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A Mayan find, Indiana Jones-style

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A Harvard University archaeologist's quest for shade from the searing Guatemalan sun has led to one of the most significant finds in the past 20 years involving the ancient civilization of the Maya.

In a "back before lunch" trek that, instead, became a grueling three-day ordeal, William Saturno discovered an exquisitely preserved mural at the ruins of San Bartolo. Researchers say the find will shed light on a critical period in Mayan history, when it shifted from a farm-based society to one that would be remembered for its art, architecture, and astronomy.

Dating from 100 A.D., the mural is the oldest intact painting of Mayan mythology ever found, Saturno says. "It opens a window into the mythology and courtly life of the ancient Maya" during the end of what researchers term its pre-classical period, which extended from about 2,000 BC to 250 AD

The last time archaeologists hit this kind of paydirt was in 1946, when scientists uncovered the Bonampak murals at ruins in the Mexican state of Chiapas. That find dated to 790 AD, during the late-classical period.

The Bonampak murals "altered our vision of the late classical period," says Saturno. "We could see so many different characters. There were battle scenes, sacrifices, and named individuals."

The newly discovered murals in Guatemala "are going to be in any textbook that mentions the Maya," agrees David Freidel, an anthropologist and Maya specialist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "They will become central to our understanding of Mayan civilization."

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