Bonampak – Chiapas – Mexico



More on the Maya

Bonampak – Chiapas


This site lies deep in the Lacandon Rainforest in Chiapas, in the valley of the River Lacanha. The preHispanic settlement adopts a scattered pattern and covers an area of 2 sq km. The main constructions were built on a chain of hills in the middle of the valley, stretching from the Sierra de Cojolita to the actual river banks. However, the only parts that have been explored and are now open to the public are the Great Plaza and the Acropolis, along the southern edge of the site, which comprise the famous building with the murals. Take road 186 along the southern border (Villahermosa-Macuspana-Tenosique), follow the turnoff for the town of Palenque and continue until you reach the San Javier-Lacanha-Bonampak crossroads. From San Cristobal de las Casas and Ocosingo, take the border road, follow the turn-off for Chancala and then continue to the San Javier-Lacanha-Bonampak crossroads.

The Murals

In the words of Mary Miller, who conducted a fascinating study on the wall paintings, ‘perhaps no single artefact from the ancient New World offers as complex a view of pre-Hispanic 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’. Herein lies the importance of Bonampak: its murals constitute a clear and accurate testimony of the life, aspirations and activities of a Maya ruler.

In 1990 the Institute of Aesthetic Research of the Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) launched the ongoing project Pre-Hispanic Mural Painting in Mexico to record and study pre-Columbian wall paintings such as those at Bonampak, and in 1997 Ernesto Penaloza photographed the three painted rooms in their entirety for the first time; this material was used to create three panels displaying the complete paintings. These images and the results of the multidisciplinary research led by Beatriz de la Fuente and coordinated by Leticia Staines are included in the two volumes on Bonampak (catalogue and research projects) in the series published by the UNAM.

Pre-Hispanic history

There is little evidence of building activity in the centre of Bonampak during the Early Classic. Due to its proximity to Yaxchilan, it was probably heavily influenced by this city from a very early date, as indeed was the case in the latter days of its occupation. There are epigraphic texts at Yaxchilan that mention Bonampak rulers: Bird Jaguar (not to be confused with the Yaxchilan ruler) is mentioned in association with the sixth ruler of Yaxchilan, and Fish Fin in association with the ninth. These ties remained strong throughout the Late Classic. Knot-Eye Jaguar, lord of Yaxchilan and the father of the Bonampak ruler Chaan Muan, who commissioned the construction of stelae 1, 2 and 3 and the famous murals, not only had close ties with Bonampak: his presence has been identified at the site of Lacanha, a few kilometres north of Bonampak. The monumental precinct is composed of a great acropolis built on a natural slope and delimiting a large central plaza. Stelae 1 and 4 are in the plaza, while stelae 2 and 3 are situated on the stairway leading to the top of the Acropolis. Three of the stelae mention Chaan Muan, the protagonist of the murals. The remainder of the settlement has not yet been mapped and we therefore do not know exactly how large it is.

Site description

The only group open to the public is the Great Plaza, a rectangle space measuring 110×87 m whose main axis is oriented north-west/south-east. It is accessed via a passageway situated between structures 15 and 13. These form part of the platforms, yet to be explored, that delimit the east side (Structures 17 and 18), the north side (Structures 15 and 16) and the west side (Structures 12 and 13).

Acropolis and Stela l.

The Acropolis hill, which runs along the south side of the plaza, is covered by terraces and buildings. At the foot of it, almost at the centre of the plaza, stands the magnificent Stela 1, which is 5,06 m high, 2.6 m wide and 18-20 cm thick. Its carved face overlooks the Acropolis and depicts a richly garbed Chaan Muan II with a tall headdress. In his right hand, he holds the ceremonial sceptre; in his left, a shield with the face of the Jaguar god of the underworld. Under his feet is a band inscribed with the names of his parents and, next to his left leg, his own name.

Temple of the murals and Stelae 2 and 3.

Situated at the foot of a natural hill modified by terraces, this group stands 46 m high. It displays two horizontal axes on different levels, which provide the basis for two groups of buildings. On the lower platform, situated approximately 15 m from the ground level of the plaza, are three buildings: the one on the right is the Temple of the Murals, in the middle are the ruins of Building 2, and on the left is Building 3. The main access to this level is via a monumental stairway, situated in the middle of the group. This comprises two flights with an intermediate landing on which stand Stela 2, to the left, and Stela 3, to the right. The former represents Chaan Muan II accompanied by his wife and his mother in a bloodletting sacrifice; the second stela shows the same dignitary with a prisoner. At the top of this first section of the stairway, on the right-hand side, is the Temple of the Murals, which has three doorways leading to three separate rooms decorated with the famous wall paintings; the doorways have carved lintels depicting the capture of enemy chiefs by two Bonampak rulers and a Yaxchilan ruler, respectively.

