” says Auld-Thomas. “It had been very carefully placed by the ancient Maya so that it was looking out a doorway, like a museum piece in a display case.”

“We never expected to find a stela at El Achiotal,” says Canuto, who began research there in 2009 with a National Geographic Society/Waitt grant and considered it primarily a Late Preclassic (400 B.C. – 250 A.D.) site.

As researchers continued with their excavation duties, they came upon two stelae fragments, a discovery that they did not expect.

According to archaeologists, the two stelae fragments were from the top and bottom of a monument, the stelae are believed to have been removed from their original location which is, according to archaeologists, most likely in front of a temple.

According to National Geographic; The top fragment of the stelae features the partial image of a man holding a serpent bar, a traditional symbol of a ruler.

After the discovery was made, Davit Stuart from the University of Texas at Austin, who is an expert Maya epigrapher flew to El Achiotal to study and try to decipher the hieroglyphs located on the back of the stelae.

According to Stuart, the hieroglyphs revealed that the stelae were in fact erected to celebrate the 40th anniversary of an “ajaw.”

Regrettably, the newly found stelae are incomplete so researchers could not figure out the name of the ajaw and the leader.

The Ajaw or Ahau has two meanings in the history of the Pre-Columbian Maya civilization.

It is believed to represent a political title attested from Mayan epigraphic inscriptions but it could also designate the concluding, the 20 named day of the tzolk’in or the divinatory calendar on which a king’s k’atun-ending rituals would fall.

According to Stuart, there was a date inscribed on the stelae, but Stuart states that reading it was one of the most difficult translation jobs that he has ever been part of.

Stuart also states:

“Scribes were very tricky and they wrote one of the date elements in a super-ambiguous way.”

Researchers believe that the anniversary date depicted on the stelae, could be connected with four potential dates, and Stuart believes the date everyone would be looking for is November 22, 418 A.D. Counting back 40 years from November 22, 418 A.D. marks an anniversary of an event in 378 A.D. the date when Siyaj K’ahk’ installed new rulership in Tikal setting off a series of changes both in the Maya political and cultural system.

“We know that when Siyaj K’ahk’ came on the scene in Tikal he was installing subject rulers all around that region,” Stuart explains. “We just had no idea that El Achiotal was sucked into this new world order.”

The earliest evidence of the Maya divination calendar was discovered in an ancient temple

The earliest evidence of the Maya divination calendar was discovered in an ancient temple

Archaeologists in Guatemala have discovered the oldest evidence of the Maya calendar on record: two mural fragments that, when pieced together, reveal a notation known as “7 deer,” a new study finds.

The two mural fragments with the 7 Deer day-sign and partial hieroglyphic text, among a total of 249 fragments of painted plaster and painted masonry blocks collected during archaeological excavations of the Ixbalamque context.

The two “7 deer” fragments date to between 300 B.C. and 200 B.C., according to radiocarbon dating done by the research team. This early date indicates that this Maya divination calendar, which was also used by other pre-Columbian cultures in Mesoamerica, such as the Aztecs, has been in continuous use for at least 2,300 years, as it is still followed today by modern Maya, the researchers said. (Notably, this is not the Long Count calendar that some people used to suggest the world was going to end in 2012.) 

“It’s the one calendar that survives all the conquests and the civil war in Guatemala,” the latter of which was waged from 1960 to 1996, study first author David Stuart, the Schele professor of Mesoamerican art and writing at the University of Texas at Austin, told Live Science. “The Maya of today in many communities have kept it as a way of connecting to their ideas of fate and how people relate to the world around them. It’s not a revival. It’s actually preservation of the calendar.”

The researchers found the mural fragments at the archaeological site of San Bartolo, northeast of the ancient Maya city of Tikal. Stuart was part of the team that discovered San Bartolo in 2001. “It’s in the remote jungles of northern Guatemala” and famous for its Maya murals dating to the Late Preclassic period (400 B.C. to A.D. 200), he said. 

The earliest evidence of the Maya divination calendar was discovered in an ancient temple
A reconstruction of San Bartolo at the phase when the 7 deer day-sign mural fragments were created.

The murals at San Bartolo are in a massive complex known as Las Pinturas, which the Maya built over hundreds of years. Every so often, the Maya would build over an old complex, constructing larger and more impressive structures. As a result, Las Pinturas is layered like an onion. If archaeologists tunnel into its inner layers, they can find earlier structures and murals, Stuart said.

The researchers collected ancient organic material, such as charcoal, within the layer where the mural fragments were discovered. By radiocarbon-dating these fragments, they could estimate when the murals were created.

