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Bonampak mural from Room 1
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Bonampak mural segment from Room 1

Map from entrance to site

A Note on the Murals of Bonampak

Bonampak's murals as well as stela 2 depict ruler Chaan Muan II performing rituals associated with the investure of his infant son over a two year period from 790 to 791 AD.

Because Bonampak had been conquered by neighboring Yaxchilan as long ago as 600 AD and Chaan Muan II was married to the sister of Yaxchilan's Shield Jaguar, there is speculation that Chaan Maun himself had been installed as ruler by Shield Jaguar.

It is sobering to realize that by the time the murals were completed, Bonampak was suffering from deforestation, exhausted farmland, and overpopulation. Both Bonampak and its patron state Yaxchilan completely collapsed by 900 AD and were abandoned. Elite society in the region ended, and forest reclaimed the area. Later when the Spanish invaders arrived they found the area sparsely inhabited.

Bonampak's unique importance comes from the vivid portrayal of Classic-era court life in its murals -- the finest mural paintings so far found in Middle America.

The murals were discovered by an American, Giles Healy, who was sent to Chiapas in 1944 by the United Fruit Company to make a nature film. Having established a good relationship with the Lacandon, they took him to Bonampak in 1946, which was then overgrown and unknown to archaeologists. Wandering about the site, he saw nothing special until he poked his head into a small temple. Lighting a torch for a better look, he was awestruck by the interior paintings.

We visited the acropolis of Bonampak on a rainy morning in January of 2004

Structure 1, containing Bonampak's famous murals, is under a protective awning at center right while the gigantic Stela 1, protected by a canopy, dominates the foreground of the photo.

Bonampak's ancient placename is proposed to have been Usij Witz or Vulture Hill. The hill rising in the background probably carried that placename.

David Stuart, Maya Decipherment Blog, Bonampak's Place Name, University of Texas at Austin, December 2006

Let us begin with the spectacular murals of Room 1

Vivid horn players announce a celebratory ritual as we enter Room 1

Bonampak murals are considered the finest in all of Central America

Bonampak's unique importance comes from the vivid portrayal of Classic-era court life in its murals, considered to be the finest so far found in Middle America.

A striking orange band of hieroglyphic text divides the mural into two zones

Murals in Room 1 are separated by a hieroglyphic text band which separates murals painted on the walls from those painted above them on the vault.

An orange band of hieroglyphic text divides the mural into two zones.

The upper paintings show the presentation of Chan Muan's royal heir to an assembled court of fourteen Ahaus dressed in long white mantles. According to the date in the hieroglyphic text, this event took place on December 12, 790 A.D.

The lower paintings show musicians and dancers in a celebration honoring the new heir. This occurred on longcount date, or November 15, A.D. 791, a day when Venus rose as Evening Star. This date may have been chosen to assure that the young dynast would become a great warrior.

A broad cross-section of the Maya hierarchy attended this celebration at court.

Schele & Miller, The Blood of Kings: Dynasty and Ritual in Maya Art, p. 148

The story begins in the upper register when a new heir presented to court of Ahaus

Bonampak murals, Room 1: Chaan Maun's infant heir presented to group of nobles, AD 790.

The story starts in the upper register, where the new heir is presented to assembled Ahaus on longcount, or December 14, A.D. 790.

From a chamber in a multi-galleried palace [off camera], King Chaan-muan, attended by his wife and some children, directs the proceedings while portly Ahaus in white robes give their sanction to the child, ensuring his status as a legitimate member of the lineage. This scene is underscored by the text and framed by the parasols that reach from the lower register."

Schele & Miller, The Blood of Kings: Dynasty and Ritual in Maya Art, p. 148

NOTE: The small turquoise rectangles above each of the participating dignitaries served as a name tag where titles and names were inscribed. Not all the name tags have been filled out, perhaps because of shifting political alliances or other considerations.

The most important lords wore blinding white capes signifying their status

Bonampak Room 1: Ahaus in blinding white capes

"The most important lords wore blinding white capes closed at the throat with three huge red spondylus shells. This cotton garb was reserved for those privileged to serve as attendants to the king, or those who held the status of pilgrims to the royal festivals."

