Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index


Bonampak is an ancient Maya site in the state of Chiapas, Mexico, about 30km (20 miles) south of the larger site of Yaxchilan and the border with Guatemala.

It is small Maya site, which was a dependency of Yaxchilan. All of the structures seem to have been built in the period from about 580 to 800. Bonampak was rediscovered in 1946 by photographer Giles Healy, who was lead to it by the nomadic Lacandon Maya who still visited the site to pray in the ancient temples.

Bonampak contains several medium sized temples around a plaza, along with a few well carved stelae, but is famous for the murals in one of the buildings.

What is often referred to as The Temple of the Murals (also more prosaicaly called "Structure 1") is a long narrow building with 3 rooms atop a low stepped pyramid base. The interior walls preserved the finest examples of classic Maya painting, otherwise known only from pottery and occasional small faded fragments. Through happy accident rainwater seeped into the plaster of the roof in such a way as to cover the interior walls with a layer of slightly transparent calcium carbonate. Shortly after the 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 2 different artists. In 1996 a team from Yale University began The Bonampak Documentation Project, which included making even more detailed study, photographs, and reproductions of the murals.

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 and a couple of competent assistants. The three room show a series of actual events with great realism. The first room 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 confering 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 Muan, the Lord of Bonampak. It is usually presumed that the prisoners are being prepared for human sacrifice, although 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 heiroglyhpic text dates the scene and gives the names of the principal participants.

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."

While tourists may visit Bonampak, it is a rather difficult and distant journey from anywhere else, and the murals are much less visible than in the photographs from the 1940s. No photography is allowed within the Temple of the Murals. Today a better idea of the murals can be got from visiting the full scale reproduction of the temple in the National Museum of Anthropology & History in Mexico City than can be gotten from visiting the originals in Bonampak.

External Links