Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Saved by Neglect Volume 57 Number 3, May/June 2004

[image] Is this mural a representation of Christian piety or evidence of slave labor? (Ben Wood/Eric Blind) [LARGER IMAGE]

A unique record of what was probably the first contact between Native Americans and Europeans in central California has been uncovered behind the ornately carved altar at the Mission Dolores, a 228-year-old landmark church in central San Francisco. There, accessed only by a trapdoor in the mission's attic, is a 20-foot-tall, 22-foot-wide mural that was painted by Native American artists in 1791.

Part of the mural depicts two Sacred Hearts, the first penetrated by three stakes and the second by a sword. Abstract ornamentation surrounding the religious imagery has yet to be interpreted.

Painted with natural dyes, the mural is in great condition, protected, ironically, from light and moisture by its centuries of neglect behind the altar, which was erected in 1796, just five years after the mural was painted.

The mural has been photographed by local archaeologist Eric Blind and artist Ben Wood. Blind isn't sure if the mural was a gesture of sincere Christian piety on the part of native artists or if they were forced by missionaries to paint it, but he suspects it may have been a combination of the two.

© 2004 by the Archaeological Institute of America