Buildings 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9.

Situated at the far left of this first terrace is Building 3, which displays three doorways on its main facade and a stairway leading down to the plaza. Between this and the remains of Building 2 is the stairway leading up to the temples at the top, identified from left to right as Buildings 8, 7, 6, 5 and 4. All of them contain a single chamber and a single access; the exception is Building 4, which has two. All of them are very small and contain a cylindrical altar. Building 6 is the exception in this case and displays instead a carved lintel with the bust of Chaan Muan I, dated 603. Between buildings 5 and 6 is an interrupted stairway leading to the remains of Structure 19, which has a niche and a lintel. Situated next to this structure, behind Building 4, is a small plaza with Building 9 and its platform. The building facade faces west and contains a single doorway leading to a chamber in which there is an uncarved stela.

The murals

The murals are situated in Structure 1, a three-room building resting on the first terrace of the Acropolis. The exterior of the structure was once decorated with stucco relief figures but these have now been lost. The three lintels adorning the doorways to the rooms show scenes of prisoners and texts mentioning their respective names, in a style that bears great similarity to that of Yaxchilan. The earliest date corresponds to Lintel 3, which mentions Chaan Muan’s father, Knot-Eye Jaguar, the ruler of Yaxchilan in AD 740. Chaan Muan appears to have acceded to the throne in Bonampak in 776. Lintel 2 narrates an event later in Chaan Muan’s reign, around 787, making reference to a ruler of Yaxchilan, probably Shield Jaguar II. The date of Lintel 1 corresponds to an event four days earlier.

The walls of the three rooms are covered with magnificently executed paintings in deep colours. The event depicted is associated with the designation of Chaan Muan’s son as heir to the throne and to other events that took place over a period of two years. The correct order for interpreting the murals has been a topic of some debate, although the chronological order of the events represented suggests Room 1 followed by Room 2, followed by Room 3. Small benches occupy most of the interior space and the murals were probably designed to be viewed while seated on these benches.

The narrative commences in Room 1 with a date and hieroglyphic text that divide the upper and lower fields of the mural, painted on the vaulted ceiling above the paintings on the wall. The glyphic texts are greatly deteriorated and have therefore not been translated in their entirety. The first date in the text is 790, which probably corresponds to the event recorded on the top part of the wall, the presentation of a royal heir to a group of 14 Bonampak dignitaries, all garbed in long white cloaks and gathered at the court for the occasion. This scene clearly took place inside a palace. The two seated figures, Chaan Muan and his wife, the heir’s mother, observe the scene from a throne. The second date indicates an event that took place 336 days later. Three important individuals are shown preparing for the ceremony. The figure represented entirely from the front and wearing a great headdress is probably King Chaan Muan himself. The scene below shows a procession involving musicians and dancers in fabulous costumes, carrying different musical instruments.

In Room 2, covering practically every surface of the walls, is one of the masterpieces of Maya art: an incredibly realistic portrayal of a battle scene. In the middle of the composition is the figure of a leader, again shown from the front, grasping the hair of a prisoner in one hand and a spear covered with the skin of a jaguar in the other. This figure represents Chaan Muan, who is accompanied by another warrior, probably Shield Jaguar II, the ruler of Yaxchilan. The result of the battle is presented on the north wall of the room. Once again, Chaan Muan occupies the centre of the composition, this time accompanied by a group Of warriors and two women who observe from a distance the presentation of a group of prisoners captured in battle. The principal captive lies at the feet of Chaan Muan, while the remaining captives are distributed on a six-tier structure, probably representing the different levels of the Bonampak Acropolis. The prisoners are no doubt going to be sacrificed at the presentation of Chaan Muan’s successor and heir to the throne.

The murals in Room 3 are less well preserved, although many of the original designs can still be discerned. Again, they clearly represent a grand ceremony, probably the culmination of the two previous scenes, this composition is divided into two sections: the first shows a group of elaborately garbed individuals resting on a stepped pyramid while a group of musicians and dancers parade by; the second section shows a scene in a different place, probably inside a palace, and again depicts Chaan Muan, his family and a group of courtiers. In this final section, the royal family is engaged in a bloodletting ritual, thus completing the formal presentation of the royal heir.