However, these murals weren’t in one piece. In total, the team discovered about 7,000 fragments from various murals. Of this colossal collection, the team analyzed 11 wall fragments, discovered between 2002 and 2012, with radiocarbon dating. These included the two pieces that formed the “7 deer” notation, which includes a glyph, or image of a deer under the Maya symbol for the number seven (a horizontal line with two dots over it).

These fragments with the 7 deer day-sign dated to between 300 B.C. and 200 B.C.
The second dot over the line (top) is missing but is thought to be the number 7.
Mural fragments on masonry blocks from the Ixbalamque structure. It dates to the same time period as the 7 deer fragments but depicts the image of the Late Preclassic period Maya maize god.

Four Maya calendars

The Maya had four calendars, as “they were very interested in timekeeping,” Stuart said. “They had very elaborate and elegant ways of tracking time.”

One is the sacred divination calendar, or Tzolk’in, from which this “7 deer” notation originates. This calendar has 260 days consisting of a combination of 13 numbers and 20 days that have different signs (like deer). 

The 260 days don’t make up a year, however. Rather, it’s a cycle similar to the seven-day week. The notation “7 deer” doesn’t give you a date; it doesn’t tell you the season or year in which something happened. “It’s like saying Napoleon invaded Russia on a Wednesday,” Marcello Canuto, director of the Middle American Research Institute at Tulane University, who wasn’t involved with the study, told Live Science.

Today, the 260-day cycle in the Tzolk’in calendar is used for soothsaying and ceremonial record-keeping, Stuart said. “There are date keepers, as they’re called, in Guatemala today,” Stuart said. “If you said the day is 7 deer, they would go, ‘Oh yeah, 7 deer, that means this, this and this.'”

An illustration showing the detail of the 7 deer day sign found at San Bartolo, Guatemala.

The other Maya calendars are the Haab’, a solar calendar that lasts 365 days but doesn’t account for a leap year; a lunar calendar; and the Long Count calendar, which tracks major time cycles and caused a lot of brouhahas when some people (mistakenly) thought it was foretelling the end of the world in 2012, Live Science previously reported.

“[I remember] all that nonsense back in 2012 about the end of a cycle,” Stuart said. “Everyone was saying, ‘It’s the end of the calendar.’ But no, they didn’t understand there was yet another cycle after that.”

There are other calendar notations that might be older than the newly described 7-deer finding, but these artifacts are challenging to date because they were carved into stone (which does not hold any radioactive carbon that can be dated). Moreover, these carved stones were possibly moved around, meaning a date from the site might not reflect the date of these calendars, Stuart said. For instance, a proposed Tzolk’in calendar found in Oaxaca Valley, Mexico has dates ranging from 700 B.C. to 100 B.C., according to several studies.

When these four types of calendars are taken into account, this “7 deer” notation is the “earliest evidence of any Maya calendar, possibly [the] earliest securely dated evidence anywhere in Mesoamerica,” Stuart said. 

Surprising deer

The archaeologists were surprised to find the deer glyph. Later Maya Tzolk’in notations almost always write out the word for deer rather than drawing a glyph of the animal, Stuart said. In effect, these fragments might be evidence of an early stage of Maya script, he said.

“We speculate a little bit in the article that it may be that this is an early phase of the writing system where they haven’t quite established the norms that we’re used to,” Stuart said. He added that it’s unclear where in Mesoamerica this calendrical system began.

These two lines of evidence help tie everything together, Canuto noted. “The text seems to suggest something really archaic, and then the radiocarbon and the context of the dating seems to support that,” he said.

The study is “meticulously done,” Walter Witschey, a retired research professor of anthropology and geography at Longwood University in Virginia and a research fellow at the Middle American Research Institute, told Live Science in an email. The finding is “evidence for the earliest known calendar notation from the Maya region,” he said. 

Earliest Known Mayan Calendar Found in Guatemalan Pyramid

Earliest Known Mayan Calendar Found in Guatemalan Pyramid

Researchers David Stuart from the University of Texas at Austin, Heather Hurst, Boris Beltrán from Skidmore College, and independent scholar William Saturno report the earliest evidence of a Maya sacred calendar in Guatemala.

