Bonampak (Bòonam Pak' "Painted Wall" in Modern Maya) is an ancient Maya archaeological site in the Mexican state of Chiapas. The site is approximately 30km (20 miles) south of the larger site of Yaxchilan, under which Bonampak was a dependency, and the border with Guatemala. While the site is not overly impressive in terms of spatial or architectural size, it is well-known for a number of murals, most especially those located within Structure 1 (The Temple of the Murals). The construction of the site’s structures dates to the Early Classic period (ca. A.D. 580 to 800). Bonampak was rediscovered in 1946 by photographer Giles Healy, who was led to it by the local Lacandon Maya who still visited the site to pray in the ancient temples.

The site, lying close to a tributary of the Usumacinta River, was first seen by non-Mayans in 1946 by two American travelers who were shown the ruins by the Lakandon Indians. Shortly thereafter a photographer, Giles Healey, was shown the huge painting covering the walls of one of the structure's three rooms. The paintings show the story of a single battle and its victorious outcome.cite book
first=Michael D.
title=The Maya
edition=Sixth edition
publisher=Thames & Hudson
location=New York
pages=pp. 125-129
id=ISBN 0-500-28066-5

Temple of the Murals

What is often referred to as "The Temple of the Murals" (Structure 1) is a long narrow building with 3 rooms atop a low-stepped pyramid base. The interior walls preserve the finest examples of classic Maya painting, otherwise known only from pottery and occasional small faded fragments. Through a fortunate accident, rainwater seeped into the plaster of the roof in such a way as to cover the interior walls with a layer of slightly transparent calcium carbonate. Shortly after Healy's discovery the Carnegie Institution sent an expedition to Bonampak. The walls were painted with kerosene which made the layer over the paintings temporarily transparent, then the murals were extensively and completely photographed and duplicate paintings were made by two different artists. In 1996 a team from Yale University began "The Bonampak Documentation Project", which included making an even more detailed study, photographic record, and reproductions of the murals.

The paintings date from 790 and were made as frescos, with no seams in the plaster indicating that each room was painted in a single session during the short time that the plaster was moist. They show the hand of a master artist with a couple of competent assistants. The three rooms show a series of actual events with great realism. The first shows robing of priests and nobles, a ceremony to mark a child as a noble heir, an orchestra playing wooden trumpets, drums, and other instruments, and nobles conferring in discussion. The second room shows a war scene, with prisoners taken, and then the prisoners, with ritually bleeding fingers, seated before a richly-attired Chaan Muan, the Lord of Bonampak. It is usually presumed that the prisoners are being prepared for human sacrifice, though this is not actually shown in the murals. The third room shows a ceremony with dancers in fine costumes wearing masks of gods, and the ruler and his family stick needles into their tongues in ritual bloodletting. The accompanying hieroglyphic text dates the scene and gives the names of the principal participants.

The fresco painting technique used in Bonampak is a three step process. An outline was made in red over a coat of stucco and then the flat spaces were filled with paints from mineral origins. These paints took on the colors of blue, red, sepia , yellow, mauve, purple and green. The last step was to outline the figures in black. The finished product was beautiful and well proportioned. Stylized figures representing gods, dragons and other mythological creatures were accompanied by planetary hieroglyphs and chronological inscriptions.

Professor Mary Miller of Yale, who conducted an extensive study of the murals, wrote "Perhaps no single artifact from the ancient New World offers as complex a view of Prehispanic society as do the Bonampak paintings. No other work features so many Maya engaged in the life of the court and rendered in such great detail, making the Bonampak murals an unparalleled resource for understanding ancient society."

Present-day conditions

While tourists may visit Bonampak, it is a rather difficult and distant journey from anywhere else, and the murals are much less visible than in the photographs from the 1940s. No flash photography is allowed within the Temple of the Murals. Today a good idea of the murals can be gained by visiting the full-scale reproduction of the temple in the National Museum of Anthropology & History in Mexico City.

Since the construction of the Border Highway by the Mexican government in the early 1990s, Bonampak is much more accessible to tourists.



Sotomayor, Arturo. Dos Sepulcros en Bonampak. Juarez, Mexico: Ediciones Libreria del Prado. [1949]

External links

* [ Proyecto La pintura mural prehispánica en México, UNAM]
* [ Yale Bonampak Documentation Project]
* [ Bonampak Murals on] - Good large photographs of the originals
* [ Mesoamerican Photo Archives by David R. Hixson] - more good photos (click on the first link for Bonampak)

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