Return to Portfolio Home

Amazing discovery among Maya ruins

Posted: 05/11/2012

Skidmore archaeologist Heather Hurst, who has been digging with a team of archaeologists for 10 years in Maya ruins in Guatemala, played a key role in a major discovery announced May 10 by the National Geographic Society.
Excavating for the first time in the sprawling complex of Xultún in Guatemala’s Petén region, the team found a structure that contains what appears to be a workspace for the town’s scribe. The structure is adorned with figure paintings on its walls and ceiling, and one wall contains hundreds of painted and scrawled numbers – many of which are calculations relating to the Maya calendar, including cycles of the moon, Mars, and Venus. The team believes the small room was part of a house that may have served as the “computation center” in which scribes kept notes about their observations of the cosmos.
As part of the initial research, Heather Hurst, archaeologist, project illustrator, and assistant professor of anthropology, has painted brilliant, exacting reproductions of the mural. The National Geographic Society featured several of her paintings in a teleconference announcing the find. Another of Hurst’s illustrations also is included in an article in the May 11 issue of the journal Science.
This unique discovery “provides a new perspective on the artists and scribes who created the monuments for Maya kings and queens,” says Hurst. “Through their own images we see people who made art at Xultún 1200 years ago, and through the layers of writing on the wall part of their process comes alive as they record and alter calculations.”
The preservation of murals in the Maya area is rare and the fragile surfaces quickly deteriorate due to structural collapse and water infiltration. “My goal is to accurately record and document the artwork for study and cultural heritage preservation,” says Hurst, a 1997 Skidmore graduate and MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant winner, who studies ancient Maya artists and their practices of making artworks. “The product is simultaneously analytical scholarship and aesthetic art.”
The mural represents the first Maya art to be found on the walls of a house. The vegetation-covered structure was first spotted in 2010 by a student of William Saturno of Boston University, who led the exploration and excavation. Supported by a grant from the National Geographic Society and by a SUN Network Advance Grant from the National Science Foundation, Saturno, Hurst, and others on the team launched an organized exploration and excavation of the house, working urgently to beat the region’s rainy seasons, which threatened to erase what time had so far preserved.
In a painstaking process that started in 2010, Hurst took measurements of the mural on the room’s three walls and created a precise drawing in pencil of the mural during excavations. She performed a materials analysis of the paint and plaster to discern how the Maya created the mural and to precisely match the colors in the mural reproduction. Upon returning to Skidmore, Hurst closely examined digital scans of the mural to add more detail to her pencil drawings. In the final step, she inked and painted the drawings with watercolors.
Discovered about 100 years ago by a Guatemalan worker, Xultún is a 12-square-mile site where tens of thousands once lived between the first centuries B.C. and 890 A.D., the end of the Classic Maya period. It is only about five miles from San Bartolo, where in 2001 Saturno found – and Hurst painted – rare extensive murals painted on the walls of a ritual structure by the ancient Maya.
The team’s work will be featured in the June issue of National Geographic magazine, which will be on digital newsstands Tuesday, May 15, and on print newsstands Tuesday, May 29.