The ancient Mayan archeological site of Bonampak, is famous for the classic Mayan paintings that decorate temple walls, and date from AD 790. The attention to detail make them imperative to studying their culture. Such paintings have only been recovered from pottery and rare faded fragments.
Bonampak is located in the state of Chiapas in Mexico. It is about 19 miles south of the larger Mayan city of Yaxchilan. The site was constructed during the Early Classic period (AD 580 to 800).
Bonampak was first visited by Non-Mayans in 1946, when two travelers from the United States were led to the site by the local Maya. A few years later, the photographer Giles Healey visited the site and discovered the paintings.
The most famous building at Bonampak is the Temple of the Murals, also known as Structure 1. It is a long, narrow structure with three rooms. Upon entering the building, visitors will be struck by the magnificent classic Mayan paintings on the walls. The paintings have been preserved through a fortunate accident. Rainwater seeped through the roof and formed a coat of partially transparent calcium carbonate over the interior walls.
Soon after the murals were discovered, a team of scientists from the Carnegie Institute of Washington visited Bonampak. They covered the walls with kerosene to make the calcium carbonate layer temporarily transparent. The paintings were then extensively photographed, and two different artists made duplicates. In 1996, a group from Yale University began the Bonampak Documentation Project, in which they studied and reproduced the paintings in even greater detail.
The murals were done as frescos. They illustrate real events that took place in great detail. They show the rituals of the royal court, including sacred ceremonies and human sacrifice. In the paintings you can see many musical instruments, weapons of war and dancers in fine costumes.
Bonampak is frequently visited by tourists. It is in an isolated location, and was difficult to reach before the construction of the Border Highway in the 1990s. At present, only the murals and the main plaza are open to the public. A full-scale reproduction of the temple has been constructed in the National Museum of Anthropology & History in Mexico City.
The murals at Bonampak are a rare example of the great detail and realism that went into classic Mayan art. A visit to the site is a rewarding experience, in which you can truly appreciate the artistic genius of the ancient Mayans.