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Famous Maya Murals of Chiapas, Mexico


View of the Acropolis of Bonampak from the great Plaza

View of the Acropolis of Bonampak from the great Plaza

photo credit:Mattia di Paolo

Bonampak is a Mayan city located in the Mexican state of Chiapas, in the valley of the Lacanha river, about 20 miles south of Yaxchilan. The small site is best known for its murals depicting scenes of courtly life and battles.

The site and its murals became first known to non-Mayan people in 1946, when photographer Giles Healey, accompanied by two Maya Lacandones, reached Bonampak and the Temple of the Paintings during a deer hunt. The discovery of the paintings, especially the Mural of the Battle, caused a huge debate among Maya scholars, since at that time the most accepted view was that the ancient Maya were a peaceful people, more interested in mathematics and astronomic observations than warfare.

Expeditions by the Carnegie Institution of Washington and the National Institute for Anthropology and History (INAH) in Mexico were soon organized to record the fresco paintings and excavate portions of the site. More recently, in the 1990s, a new project to document the murals with higher definition technology was begun, directed by Mary Miller from Yale University.

Site Layout and Development 

Bonampak was probably first occupied at least as early as the Early Classic period, but the bulk of the construction date to the Late Classic period, specifically to the end of the 8th century, when the acropolis was built.

The site core is composed of at least 20 structures arranged on a central acropolis, built over a natural hill, and around a central plaza at the foot of the acropolis. Several stelae and altars are located in the main plaza as well as at the corners of the different terraces of the acropolis. These monuments mainly depict one of the last and most important ruler of Bonampak, Chan Muwuan, who had the acropolis built, and ruled the city from AD 776 and about 790. Chan Muwan married a princess of Yaxchilan, and many experts agree that it was actually an intervention from Yaxchilan that allowed Chan Muwan to access the throne, linking the history and politics of the two centers.

Throughout its history Bonampak was heavily influenced and subjected to the more powerful center of Yaxchilan, on the Usumacinta river, and in several inscriptions in both sites, the Bonampak ruler appears as s subaltern of the Yaxchilan lord.

The most famous building of Bonampak is without a doubt Structure 1, a small three-room building, also known as the Temple of the Painting. Its exterior walls are decorated with stucco reliefs, and the door lintels are carved with glyphs and the images of captives. However the most spectacular elements of the site are a series of mural paintings that cover its interior walls.

The Murals

The murals cover the walls of all three rooms and depict scenes of courtly life and battles during the reign of Chan Muwan. The lower level of the rooms are lined with stone benches, where the rulers of Bonampak sat and received their visitors framed by the suggestive images of its victories and lavish court.

The images provide a pictorial narration that, according to a glyphic inscription in room no.1, seems to have taken place in AD 790. The first scene portrays a courtly scene, in which the royal family attends a ceremony with high dignitaries. Some scholars suggest that the scene records the presentation of the royal heir, the son of Chan Muwan and his wife, Lady Rabbit of Yaxchilan. The scenes in the second and third rooms vividly depict a scene of battle with details of weapons, dresses, prisoner taking and the aftermath of the battle where the captive are presented to the king, tortured and probably sacrificed in front of the nobility and warriors of Bonampak.

Bonampak and Yaxchilan

In the murals, Chan Muwan is often accompanied by his overlord Itzamnaaj Balam, lord of Yaxchilan, emphasizing the subaltern role of Bonampak with respect to the more important polity. It is probable that during the first part of its history, Bonampak was an independent center, even if culturally and politically influenced by Yaxchilan. By the Late Classic, however, the city became a satellite of Yaxchilan, and his rulers were “sponsored” by the more powerful lord of Yaxchilan, Itzamnaaj Balam III (also known as Shield Jaguar III), and – for a brief period – it seems that Bonampak had been a subordinate of Toniná too.


This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to Maya Civilization, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Miller, Mary, and Simon Martin, 2005, Courtly Art of the Ancient Maya. Thames and Hudson

Schele, Linda and David Freidel, 1990, A Forest of Kings. Harper-Perennial.

Sharer, Robert J., and Loa P. Traxler, 2006, The Ancient Maya. Sixth Edition. Stanford University Press, Stanford, California

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