Professor discovers oldest Mayan mural by accident

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The Independent US

An American archaeologist has found a stunning Maya mural 1,900 years old in the northern Guatemalan rainforest. William Saturno's rare discovery inside an 80-foot pyramid is considered the earliest intact fresco from the ancient New World civilisation.

After a two-day ramble through the jungle last year, the exhausted University of New Hampshire professor literally stumbled on to this treasure by an unknown Maya Michelangelo as he was searching for stone monuments.

"I wandered into a looters' trench beneath the pyramid, looking for some shade as much as anything," Mr Saturno said. "When I shined my flashlight up at the wall, I just started laughing. There was this Maya mural, a very rare thing.

"The looters had cleared off a section and left it. I felt like the luckiest man on the planet."

In red, black and yellow tones, the wall painting extends for at least 60ft (18 metres) and depicts a king dressing up as the maize god while maidens assist him. The king is shown looking over his shoulder at two women. At least nine people are standing or kneeling in the scene, surrounded by geometric designs.

Unlike a pockmarked exterior mural in neighbouring Tikal, the best known classic Maya site, this one was perfectly preserved beneath a protective coating of mud.

After hiring guards to deter robbers at the ruins he named San Bartolo, Mr Saturno returned to America and secured funding from the National Geographic Society, which publishes a report on his initial findings next month. With backing from Harvard University's Peabody Museum, a five-year excavation will start soon.

The Maya civilisation thrived in what is now Guatemala, Belize and El Salvador, plus parts of Mexico and Honduras, from approximately 2,000BC until the Spanish conquest in the 16th century.

The experts determined the approximate date of the mural by comparing its style and content with the only previously known paintings from the Pre-Classic period, dating from 2,000BC to AD250, contained in the Tikal site.

The last comparable find was in Bonampak in the Mexican region of Chiapas, which dated from AD790.