Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Special Introductory Offer!
Imaging Maya Art Volume 50 Number 3, May/June 1997
by Mary Miller

[image] Scholars use infrared video camera on track to document images in room 1. Monitors allow them to view what the camera is recording. (Justin Kerr for the Bonampak Documentation Project) [LARGER IMAGE]

In 1946 two Lacandón Maya, Acasio Chan and José Pepe Chambor, led photographer Giles Healey to the ancient ruins of a small city deep in the rain forest of eastern Chiapas, Mexico. On the site's tiny acropolis was a building with three doorways, each leading to a separate chamber. Within each room were brilliantly colored frescoes depicting hundreds of Maya dancers, musicians, warriors, and court officials at one-half to two-thirds life-size. Rumors of a "temple of paintings" had circulated in the archaeological community since the nineteenth century. Now one had been found. The only monumental Maya paintings to survive from the Late Classic period (ca. A.D. 600-850), the murals were an unparalleled discovery.

Shortly after the site's discovery, INAH embarked on a program to clear the acropolis and stabilize its structures. A roof was erected over the building containing the murals, now known as Structure 1, and its walls were consolidated. Within a few decades, however, efforts to save the paintings had made them nearly impossible to see. Once the walls were kept dry by the protective roof, the salts that had accumulated on the surface dried into an opaque crust.

In the mid-1980s specialists from INAH's Churubusco Center for Conservation cleaned the paintings, scraping off the accumulated crust and carefully filling holes, ancient defacements, and recent losses. After the restoration was completed, National Geographic Society photographers took pictures of some of the paintings with infrared film. Ancient Maya painters used black, carbon-based pigments to write texts and outline figures, which are far easier to discern with infrared film, which eliminates most of the color spectrum, than with color film. The results of the National Geographic Society project were astonishing. Hitherto unknown details of faces and hands suddenly became visible.

But was there still more to see? To answer this question, Stephen Houston of Brigham Young University, Karl Taube of the University of California, Riverside, Beatríz de la Fuente of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico, and I launched the Bonampak Documentation Project at the beginning of 1996, the goals of which included complete photographic documentation of the murals using color and infrared film. At Houston's suggestion, we experimented with infrared video to overcome one of the drawbacks of using a still camera fitted with an infrared filter--the inability of the photographer to see what the camera will record. Using a videocamera, we can see on a television monitor what is being recorded. So far, this process of video "prospecting" has revealed fascinating details--hieroglyphic texts and figures of gods and mortals engaged in a variety of ritual activities--all but invisible to the naked eye.

Such new details are revolutionizing the study of the Bonampak paintings, not only making it possible to see the complexity of the events depicted on the building's walls, but also raising questions about how and why the paintings were executed. Insignia and regalia distinguish one group of Maya nobles from another in the paintings. Different groups bear different glyphic titles, identifying them as regional governors, court attendants, or dancers.

Having recently completed the photo documentation of the murals, we have begun to stitch the digitized images together into a seamless web of paintings, which we will eventually use to create a "virtual" Structure 1. Because of the irregularity of the building's plastered walls and the fact that some of the images, especially those frames shot near the corbel vaults, were taken at odd angles, piecing the photographs together poses a particular challenge. Many of the frames need to be stretched and manipulated before they fit properly into the puzzle. The next stage will be to restore the paintings digitally. Using data gathered from the infrared film, which enhances outlines of figures and texts, artists will correct the scanned images to approximate the paintings as they appeared in the eighth century A.D. By 2001, our odyssey will be complete, and Bonampak will be available as a CD-ROM or a site on the worldwide web. Specialists, students, and amateurs alike will be able to study the murals and the architectural and cultural context in which they were made.

© 1997 by the Archaeological Institute of America