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The Mythology of Maya Kings

UC Riverside Archaeologist Part of Team Studying Early Maya Mural

Karl Taube helps interpret the imagery concerning the creation of the world, people, and the origin of kingship as well as a highly developed hieroglyphic script

(December 13, 2005)

A detail from a sacred Maya mural at San Bartolo — the earliest known Maya painting, depicting the birth of the cosmos and the divine right of a king  <br />
Photo by Kenneth Garrett © National GeographicEnlarge

A detail from a sacred Maya mural at San Bartolo — the earliest known Maya painting, depicting the birth of the cosmos and the divine right of a king
Photo by Kenneth Garrett © National Geographic

Archaeologists at an ancient Maya ceremonial site in Guatemala have uncovered the final intact wall of a large Maya mural dating from 100 B.C. that shows the mythology surrounding the creation of the world and a highly developed hieroglyphic script. A team that includes UCR Professor Karl Taube is in the midst of a five-year project to uncover the mural and reveal its story.

Before the excavation of the vividly painted mural, there was scant evidence of the existence of early Maya kings or of their use of elaborate art and writing to establish their right to rule.

The site, known as San Bartolo, contains a pyramid complex and several buried rooms. To the west of the pyramid where the mural room was discovered, archaeologists led by Guatemalan Mónica Pellecer Alecio found the oldest known Maya royal burial, from around 150 B.C. The latest finds at the site will be reported in the January 2006 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Project director William Saturno, of the University of New Hampshire and Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, said the mural room’s recently excavated west wall is a masterpiece of ancient Maya art that reveals the story of creation, the mythology of kingship and the divine right of a king. The 30-foot by 3-foot west wall mural shows two coronation scenes — one mythological, the other the coronation of a real king.

As project iconographer, Professor Taube's primary task is to identify and interpret the complex imagery appearing in the San Bartolo murals. He said the murals provide an unparalleled view of the early development of Maya mythology and art. “All too often such carvings are broken or heavily eroded,” he said. “In contrast, the murals at San Bartolo are in brilliant polychrome and extend for many meters along the chamber walls. Elaborate red spirals indicate wind, breath and aroma and can be seen exhaling from the mouths of serpents and other beings, and at the edge of bird wings to denote movement. The maize god appears no less than seven times in the currently exposed portion of the mural, giving us an unprecedented understanding of his attributes and mythology at this early date.”

Archaeologists have determined the mural is about 200 years older than originally thought. The team is in the midst of a five-year project to uncover the mural and reveal its story. The work at San Bartolo has been supported by grants from the National Geographic Society, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Peabody Museum, the Annenberg Foundation and the Reinhart Foundation. The work is authorized by the Guatemalan Institute of Anthropology and History.

“It is in the interest of the Guatemalan state to support the archaeological research, the mural restoration and conservation program undertaken by Dr. Saturno and his team. We are also interested in implementing a conservation project with the objective of preserving the murals,” said Ervin S. Lòpez Aguilar, director of the Department of Prehispanic Monuments.

The first part of the west wall mural shows the establishment of order to the world. Four deities, variations of the same figure — the son of the maize god — provide a blood sacrifice and an offering in four cardinal directions as they set up the physical world. The deities move through the Maya universe. The first god stands in the water and offers a fish, establishing the watery underworld. The second stands on the ground and sacrifices a deer, establishing the land. The third floats in the air, offering a turkey, thereby establishing the sky; and the fourth stands in a field of flowers, offering fragrant blossoms, the food of gods, and establishing paradise in the east, where the sun is reborn daily.

The next section of the mural shows the maize god establishing the world center and crowning himself king upon a wooden scaffold. The final section traces his birth, death and resurrection, bringing sustenance to the world. The last scene shows a historic coronation of a Maya king, named and titled, receiving his headdress from an attendant. By acceding to the throne in the company of gods, the mural likely shows the king is claiming the divine right to rule from the gods themselves.

“The artistic and physical evidence of the Maya’s earliest kings revealed at San Bartolo is among the most important finds in Maya archaeology in the last few decades,” Saturno said. “It has opened a window into the very origins of Maya civilization. As we excavate the site further and piece together more images and glyphs from the mural fragments we have discovered, new surprises could be revealed.”

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