Bonampak (known anciently as Ak'e or, in its immediate area as Usiij Witz, 'Vulture Hill')[1] is an ancient Maya archaeological site in the Mexican state of Chiapas. The site is approximately 30 km (19 mi) 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 (American archaeologist, epigrapher, and Mayanist scholar Sylvanus Morley once stated that Bonampak was fourth-rate in terms of size and political importance),[2] it is well known for the murals located within the three roomed Structure 1 (The Temple of the Murals). The construction of the site’s structures dates to the Late Classic period (c. AD 580 to 800). In addition to being amongst the most well-preserved Maya murals, the Bonampak murals are noteworthy for debunking early assumptions that the Maya were a peaceful culture of mystics (a position long-held and argued for by the well-known early Mesoamerican archaeologist, ethnohistorian and epigrapher from the Carnegie Institute of Washington, Sir John Eric Sidney Thompson),[3] as the murals clearly depict war and human sacrifice.

The site, lying close to a tributary of the Usumacinta River, was first seen by non-Mayans in 1946. Precisely who was first is a matter of speculation, but it was either by two American travelers, Herman Charles (Carlos) Frey and John Bourne, or photographer/explorer Giles Healey. The Americans were led to the ruins by the local Lacandon Maya who still visited the site to pray in the ancient temples. Giles Healey was the first to be shown the huge paintings covering the walls of one of the structure's three rooms. The paintings show the story of a single battle and its victorious outcome.[4]


  • History 1
  • Temple of the Murals 2
  • See also 3
  • Notes 4
  • Publications 5
  • External links 6


Bird Jaguar in the early 5th century fought against K'inich Tatb'u Skull I in Yaxchilan, and lost his freedom.[5] Other nobles were captured in a later war against Knot-eye Jaguar I.[6] In 514, Knot-eye Jaguar I was himself taken captive (by Ruler C of Piedras Negras),[6][7] giving Bonampak some respite; but after 526, his successor K'inich Tatb'u Skull II attacked Bonampak again and captured more lords.[8]

Bonampak by 600 CE had become a satellite of Yaxchilan. In that time, the ajaw of Yaxchilan installed Yajaw Chan Muwaan I as lord in Bonampak. Subsequent ajawob reconstructed the site to orient toward the metropolis. C. 790 CE, Yaxchilan’s king Shield Jaguar III oversaw the installation of Chan Muwaan II, and hired Yaxchilano artisans to commemorate it in "Structure I"'s murals. Bonampak collapsed with Yaxchilan in the 9th century.[9]

Temple of the Murals

Frescos in Structure 1 at Bonampak

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. Although almost completely faded away, the lower section of the exterior of Structure 1 was once white, with brilliant, vertically painted red stripes. Above, there are a serious of deteriorating niches, five in total, one above each of the three doorways, as well as one at both ends. Each niche features a seated figure; Professor Mary Miller identified these as likely representations of a ruling lord.[10] 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 translucent 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 led by professor Mary Miller began The Bonampak Documentation Project, which included making an even more detailed study, photographic record, and reproductions of the murals.

Frescos in Structure 1 at Bonampak (left room), possibly depicting Chaan Muan and his family engaged in ritual bloodletting

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 Muwaan II, the Yaxchilano "governor" 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.

A lintel over one of the doorways of Structure 1

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."

See also


  1. ^ Houston, Stephen (2012). "The Good Prince: Transition, Texting and Moral Narrative in the Murals of Bonampak, Chiapas, Mexico". Cambridge Archaeological Journal. 
  2. ^ Lynch, James (1964). "The Bonampak Murals". Art Journal. 
  3. ^ Roberts, David (July 2005). "Secrets of the Maya: Deciphering Tikal". The Smithsonian. The Smithsonian. 
  4. ^ Coe, Michael D. (1999). The Maya (Sixth ed.). New York: Thames & Hudson. pp. 125–129.  
  5. ^ Martin & Grube 2000, p.119.
  6. ^ a b Martin & Grube 2000, p.120.
  7. ^ Sharer & Traxler 2006, p. 422
  8. ^ Martin & Grube 2000, p.121.
  9. ^ David Stuart: "Orienting Bonampak", April 30, 2009
  10. ^ Miller, Mary (1986). The Murals of Bonampak. New Jersey: Princeton. p. 21. 


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

Staines, Leticia. Coord. De la Fuente, Beatriz. Dir. La pintura mural prehispánica en México II. Área maya. Tomo I. Bonampak. Catálogo [3] Tomo II. Bonampak. Estudios [4] Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas, UNAM. México. 1998

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)