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Belize Maya mural

Archaeologists discover rare ancient Maya mural on cattle ranch

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Archaeologists have discovered an ancient Maya mural underneath a mound of jumbled trees and bushes on a cattle ranch in Belize. The landowner has agreed to leave it untouched for now, but there are no guarantees in the future so researchers are rushing to excavate, study and preserve the site. 

Known as Tulix Mul, the mound is actually an ancient Early Classic (200-600 AD) Maya site that contains evidence of at least two standing vaulted rooms.   Excavations first began in 2012, led by the Maya Research Program and the University of Texas, but the vaulted room wasn’t discovered until last year. It had been filled in by the ancient Maya and as it was being cleared out, archaeologists could see intact plaster on the walls.

Through time, small fragments had dropped away from the plaster, revealing underlying evidence of a polychrome, fine-line mural. This is an incredibly rare discovery as there are only a few other known Maya murals found in Central America. Aside from their artistic beauty, each has provided significant new information about Maya art, religious concepts, trade and interaction.  Although it is not yet known what is depicted in the Tulix Mul mural because not enough of it has been exposed, it is hoped the mural may be equally informative. 

Archaeologists are now working to uncover the remainder of the mural and are continuing to uncover the other vaulted room, which site investigators suspect may contain another mural. However, the site is at risk from a number of factors, as Thomas Guderjan of the University of Texas at Tyler explains:

"Several threats to the site exist. First, the property is owned by a mechanized farming and ranching concern which often exhibits resistance to legalities. Legal protections exist but may not be followed and enforcement is difficult and generally non-existent until after the fact. Good relations exist today but cannot be guaranteed in the long run. The only solution to this problem is to purchase the site and put it into public hands. Second, the site is remote and therefore looting could occur unseen. Further, it is an obvious mott of trees on the landscape and easily found. There is also risk of damage by casual visitors so physical security of the mural must be achieved. Such security must also take into account the need to protect the mural from environmental degradation."

Tulix Mul was found only 1 kilometre away from another Maya centre, known as Nojol Nah , a medium-sized site dating from the Late Preclassic to the Early Classic period (400 BC-600 AD).  It includes evidence of a public precinct with a pyramidal structure, elite residential structures, and numerous burials. This suggests that other Maya sites and murals may also lie hidden in the area.

By April Holloway

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