From: ‘The Maya: an architectural and landscape guide’, produced jointly by the Junta de Andulacia and the Universidad Autonoma de Mexico, 2010, pp172-178.



  1. Acropolis; 2. Temple of the Murals; 3. Temple 2; 4. Temple 3; 5. Temples 4 to 10.

Getting there:

It is possible to get close to the site by combi from Palenque but the final stages to the site itself might be complicated. The fact that Bonampak is part of a tour that takes in Yaxchilan as well means that there are tens of people there everyday (and that’s the low season, there will be many more in the high season. That means it would be virtually impossible to use the informal methods of transport that have been discussed elsewhere. Unless you have your own transport the organised tours might be the only way to visit these sites – without a great deal of work, time and effort.


16d 42’ 21” N

91d 04’ 06” W


This was all part of the tour price on my visit.

More on the Maya

Las Malvinas and Rio Gallegos

Las Islas Malvinas - Rio Gallegos

More on Argentina

Las Malvinas and Rio Gallegos

The Background

It would be impossible for a Britisher to make a visit to Argentina and not make reference to the war between the United Kingdom and Argentina over the Islas Malvinas, from April 2nd to June 14th 1982. That tacky,wasteful and unnecessary war was a God-given opportunity for a weak and pathetic government to try to divert the attention of the population from its failed economy and worsening social conditions. If true justice existed in the world that neo-fascist would be charged in the international court for war crimes. Margaret Thatcher was lucky. ‘Her’ side won – and so she was able to hide behind the ‘joy and enthusiasm’ of victory. After all, it’s the victors who write the history of any conflict.

The ‘other side’ was led by an equally weak and pathetic leader, Leopoldo Galtieri, a fascist army general who was the last President during the period of military dictatorship from 1976-83. H hoped to use nationalist feelings over the Islas Malvinas to divert attention away from the growing opposition to military rule. He gambled – and lost.

I won’t go into my thoughts too deeply about that shameful war. Suffice it to say that if Galtieri had held back for a couple of months the outcome could have been very different – for the history of the Malvinas as well as for the subsequent history of the two countries concerned.

At least the Argentinians knew where the Malvinas were. Most Britishers, waking up to the news on Friday 3rd April 1982 thought the Argentinians were off the north west coast of Scotland.

The British success –which was as close to a near thing as the Battle of Waterloo –meant that the military dictatorship in Argentina had just over a year before it was replaced by a ‘democratic’ government.

The war and the eventual re-raising of the Union Flag in Port Stanley released a flood of patriotism, jingoism and racism in Britain unknown since the  Relief of Mafeking in 1900. In return for their stupidity the British people had the pleasure of Thatcher as their leader for another eight years, the entrenchment of the ‘neo-liberal’ economic theories(adopted, more or less, by all political parties in the UK since),the weakening of the economy and the power of workers to determine their own futures and the worsening conditions for society in general under the banner of ‘austerity’ .

The Rio Gallegos ‘Monument to the Fallen in the Malvinas War’

Being one of the closest points on the Argentinian mainland to the islands Rio Gallegos was obviously to play a major role in the land, sea and air war. For that reason there’s a large monument to the fallen on the outskirts of the town. Not the best of locations, to my mind, but then perhaps there’s always a different mindset when a monument commemorates a victory or a defeat.

(The monument in Puerto Madryn is on the edge of town and the one in Buenos Aires,although central, is still in a peripheral location. The ‘eternal flame’ at that monument wasn’t so eternal during the lock-down of the G-20 2018 as it was surrounded by metal crash barriers.)

Monument to the Fallen in the Malvinas War
               Monument to the Fallen in the Malvinas War

I also don’t think it’s a particularly impressive monument – taking into account the feelings that all Argentinians I’ve met have towards the Malvinas. Not only is it unimpressive as a piece of architecture it doesn’t help that it’s starting to look a little bit neglected. If I read the situation correctly it was originally planned to have an almost permanent flow of water, uniting the tower to the geometric representation of the islands a few metres away. When everything is dry and rubbish is starting to collect then the original idea is not only lost it becomes an indication of lack of care.

Looking at the memorial from what would be the principle approach the entrance is flanked by two eternal flames (gas operated) which sit upon truncated pyramids.The central monument is a yellow column sitting upon a pile of rocks(presumably representing the islands themselves). From the eternal flames this column shows three levels which reduce in height and width. I’ve no idea what this implies. A short distance from the top of the column a circular crown of laurel leaves forms vertically to achieve the highest point of the monument.

