Category: Media & Culture / October 11, 2012 7:12 PM EDT
In a ramshackle home in Guatemala's rural highlands, farmer and odd job man Lucas Asicona made for an unlikely curator of treasured art - until he decided to redo his kitchen.
When he pulled back the plaster in his humble colonial-era home of stone, adobe and haphazard wooden boards, he discovered 300-year-old murals, a priceless piece of Guatemalan history.
Scenes of tall Europeans beating drums and playing flutes stare out over the one-room dwelling where his family, including five children cooked, slept and played.
So he carefully drew back the furniture and moved his wood burning kitchen stove outside to protect the treasured artwork, an informal curator of Guatemala's rich past.
The house has been in his family for generations.
Asicona is among four householders in Chajul, an Ixil Maya community some 220 miles (350 kms) from Guatemala City, struggling to preserve murals revealed after peeling back plaster on the walls of ancient homes. Experts believe similar murals could lie hidden in a further eight homes in the town.
Around half of Guatemala's 14.5 million people are of indigenous descent, many of whom continue to speak 21 officially recognized languages and wear brightly coloured traditional dress.
Historians in Chajul say conserving the rich pictorial heritage is vital for the town of 25,000 people, which was settled four centuries ago by Mayan groups who fled Spanish settlers in Antigua, a few miles (kms) from Guatemala City.
The murals are believed to have been painted by descendants of the ancient Maya civilization which thrived between AD 250 and 900 and extended from modern day Honduras to central Mexico. It left behind a trove of pyramids and dozens of distinct Mayan groups who continue to endure.
The friezes cover several walls of the homes, whose colonial history is glimpsed in details including heavy hardwood doors and carved stone pillars propping up modern tin roofs.
The murals show a moment in history when the local Maya - some depicted in plumed costumes - encountered the tall, bearded conquistadors from Spain who tried to convert them to Christianity.
Historians say the murals peeping through the plaster at Asicona's home illustrate the so-called "conquest dance," from a time in the 1650s when Spaniards forced locals to build a Catholic Church which still stands at the centre of town.
Other paintings in a neighbour's home show spiralling fireballs that local lore says fell from the sky at the height of the colonial encounter in the 17th century and were thought by the Maya to be a sign of anger from the gods.
But in a country where more than half the population live in poverty, conservation is proving a challenge.
Asicona said he last contacted the government for help in 2007 but never received a response. Like other families, he says he is simply doing his best to conserve the friezes.
After making the discovery, Asicona swiftly made repairs to his home to prevent leaks during the country's soggy rainy season and pushed the family's beds to opposite walls where his kids jump up and down.
Cabinets have been moved to the centre of the room in order to keep dust from dirtying the murals.
He has received visitors from as far away as Europe who have paid up to $10 dollars to come in and see the paintings, but without more support he worries that the prized artwork could disappear.
Culture Ministry spokesman Sergio Igax said that for the families to receive funding to preserve the murals, the homes have to be declared national heritage - a long process that involves lots of paperwork.
He said the ministry had not received a request from Chajul for an evaluation in recent years.