If these walls could talk, they'd solve a Maya mystery.
Five years ago Lucas Asicona Ramírez (far right, pictured with family) began scraping his walls while renovating his home in the Guatemalan village of Chajul. As the plaster fell away, a multi-wall Maya mural saw light for the first time in centuries, according to archaeologist Jarosław Źrałka, who recently revealed the finds to National Geographic News.
The paintings depict figures in procession, wearing a mix of traditional Maya and Spanish garb. Some may be holding human hearts, said Źrałka, who was working on the other side of Guatemala when a colleague tipped him off to the kitchen murals.
The recent exposure has faded the art considerably, leaving precious little time to unlock their secrets, he added.
That the paintings endure at all is "a fairly remarkable thing," according to Boston University archaeologist William Saturno, who examined pictures of the murals at National Geographic News's request and believes the art to be authentic.
"We don't get a lot of this type of artwork; it's not commonly preserved in the New World," said Saturno, a National Geographic grantee. "It'd be neat to see who the folks were who painted on the wall and why."
Living With the Past - Photograph by Robert Slabonski
Portal to Maya Overworld - Photograph by Robert Slabonski
Accompanied by a flutist (far left), a Spanish-garbed drummer plays for a figure in a Maya headdress in the Ramírez's main living area, used as a kitchen and living-dining area.
Painted on the house's oldest plaster layer, the images were created after the 16th-century Spanish conquest of Guatemala, said Źrałka, of Poland's Jagiellonian University. The home is at least 300 years old, he added, and the style recalls 17th- to 18th-century illustrated texts from the region.
The ancient Maya were a loosely aligned civilization in what’s now Guatemala, Belize, and Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula. Advanced cities in southern Guatemala mysteriously collapsed around A.D. 900, but more northerly, isolated settlements, such as what's now Chajul, soldiered on—though its isolation could save it from the conquistadores for only so long.
As for the enduring Maya remnants on the Ramírezes' walls, Boston University's Saturno said the best way to uncover more about them is to search the history of the house itself.
"There's 500 years of history in this town," he said. "See whose [house] it was. It's unlikely to be just Joe Schmo's house—it's probably an important person's house."
Maya Holdout - Photograph by Robert Slabonski
Peopled by modern-day Maya, Chajul is often shrouded by mist, Źrałka said.
Most of its population lives in poverty and many are suspicious of outsiders—as he and his colleagues discovered when they attempted, unsuccessfully, to visit other homes said to hold Maya murals. "I think they were afraid of us," he said.
Multipurpose Room - Photograph by Robert Slabonski
Just to the left of the Ramírez family's wood stove, a mural of ancient incense-burning vessels warms the wall, Źrałka said.
As a whole, the murals "probably represent the so-called conquest dance," Boston University's Saturno said. Performed even today by some Maya, the ritual reenacts the Spanish invasion and Maya conversion to Christianity.
In this context, Saturno said, the mixed-up garb isn't that surprising—they may have been costumes to mark the occasion.
Heart in Hand? - Photograph by Robert Slabonski
"From the waist up" these figures are "typical Maya," with long capes, Źrałka said. "But they also have Spanish clothes"—pants and European-style shoes, for example.
The figure on the left may be holding a human heart, aorta protruding, Źrałka said.
Saturno isn't so sure. "It looks to me like the dancers hold masks in their hands, a common practice in highland dances."
Smoke-Filled Room - Photograph by Robert Slabonski
Life proceeds much as it has for hundreds of years in Chajul, where villagers dress traditionally and prefer their indigenous tongue to Spanish. In one of the Ramírezes' neighbors' kitchens, women at an engagement party prepare tamales, beans, and eggs—good-luck symbols for the young couple.
For Posterity - Photograph by Robert Slabonski
Źrałka's colleague Katarzyna Radnicka documents the murals at the home of Lucas Asicona Ramírez.
Ramírez hopes to convert the room into a small museum but lacks funds, Źrałka said. Meanwhile, "people live and cook in the same room where the murals are," and it shows. In 2008 the now yellowed background was completely white, he said.
It would've been best if Ramírez had stopped scraping as soon as he noticed the Maya murals, Saturno said. Given the situation, though, he argued for a balance of preservation and respect for property rights.
"It'd be great if they weren't covering it with smoke, but at the same time, this is probably not the first time there has been smoke in this room," Saturno said. "You can't go crazy in terms of, 'This needs to be hermetically sealed, and these people need to be out of here.'"
SOURCE : National Geographic News.