From the front it looks like a vertical pillar but from the sides it can be seen that it folds back on itself, as in a concave image. Almost exactly in the centre is a small, square hole. I can’t see what this signifies but if my idea is that this monument is also a water feature it is from this hole that the water would fall towards the islands at the back of the column.

From behind the column a chute comes down steeply from the hole. This is painted red, as is the pavement on either side of the channel that leads to the pool in which sits a very rough geometric representation of the islands. I’d forgotten how complex the islands are with its coves and bays.

We get the idea that these are islands in a sea as the land is grassed over to differentiate the concrete from the water. There are no trees represented as we know from 1982 that no trees grow on the islands.

My interpretation here is that the blood of the Argentinians, in some ways, nurture the islands. That the ‘sacrifice’ of the 649 in 1982 are what make the islands part of the country. But as I’ve already said, the fact that no water is running and the area is starting to look neglected, this idea loses a lot of its power.

The Fallen in the Malvinas War
                          The Fallen in the Malvinas War

On either side of the principal monument are two, L-shaped alcoves. On the external sides there are two bas reliefs in red, of the four only one of them is recognisable and that seems to be faces in some sort of agony. Time and/or vandalism has degraded the other three. On the interior of these alcoves are fixed a number of brass or ceramic plaques that have been fixed there over a period of time by different groups commemorating specific anniversaries – this is a common approach to monuments throughout Argentina and can be seen, for example, on the San Martin monument in the square that bears his name only a few blocks away in the centre of town.

To the left of the two eternal flames is a board contains a poem written for the inauguration of the monument – I didn’t see any date of its inauguration nor any details of the architect/artist.

My translation of that poem is:

I have seen emerge, from the very soul of our land, valiant combatants of the air, sea and land parading their laurels in the infinite heaven

I have seen the sacrifice of their spilt blood bathing our islands in honour

Justice will come then, as hot firebrands engrave the memory of the men to which this symbol in concrete pays homage

Hector Pedraza

The Malvinas remembered in the port of Rio Gallegos

I’ve come across a number of murals in my travels but, due to only catching a glimpse of them from a bus window, I have no actual record of them. However, the general point is that a) Las Malvinas son Argentinas and b) those who died should not be forgotten.

In the port area of Rio Gallegos I came across these murals.

I’ll let these pictures (in the main) – with the relevant translations – make their own point.

The Angel
                                                The Angel

The young soldier,converted into an angel, flying over the graves of his fallen comrades, with the ‘Sun of May’ in the top left – on his way to heaven. Notice the beatific smile on his face, as if he is the modern day version of a Christian martyr. All this image needs is the image of a Gurkha’s khukuri that slit his throat to be floating in the air behind him. This is, without a shadow of a doubt, the most bizarre and, in many ways, most unpleasant call for the dead to be remembered I have seen.

Glory and Honour Forever
                                 Glory and Honour Forever
Whilst an Argentinian breathes
Whilst an Argentinian draws breath we will never be the invaders

649 – they will always be our heroes (649 is the number of the Argentinian dead)

Don't mourn Grandma

Malvinas Forever –’Old Lady (Grandma), don’t mourn that I’m with my fallen comrades on the islands. All I need is that my country remembers me.’

No Surrender!

Here there’s no surrender. Shit! Long Live the Country (Argentina). Our own strength.

Two struggles in one
Two struggles in one

28 Heart – We will build together

This one is a little bit complicated and has to be de-constructed.

I think that the image of the islands and the soldier, with the Argentinian flag in the centre, was the original image – without words.

However, time moves on and other struggles come to the fore. Beside this image of the Malvinas was another which puts the case for the miners of the RioTurbio region (which used to send shipments of coal to the port of Rio Gallegos) who are under threat of closure. It depicts a black miner’s helmet with the torch attached with the words ‘I’m here as well’ and ‘Miner’s Power’. As in Britain in the 1980s the closure of the mines doesn’t just mean the loss of jobs it means the total destruction of a community.

I'm here as well
I’m here as well

The interpretation I have learnt from speaking to people locally is that the miners (or apolitical faction from that community) have put their slogan over the original Malvinas image to equate the two struggles that people believe in, fervently, in this part of Argentina.

(Anyone aware of the situation in Britain with the neo-fascist Thatcher and her government’s struggle against the miners in the Great Strike of 1984-5 might think that this situation in 2018 is quite ironic. It also indicates that if workers don’t start to think in an international manner and remain parochial then what effects workers in one part of the world will eventually effect all in time.)

There’s also a very small museum in Rio Gallegos dedicated to the War in the Malvinas which I will post separately.

More on Argentina

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