Schele & Freidel, A Forest of Kings, p. 278

Images of gossiping lords continues around the east wall

Bonampak Room 1: Fourteen Ahaus attended the ceremony.

The last four of the fourteen lords are painted in the triangle-shaped section of the east wall of the vault. Only two of the four are visible in the photo.

In the lower register, the scene shifts to a celebration taking place 336 days later

Bonampak Room 1: Trumpeters and dancers waving huge crustacean claws.

This celebration took place 336 days after the young heir was presented to the court of Ahaus shown above, on the date when Venus first appeared as the Evening Star.

Because Venus was a male god of war, the dance ritual show below might have been timed to insure that the new heir became a great warrior.

Between the trumpeters and the corner of the room, dancers wave huge crustacean claws and two individuals dressed in exotic costumes appear engaged in some ritual activity. A parade of percussionists appears in the right-hand side of the photo.

A parade of percussionists play turtle carapaces, drums & large gourd rattles

Bonampak Murals, Room 1: Three turtle-carapace players with drummer playing chesst-high drum

Three turtle-carapace players on the left follow gourd players in the procession, with a drummer playing a chest-high drum between the two groups.

Huge parasols or standards break the symmetry of the text band separating the lower and upper registers.

The turtle carapaces produced a mournful sound and were played with deer antlers

Bonampak Murals, Room 1: Closeup of two turtle carapace players.

Closeup of two turtle carapace players. The turtle carapace was an important percussion instrument in ancient Mexico and Central America. It was beaten with deer antlers, could produce multiple tones, and had a mournful, otherworldly sound perhaps associated with the primordial sea.

A virtuoso drummer displays his technique

Bonampak Mural Room 1: Drummers and Percussionists

On the lowest register of Room 1, Maya musicians and regional governors flank the dancers at center. Here the Maya artist attempts to represent aspects of movement and sound otherwise unknown in Maya art.

"The maraca players move as if in stop motion, their arms changing frame by frame; the drummer's hands were painted with palms turned to the viewer, his fingers clearly in motion. The casual examination reveals only the blur. In this, the painted wall attempts to represent sound itself in the drummer's fluttering hands."

Mary Miller, Maya Art and Architecture

NOTE: Like the infant prince on the upper register, these figures have had their eyes defaced, presumably to nullify the power of the mural.

A column of maraca players perform in stoptime

Bonampak Room 1 gourd rattle players in painted leather skirts

"The first five [musicians] wear tall white headdresses and painted leather skirts and they shake large magical gourd rattles."

Freidel, Schele & Parker then go on to say that "in this Bonampak scene, then, the 'musicians' are not just playing music, they are participating in the conjuring of powerful supernaturals into the festival arena."

Freidel, Schele & Parker, Maya Cosmos: Three Thousand Years on the Shaman's Path, p. 257 & 453

Nobles identified by small hieroglyphic name tags wave huge fans

Bonampak Murals, Room 1: Figures holding huge fans that extend up into the hieroglyphic band that separates the paintings.

These figures are holding huge fans that break the frame of the orange hieroglyphic band separating the two series of paintings. The yellow "T-square" is a name tag giving the name and rank of the participant in hieroglyphic characters.

Closeup of a noble warrior and his exotic headgear

Bonampak Murals, Room 1: Fan holder who appears to be wearing a skull in his turban.

This figure appears to be wearing a skull on the top of his turban. Among the Aztec, warriors could only wear a skull headdress if they had captured two prisoners. Perhaps the Maya had similar requirements.

Note the partially faded glyph between the fan handle and the skull. Could that be a comment on the ceremony? Could it have been added later? In any case, it doesn't have the contrasting background that mark other name tags.

Bonampak: House of the Murals Room 1 Bonampak: Stela 2 Bonampak: Stela 1 Bonampak: Entrance to the acropolis Bonampak: View from acropolis with Stela 1 in foreground