Earliest Known Mayan Calendar Found in Guatemalan Pyramid
Reconstruction of San Bartolo Sub-V phase architectural complex and the 7 Deer day-sign mural fragments associated with this context. Reconstruction view of the San Bartolo Sub-V phase architecture (300 to 200 BCE) showing the radial structure, miniature ballcourt, and elongated platform referred to as structure Ixbalamque that together form an E-group. Drawing by Heather Hurst. Inset: Example of two mural fragments (consolidated as #4778), the 7 Deer day-sign and partial hieroglyphic text, among a total of 249 fragments of painted plaster and painted masonry blocks collected during archaeological excavations of the Ixbalamque context. Photograph by Karl Taube, courtesy of the Proyecto Regional Arqueológico San Bartolo-Xultun. Credit: Science Advances (2022).

In their paper published in the journal Science Advances, the group describes their work, which involved sifting through painted mural fragments at the Las Pinturas pyramid complex in Guatemala, and how they found the calendar.

The Las Pinturas pyramid complex is located near San Bartolo and has been the site of excavation for a number of years.

Prior research has shown construction at the site began 2,300 to 2,200 years ago and that the pyramids at the site were built in multiple phases. As each phase of the project was completed, parts of the old structure were knocked down.

As the pyramids grew in size, the pieces of the knocked-down structures remained hidden inside, providing a timeline of sorts of the construction of the complex. In this new effort, the researchers found the calendar fragments while sifting through the pieces of a wall, decorated by the Maya of that period, that had been knocked down.

Dating of charcoal fragments—found in the same layer of debris as the wall fragments—showed them to be from approximately 300 and 200 BCE, making them the oldest known samples of a Maya sacred calendar.

Detail of fragment #4778 collected from the Sub-V phase (~300 to 200 BCE), with the 7 Deer day sign.Consolidated mural fragment #4778 in black-line style, collected from the Ixbalamque structure: (A) the digital scan and (B) the illustration depicting the 7 Deer day sign and two hieroglyphic signs in a vertical column. Scans by Heather Hurst and illustration by David Stuart. Credit: Science Advances (2022).

The Maya calendar was based on the 260-day divinatory calendar that is still used by some people in parts of Mexico and Central America today.

It was used by a number of people across Mesoamerica. In their work, the researchers found two pieces of wall debris that fit together.

The markings included symbols that are known to have been used to represent a date symbol—a dot over a line above a deer head.

It is known as “7 deer” and represents one of the days in the 260-day calendar. The researchers suggest the artwork shows maturity, which, they contend, indicates that the calendar had been in use for many years.

A private collector is returning a Mayan artefact to Guatemala

A private collector is returning a Mayan artefact to Guatemala

A private collector has returned a Mayan artefact to Guatemala after it was initially slated for auction in 2019. The stone fragment depicts a bird headdress belonging to an ancient ruler of Piedras Negras, the capital of a Mayan kingdom that flourished between the 4th century BC and 9th century AD and is located in what’s now northwestern Guatemala.

A private collector is returning a Mayan artefact to Guatemala
The artefact disappeared from the Mayan site of Piedras Negras in the 1960s

Hundreds of Mayan artefacts were discovered along train construction routes in Mexico.

The object was likely looted from a Mayan archaeological site in the 1960s and eventually ended up in the hands of a prominent Los Angeles art dealer, the Los Angeles Times reported.

From there, it was bought by another art dealer in Paris and ultimately acquired by private collectors Manichak and Jean Aurance, according to the newspaper. Then in 2019, it was included as part of an auction of pre-Columbian artefacts in Paris, estimated to fetch $27,000 to $39,000.

Guatemala and Mexico objected to some of the items in the auction being put up for sale, arguing that they had been stolen and demanding their return.

Though the auction continued mostly as planned, the carving of the bird headdress was withdrawn from the sale after Guatemala was able to prove its provenance with drawings and pictures dating back to its discovery in 1899, a spokesperson for UNESCO wrote in an email to CNN.

Negotiations took place between Guatemala, the French government, UNESCO and the private collector, the spokesperson said, and the collector ultimately decided to return the artefact to Guatemala. On Monday, UNESCO held a ceremony to mark the return.

The artefact disappeared from the Mayan site of Piedras Negras in the 1960s

“The voluntary handover of this fragment of a Mayan stela to its homeland in Guatemala showcases the evolution of the international environment in favour of the return of emblematic cultural objects and artefacts to their homelands under UNESCO’s guidance over the last 50 years,” UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay said in a statement.

“It also shows the importance of the UNESCO 1970 Convention in fighting the illicit trafficking of cultural objects. This success story has been possible thanks to international cooperation and a private collector’s goodwill; it is a model for others to follow.”

The artefact will soon be sent to the National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology of Guatemala City where visitors will be able to view it and learn about its history, according to UNESCO.

