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Reviving a Radiant Canvas Volume 56 Number 4, July/August 2003
by Mark Sullivan

Restored 1,500-year-old murals vividly depict the daily lives of Mexico's Teotihuacanos.

While other archaeologists burrow deep within the Pyramid of the Moon to discover the secrets of the pre-Aztec civilization of Teotihuacan, Valerie Magar, a conservator for Mexico's Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, labors with excavated material in a process best described as a rediscovery, stripping away the damage well-meaning archaeologists have done to the site's 1,500-year-old murals.

Magar and her associates have recently worked on images at an apartment compound called Tepantitla, which served as home to an extended family of up to 100 people. Judging from the compound's size and proximity to the city center (just west of the Pyramid of the Sun), and the quality of its murals, Tepantitla's residents held considerable status in the city. Of the 30 apartment compounds excavated to date at Teotihuacan, most have murals, but Tepantitla's remain some of the best preserved, though they were barely visible when restoration work began.

"The conservation of wall paintings in situ has evolved greatly in recent years," says Magar, a slim woman with short brown hair and a sunny smile. Dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, she has taken a break from her work to give me a tour of the compound. "Materials that were very efficient for conservation in a museum environment were not really appropriate in natural conditions, where they are subject to changes in humidity and temperature," she says.

The restoration process is achingly slow. On difficult days the team is only able to clean about one square inch--absolutely minuscule when you consider that the murals measure more than 860 square feet--but the results are clearly worth the trouble. Before work began, many of the figures were little more than vague outlines. Now it is possible to discern what activities they are enjoying, and fine details, like facial expressions and butterfly antennae, are once again sharply rendered.

For exclusive images, see the July/August 2003 issue of ARCHAEOLOGY.

Mark Sullivan has written and edited travel guides to Mexico, Central America, and South America.

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© 2003 by the Archaeological Institute of America