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The majesty of the great Bonampak and its mesmerizing frescoes

Archaeology Monday provides historical background, photos and practical information about these ancient marvels and how to get out and enjoy them for yourself. This week we journey deep into the Lacandon jungle to take in the astonishing beauty of Bonampak and its famous frescoes.

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Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway. Sign up for the Yucatán Roundup, a free newsletter, which delivers the week's top headlines every Monday.

The ruins of Bonampak lay deep in the thick Lacandon jungle in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. In the Mayan language, bonampak means painted walls, but in antiquity, the city was known as Usiij Witz, meaning vulture mound.

View of Bonampak’s great acropolis, surrounded by foliage of the Lacandon jungle. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The city was founded in the early 2nd century CE and had grown to be quite large by the time Yaxchilán invaded in the 5th century and installed Yajaw Chan Muwaan I (sky harpy) as lord of the city. The name Chan, meaning small, is to this day one of the most common surnames in southeastern Mexico and, by the way, the paternal last name of my lovely girlfriend Yesica.

The architecture of Bonampak is impressive and is dominated by a large multi-level acropolis that supports several structures.

Detail of stairway and structure in Bonampak’s acropolis. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Bonampak is most famous for its splendidly preserved frescoes but has a great many other features that should not be overlooked.

Wonderfully preserved lintel in Bonampak depicting a lord wearing a ceremonial headdress. A lintel is a structural horizontal block that spans the space or opening between two vertical supports. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Directly across from the acropolis are three large stelae depicting important events in the life of King Chan Muhan II. In one of these stelae, he is shown preparing for a bloodletting ceremony in the company of three women, including his mother, Lady Shield Skull, and his wife, Lady Green Rabbit of Yaxchilán.

Bloodletting ceremonies performed by nobles were common in Mesoamerica. They were considered essential in earning and maintaining the favor of the gods. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Outside of the main acropolis, it is possible to observe the remains of several other smaller ceremonial centers and residential areas. However, most of these are considerably smaller and have not been restored.

Smaller structures and plazas dot the landscape surrounding the acropolis in Bonampak. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

During the great Classic Maya collapse of the 9th century CE, Bonampak was abandoned. After Bonampak was rediscovered in 1948, archaeologists made a staggering find. During their excavations, they stumbled across a structure with three chambers containing exquisitely preserved frescoes featuring scenes of war, festivities, political intrigue, and myth.

Mighty Chan Muhan II holds court, deciding the fate of war captives. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The preservation of the frescoes for well over a millennia ultimately came down to a series of serendipitous coincidences. But whatever the circumstances, the find caused great excitement among scholars. Images of the frescoes began to be printed in specialized journals but soon made their way to the popular press.

Mayan nobles await their turn to pay homage to their king. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

More than perhaps any other example of Mayan art, the frescoes of Bonampak have shaped the way contemporary people imagine the classical Maya. Specialists have even gone as far as referring to the frescoes at the “Sistine Chapel of Mesoamerica” — and with good reason. The frescoes are the work of a Mayan artist known by the name of Och, meaning opossum.

A three-room structure in Bonampak contains the site’s famous frescoes. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The structure containing the frescoes is 16 meters long, four meters wide, and seven meters tall. It is constructed on a T-shaped platform and still retains some of its original stucco facades. The structure is divided into three separate rooms and presents scenes surrounding the accession to power of King Chooj.

Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

If you have ever visited Bonampak you will know that photographs do not do it justice. This is especially true given that the entire surface area of each room is completely covered in frescos and is notoriously difficult to photograph. 

Each room has its own theme and is completely covered in frescoes. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The narrative presented is to be read chronologically, beginning in room 1 with the investiture of the new king and several jubilant musical performances. 

Musicians perform using rattling instruments on the south wall of room 1. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Musicians with wind instruments and costumed subjects of the king. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Lintel 1 over the doorway of room 1 depicting Chaan Muwakn capturing an enemy. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Room 2 is the largest of the three and contains 139 human figures. It contains a scene that is widely considered the greatest battle scene in all of Maya art. These frescoes also show King Chooj holding court and deciding the fates of captured prisoners.

Detail of war scene depicting a man getting run through with a spear. Although one of the most damaged frescoes at the site, it is still clear when seen in person. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Room 3 is the scene of ritual celebration for victory in battle, including bloodletting by nobles. It is also different from rooms 1 and 2 in that it depicts several noblewomen.

Noble women of the court offering their blood to the gods in thanks to their king’s victory in war. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

If you go

The roads in this region of Chiapas can be treacherous, so driving yourself is not advisable.  

Organized tours departing from Palenque to Bonampak usually also include a visit to Yaxchilán. Tours usually leave at around 5 or 6 a.m. and cost between 1,200 and 1,700 pesos. It is money very well spent. 

Bonampak is in Southern Mexico. Image: Google Maps.

If you are ever in Mexico City you may also want to check out the reproductions of the frescoes made by Guatemalan artist Rina Lazo — who was an apprentice of Diego Rivera early in her career — at the national anthropology museum. 

For composite views of the frescoes room by room, check out the Bonampak page on latinamericanstudies.org.

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