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Deconstructing a Maya Pyramid Volume 59 Number 5, September/October 2006
by Roger Atwood

El Salvador rediscovers its past beneath a layer of concrete.

[image] Workers dig at the base of Tazumal's smaller pyramid, where the removal of concrete revealed ancient stonework. In right corner, concrete from the 1950s "restoration" is visible. (Roger Atwood) [LARGER IMAGE]

On the morning of October 18, 2004, after a drenching rain, caretakers entered the Maya site of Tazumal in western El Salvador and found what they thought was a catastrophe. Nearly an entire flank of one of the site's two main pyramids had collapsed. On the pyramid's south face, a sloping concrete wall erected in the 1950s and intended to resemble the structure's original contours, had loosened in the rain, slipped off, and lay in a heap of rubble. Where concrete had stood, the caretakers could now see only exposed mud.

By the following evening, el colapso de Tazumal had become a national scandal. News media accused government authorities of neglecting Tazumal, the country's best-known archaeological site, which had appeared on Salvadoran postage stamps and the 100-colón bank note. Politicians demanded the resignation of the director of the state cultural institute, Concultura, which owns and operates it.

Yet El Salvador's small core of professional archaeologists saw an opportunity. To them, the collapse of the 60-foot-wide flank corrected overnight what many had long viewed as a horrendous mistake--encasing the pyramid in concrete as part of a dubious restoration project. Officials at Concultura agreed and soon announced that not only would the concrete not be reerected, but that all the concrete that had wrapped the pyramid for nearly 60 years would be removed and the site brought under full-scale excavation to see what secrets lay inside. A second, much larger pyramid was not affected by the 2004 rains and no plans were made to remove its concrete casing.


Tazumal's heavily restored classic Maya pyramid looms over the site. Scholars wonder what secrets it might reveal were its concrete walls to be removed. (Roger Atwood) [LARGER IMAGE]

Two years later, the cement enclosing Tazumal's pyramid has been almost completely removed and a team of Salvadoran and Japanese archaeologists have made some startling finds. Led by Fabricio Valdivieso, chief of archaeology at Concultura, they have found burials where none were thought to exist, an intriguing array of ceramics, and architectural elements that suggest a vastly more complex history of occupations, invasions, and Mexican influences than previously realized. Few Salvadorans now want the concrete back at Tazumal (an indigenous name whose meaning is unclear).

Tazumal and a dozen nearby ruins are providing new insights into ancient Mesoamerica that, if not for the downpour in 2004, might have remained locked in cement forever. With successive building phases spanning the years before the end of the Maya and after, Tazumal reinforces a growing view that the Maya may have experienced more of a slow, inexorable decline than a sudden collapse. Buildings erected before their fall weren't abandoned; they were just refurbished with different architectural styles. The Maya world may have been transformed less by cataclysm than by a kind of cultural mutation, as central Mexican influences seeped in by invasion or migration.

The pyramid's collapse also forced a reconsideration of the legacy of the man who "restored" Tazumal, Stanley Harding Boggs, a colorful American émigré often credited with bringing modern archaeology to El Salvador. Grandson of U.S. President Warren Harding, Boggs excavated a wide variety of sites in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. At two sites where he directed excavations, Tazumal and the late Maya ruins of San Andrés near San Salvador, he concluded his work by wrapping the structures in concrete with the aim of preserving them. He rebuilt walls, floors, ramps, and staircases based on his understanding of Maya architecture, and then swathed them in tons of Portland cement to create sleek monuments that looked too perfect to be real. In El Salvador, much of the popular understanding of what a Maya monument should look like--step pyramids, ball courts, plazas--was generated by Boggs's reconstructions.

Though more heavy-handed than most, he was by no means alone in his approach. Throughout Latin America in the middle decades of the twentieth century, overeager reconstruction efforts were creating what some viewed as artificial pseudo-sites meant to appeal to tourists. These projects relied on an archaeologist's imagination, bags of cement, and armies of workers more experienced in building houses and laying tennis courts than in restoring ruins. Tiwanaku in Bolivia, Pachacamac in Peru, and Uxmal in Mexico, among other sites, have been criticized as examples of too much "restoration" based on too little knowledge about what the site looked like in antiquity.

Contributing editor Roger Atwood's book Stealing History is out in paperback.

© 2006 by the Archaeological Institute of America