The stone carving’s return to Guatemala comes at a time of wider reckoning for museums, galleries and other institutions.

In recent years, several such institutions have taken steps to repatriate historical objects to their places of origin — Cambridge University is set to return a Benin bronze looted during British colonial rule to Nigeria this week, while the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York announced earlier this year it was returning three treasures of African art to Nigeria as well.

Meanwhile, the pressure on museums continues to mount — Cambodia recently began pushing the Met to review the provenance of a number of items, asserting that they were looted from the country’s ancient sites during decades of war and tumult.

Cutting-edge Laser Technology Uncovers Secrets of Maya holy city

Cutting-edge Laser Technology Uncovers Secrets of Maya holy city

The steamy jungles of northern Guatemala don’t reveal secrets easily. For centuries, the overgrown landscape has protected most of the remains of the Maya who once tamed it — yielding slowly to modern scientists seeking to learn more about the ancient civilization known for its sophisticated hieroglyphic script, art, architecture and mathematics.

The Maya civilization began to emerge about 3,000 years ago, and reached its peak during the Classic Period, from about A.D. 250-900.

Now, technology that allows for digital deforestation has uncovered thousands of new Maya structures previously undetected beneath smothering vegetation. For archaeologists like Thomas Garrison, assistant professor of anthropology at Ithaca College, the findings have done far more than recast notions of the size and density of the Central American society.

“Frankly, it’s turning our discipline on its head,” he said.

Garrison helped orchestrate the 2016 aerial survey these revelations stem from. The findings and the technology behind them — LiDAR (light detection and ranging) — will be the focus of a new National Geographic documentary titled “Lost Treasures of the Maya Snake King.” The documentary will follow a NatGeo explorer as he treks deep in the jungle to seek out a pyramid detected in the survey.

Project leader Richard Hansen with the LiDAR system.

Garrison appears in the documentary commenting on the LiDAR mapping and its results. The program will also feature custom-designed images of many of the newly revealed structures, as translated from the data.

Laser Show in the Jungle

LiDAR is a method of mapping from the sky: An aeroplane-mounted device sends a constant pulse of laser light across a swath of terrain; precise measurements of how long it takes the emitted breams to bounce off surfaces are taken and translated into topographic data.

The LiDAR system was mounted on this small plane.

The laser pierces through the smallest gaps in the vegetation to record the lay of the land below with remarkable accuracy. The resulting data can be tweaked to filter out the trees, thus offering an unencumbered view of everything else on the surface.

The technology is a boon for surveys in jungles like those in lowland Guatemala, where dense canopy hinders other methods of aerial survey and thick undergrowth can conceal the relationship even between known structures.

“In that kind of environment where you can’t see [a few feet in front of yourself], it’s very hard to piece that all together,” Garrison said. In a swampy area of rolling hillocks rising from the muck, for example: “You have this idea that there’s some little stuff on the hills, but the LiDAR lets you see it in its totality.”

The survey of 2,100-square kilometres encompassed several major Maya sites, including the largest at Tikal, and El Zotz, where Garrison focuses his research.

The LiDAR mapping revealed over 60,000 previously unknown structures in total, from unknown pyramids, palace structures, terraced fields, roadways, defensive walls and towers, and houses. Archaeologists are realizing that the ancient population centres they’ve spent decades studying are much bigger than they speculated.

With Global Conservation’s support, scientists mapped more than 60,000 houses, palaces, canals, and other man-made structures that had previously been obscured by the thick jungle. Image courtesy Mirador Basin Project.
El Mirador from the air. Without LiDAR to penetrate the dense rainforest canopy, this area simply looks like a vast expanse of wilderness. A straight line through the trees in the lower third of the image hints at the massive, ancient causeway below. Only with LiDAR could scientists begin to understand the true extent of the ancient city (below).
A three-dimensional rendering of the ancient city of El Mirador, produced from LiDAR data. To the naked eye, this area simply looks like a vast expanse of rainforest (above). Image courtesy Mirador Basin Project.

“Everyone is seeing larger, denser sites. Everyone,” Garrison said. “There’s a spectrum to it, for sure, but that’s universal: everyone has missed settlement in their [previous] mapping.”

Especially telling to Garrison are newly revealed agricultural features that would be necessary to support the lowland Maya population during their centuries of civilization — population estimates have now expanded from a few million to 10-20 million — and defensive structures that suggest warfare was far more prevalent than previously known.

Only the Beginning

The LiDAR survey is a collaboration between archaeologists from the U.S., Europe and Guatemala, and the Fundación PACUNAM (Patrimonio Cultural y Natural Maya), a Guatemalan philanthropic and cultural heritage preservation organization.

