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A Wrinkle in Time: Newly discovered Maya writing challenges archaeologists' theories about Mesoamerican history

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David Stuart was getting out of the Land Rover after the bumpy 50-mile ride through the Guatemalan rain forest to San Bartolo, an ancient Maya ruin in northern Guatemala.

Earliest Maya hieroglyphs, discovered in 2005 at San Bartolo, Guatemala
The earliest Maya hieroglyphs, discovered in 2005 at San Bartolo, Guatemala.
Drawing by D. Stuart,
Proyecto San Bartolo

William Saturno, the leader of the dig at the site and a former graduate student of Stuart’s, greeted him by saying, “We’ve got something for you, Dave.”

That something was the oldest known Maya writing, a vertical line of 10 Maya hieroglyphs that had been inscribed on the wall.

“I was floored, absolutely floored,” said Stuart, the Linda and David Schele Professor of Mesoamerican Art and Writing at The University of Texas at Austin and a leading expert in Maya hieroglyphs. “I knew how old it had to be.”

Saturno said Stuart’s exact words were, “Where are these things from? Neptune?”

It had been written between 300-200 B.C., according to radiocarbon dating of charcoal associated with the glyphs. The classic Maya period was from 400-800 A.D.

“Nothing like it’s been found,” Stuart said. “That’s what it comes down to.”

Previously, Saturno, a researcher for the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology and lecturer at the University of New Hampshire, had found an elaborate mural depicting the creation of the Mayan cosmos. The murals date from about 150 B.C.

Those discoveries at San Bartolo have changed the way archaeologists think about the ancient Mayan timeline, that Maya literacy goes back much further than had been thought.

“You look at something like this and you realize there had to have been centuries of development leading up to it,” Stuart said. “That’s what we still don’t see. Where’s that stuff? It didn’t happen overnight.”

The writing discovery also calls into question the idea that the Maya borrowed the idea of writing from other Mesoamerican cultures.

“I think we’re going to have to rethink that,” Stuart said. “We’re going to have to consider that writing originated around the same time in all these different areas (in Mesoamerica). We just haven’t found it yet.”

Full circle

The San Bartolo discoveries are sure to be a topic of conversation this week at the Maya Meetings, an annual gathering of Maya experts—academic, professional and amateur—on the university campus.

Stuart is the host of the meeting and Saturno is scheduled to speak on March 14. The title of his talk is to the point: “Cool and Exciting New Stuff from San Bartolo.”

As host, Stuart will fill the role of Linda Schele, the late Maya researcher at the university who began the meetings in 1977.

Map of area of San Bartolo, Guatemala
Map of northern Guatemala showing a detail of the San Bartolo area.

When he came to The University of Texas at Austin in 2004, it was something of a homecoming for him. Schele had been his archaeological mentor since he was 11 years old.

“It’s wonderful to be in her position,” he said. “I’ve come full circle.”

He knew Schele through his parents and when he was 11 she invited him to be her assistant at Palenque, a major Maya site in Mexico.

“So my mom took me down for the summer and from then on we were pretty close,” he said.

His interest in Maya studies was his own doing, Stuart said.

“My parents never pushed me and Linda didn’t, either,” he said. “She was happy to have me along and tell me stuff I wanted to know. But she also let me choose my path.”

His father, George Stuart, was a staff archaeologist and chairman of the research committee of the National Geographic Society for many years. George met David’s mother on a dig in Georgia in the 1950s.

As a keynote event for the meeting, George Stuart and National Geographic photographer Ken Garrett will discuss their discoveries, insights and observations from decades of exploring and chronicling the ancient Maya.

Stuart’s early work was recognized in 1984 when he was awarded a fellowship from the MacArthur Foundation. He was 18 and the youngest to receive a so-called genius award.


Carved hieroglyphs from Dos Pilas, Guatemala, telling the story of local kings and their rituals
Carved hieroglyphs from Dos Pilas, Guatemala, telling the story of local kings and their rituals.
Photo by D. Stuart

Stuart went on to graduate school at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., and then as a curator at Peabody Museum at Harvard, and entered the field formally at a propitious time.

“By the time I was in college, the field (Maya archaeology) was changing completely,” he said. “I was able to participate in this revolution.”

The revolution came about through the work of Schele and others who broke the code of the Maya languages.

“By the late ’80s and ’90s, it all opened up,” Stuart said. “Austin was one of the main nodes of that work. The Maya Meetings were the place to be to talk to colleagues about all the synergy of it.”

The synergy of the meetings grows out of the fieldwork going on at Maya sites in Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras.

Mysteries of the Maya

As he copies, draws and photographs ancient Mayan art, Stuart tries to imagine the original artist.

A detail of the San Bartolo murals, showing a man holding a royal headdress up to a new king
A detail of the San Bartolo murals, showing a man holding a royal headdress up to a new king.
Scan by William Saturno,
Proyecto San Bartolo

“It’s only natural to wonder,” he said. “How can you not?”

“Who was the guy who carved this? What was his motivation? Was he a famous artist of the day? Did the king tell him what to produce or did he design it himself? All these things.”

Then he looks beyond the art to the larger space.

“You try to imagine what the landscape looked like, the built environment,” he said. “Were there trees in these ancient cities? Or was it kind of barren with monuments and sculptures here. It’s hard to say.”

Then there are the bigger mysteries of the Maya.

“There were cities of 80,000 to 100,000 people,” he said. “But within 100 years, 200 years, they’re gone. What kind of radical events were taking place that could cause that across the board? Not just in one city, but at scores of places.”

San Bartolo isn’t giving up its answers easily. There’s just not much to work with, Stuart said.

“Here we only have a small snippet,” he said. “If we only had a much longer text, it would be a lot easier. It’s like any kind of code breaking, the longer the sample is the more success you’ll have potentially. Our problem with this early stuff is it’s so small.”

Saturno said the San Bartolo text presents a new task for Stuart.

“Usually, when you show him Maya text, he just reads it,” Saturno said. “All of a sudden, he’s confronted with a whole new system and now the challenge is to someday be able to figure out what it means.”

Some of those big and small secrets of the Maya might be revealed at San Bartolo or at other, undiscovered sites. “San Bartolo is cool,” Stuart said. “But there’s going to be cooler stuff. Either from there or other places. There’s just no question.”

BY Tim Green

PHOTO of Professor Stuart on banner graphic: Christina Murrey

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  Updated 20 March 2006
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