History rewritten by ancient Mayan mural

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Wandering into a tunnel to escape the heat at the Mayan site of San Bartolo in Guatemala, archaeologist William Saturno had no inkling that he was about to rewrite the history books.

Switching on his torch, his first reaction was to laugh. "I had accidentally made the discovery of a lifetime - a small portion of a brilliantly painted mural more than 2,000 years old."

Now revealed in all its glory, the stunning nine-metre painting provides new evidence that Mayan civilisation flourished earlier and was far more refined than historians realised. Before Mr Saturno's find, pre-classic Mayan civilisation had been characterised as agrarian and loosely organised.

Academics are now calling the discovery one of the most significant in decades, comparing the mural to the Vatican's Sistine Chapel.

Painted with vibrant pigments on damp plaster in 100 BC, the mural depicts four variations of the same deity, the son of the maize god, making sacrifices to establish land, water, air and paradise. The next section features the coronation of the corn god, followed by his death and resurrection.

Shedding light on the existence of early Mayan royalty, the final section shows the crowning of a king. Mr Saturno was shocked to find the 2000-year-old painting in such good condition. "I was awestruck by its state of preservation," he said. However, he says there is no question of relocating it.