Garrison serves as one of the archaeology advisors to the project and was fundamental in lobbying for the survey, which is now the single largest ever conducted in the field of Mesoamerican archaeology. Fundraising is already taking place for a second LiDAR survey of similar size, he said.

The LiDAR findings are only the beginning. There is still much to discover about the rise, peak and fall of the Maya civilization. The LiDAR data points to new areas where those answers may be found through fieldwork and excavation.

An artist’s rendering of the ancient city of El Mirador.

“That’s the challenge now. Now we have so much data,” Garrison said. “How do we handle it and how do we move forward with it? We’ve still got to get to those places, we’ve still got to check them out.

“It’s difficult to convey how exciting this time is for us.”

Guatemalan family uncovers ancient Mayan murals on their kitchen walls during a home renovation

Guatemalan family uncovers ancient Mayan murals on their kitchen walls during a home renovation

Home renovations in a Guatemalan mountain village in 2003 unearthed “unparalleled” Maya murals, according to researchers. Now, reports broadcast network RT, a new analysis published in the journal Antiquity has revealed additional insights on the wall paintings, which date to the 17th or 18th century and blend Spanish colonial influences with local indigenous culture.

Lucas Asicona Ramirez, right, discovered the centuries-old paintings after he started chipping away at the plaster in the kitchen of his house.

Local historian and study co-author Lucas Asicona Ramírez found the murals while renovating his kitchen in Chajul, a rural town in Guatemala’s highlands, reported Mike McDonald for Reuters in 2012.

Several houses in Chajul, including Asicona’s, date to the colonial era (1524 to 1821); other locals have discovered similarly historic artworks behind the plaster in their homes.

The Ramirez home is located in the impoverished town of Chajul, Guatemala.
Researchers work to preserve the Maya wall paintings inside the Chajul home.

The majority of Guatemala’s colonial-era murals are found in houses of worship. Centered on Christian themes, these religious artworks were used by the Spanish to assert their dominance over the Maya people, writes Tom Fish for Express. In contrast, the Chajul wall paintings appear inside private homes—and, most tellingly, contain distinct flourishes of indigenous culture.

“We consider these murals to be very unique,” Ivonne Putzeys, an archaeologist at the University of Guatemala in San Carlos, told Reuters. “It’s a tangible heritage that represents [s] real scenes from history.”

In 2015, an international team of researchers started preserving and studying the murals in collaboration with a Maya community indigenous to Guatemala: the Ixil. This group formed the bulk of the roughly 200,000 people killed during the Guatemalan Civil War, which lasted from 1960 to 1996.

As the experts write in the paper, conducting interviews and consultations with the Ixil was essential to understanding the art’s cultural context.

Many of the friezes feature dancers and musicians. Jaroslaw Źrałka, an archaeologist at Jagiellonian University and first author of the new study, tells Ancient Origins’ Ed Whelan that dance played an important role in the Maya civilization, both recording and relaying history and cultural practices. The dance was so important to the Maya that Spanish missionaries used it as a conversion tool, says Źrałka.

Through interviews with the Chajul Ixil community, the researchers were able to identify specific murals as depictions of known dances from the colonial era.

A mural of ancient vessels adorns the wall next to the family’s stove.

One mural shows tall, bearded conquistadors playing drums as they encounter a dancer dressed in a traditional feathered costume. This scene may illustrate the Dance of the Conquest, which details Spain’s invasion and attempts to convert the Maya to Christianity.

Another mural may show the Dance of the Moors and the Christians. Introduced by the Spaniards, this performance tells the story of Spain’s seizure of lands occupied by Muslim kingdoms, according to Express.

The researchers note that the wall art may also feature dances now lost to history. Many were forgotten when the government prohibited the performance of indigenous dances in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Chemical analysis of the paintings revealed the use of natural clay pigments typical in Maya art, suggesting the murals were indeed created by indigenous artists, reports Ancient Origins. The artworks’ style hews closely to local traditions, showing few signs of foreign influences.

The researchers suggest that the houses in which the murals were found once belonged to key community members—perhaps members of what was known as the cofradías, or brotherhood.

These groups organized religious events connected to both Christian and pre-Hispanic Maya traditions. The houses featuring the friezes may have served as meeting places or venues for rituals and dances.

Per the paper, the murals’ blending of Maya and European imagery could mean that local culture, as revived by the cofradías, was making a defiant comeback as Spain’s influence and control over the region faded.