Renovations of a mudbrick house in Guatemala has revealed a set of “remarkable” Mayan wall art that may represent “lost” dances typical of the culture during the Colonial period.
Today, the Maya population is estimated at around 8 million, most of whom live in Guatemala. Many Ixil Mayans live in the southcentral region and city of Chajul, where their homes are believed to date back to the Colonial period when the Spanish ruled the region. Typical artwork of the era depicts Christian subjects and served as a way for the colonizing Spanish to assert control, but the discovery of traditional indigenous style artwork during this timeframe indicates there may have been a revival as Spanish power waned.
The artwork was first discovered in a mudbrick house by the homeowner in 2003. Publishing their findings in Antiquity, an international team of researchers collaborated with local Ixil Maya to analyze and restore the paintings, which extend around three walls of the central room in the house known as “house 3”. The artwork shares many similarities with pre-Hispanic Maya art and was likely painted using traditional methods.
Radiocarbon dating of the walls and pigments used suggest the artwork dates between 1524 and 1821 AD, though pinpointing the exact date is difficult as the mural had been repainted several times and covered over with paint at least five.
Local inhabitants suggest the dance scenes highlight Spanish culture: the Baile de la Conquista (Dance of the Conquest) depicts the conquest of the Maya by the Spanish while the Baile de los Moros y Cristianos (Dance of the Moors and Christians) tells the story of Reconquista, a central story in Spanish Medieval history. In one, a figure – possibly a dancer – is shown “striding towards the musicians, holding a green object resembling a bottle in his extended hand. His costume comprises both European and Indian elements, including trousers and heeled shoes” and “a short, tasseled mantle of feathers.”
“The discovery of a Chajul wall painting tradition adds significant new information to the history of Colonial-period Mesoamerican art, and contributes to our understanding of local, indigenous expressions of art and ritual in the context of foreign influences,” conclude the researchers.
Though perhaps Spanish in origin, Dance of the Conquest was reinterpreted over time as a story of local indigenous history and repression. Throughout the centuries, many such dances were banned in this region of Guatemala and researchers say that the artwork may reflect a “lost” dance.