Campus & Community

Corpus team overcomes scanning snags

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Ingenuity, flexibility helps Corpus expedition manage bumps in road

A multicolored tent made of tarps and rope and tree branches and duct tape rose above Yaxchilan’s unique pinkish stalactite stela Monday (April 23). On the last day of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology’s expedition to the ancient Maya city of Yaxchilan, team members were doing something at which they had proven themselves adept: improvising. The expedition had already achieved its main goal: testing digital scanning technology that could provide an important new way to preserve fading Maya monuments across Central America. Despite some initial hiccoughs, the technology had proved itself over the weekend, when scans of the large flat Stela 11 were completed.

On Sunday, the team had kicked the scanning into high gear, recording three more monuments: a marker in Yaxchilan’s ball court, an upside-down carved stone lintel in one of the city’s doorways, and a modeled stucco mural, whose soft material makes it a critical priority for conservation.

So by Monday, the expedition was taking care of unfinished business before packing up and beginning the long trek back to Boston. They planned scans of a nearby hieroglyphic stair and of the stalactite stela. The stela is a carved stalactite brought from a cave and erected in front of imposing Building 33, situated high above the city’s grand plaza and built by the ruler Bird Jaguar IV during the eighth century. The tent around the stalactite stela was needed to shade out day’s bright sunlight. In order to work properly, the scanner needs enough shade so its sensors can read light bounced off the monument by its optical beam. The difficulty of creating a dim enough environment appears to be the equipment’s main drawback, but one that can be remedied by shading the subject or by scanning at night.

The expedition, composed of a 14-member international team with collaborators from six countries, was organized by the Peabody’s Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions Program under the leadership of its director, Barbara Fash. The expedition was based in Frontera Corozal, a small Mexican town on the Usumacinta River about a 45-minute boat ride from Yaxchilan. The expedition’s Harvard members included Fash, graduate student Alexandre Tokovinine, who Fash hopes will take over the fieldwork for the scanning project in the future, Peabody Museum director William Fash, Harvard News Office writer Alvin Powell, and News Office photographer Justin Ide. The trip received financial support from American businessman Gilbert Butler through the World Monuments Fund.

Corpus director Fash decided to try the scanning equipment in the field after becoming convinced that more had to be done to conserve ancient Maya monuments. Maya civilization flourished long ago in what today are the Central American nations of Guatemala, Honduras, Belize, and southern Mexico. It reached its height during the “Classic Period” stretching from roughly 250 A.D. to 900 A.D. During this time, the Maya built impressive stone cities with pyramid-like acropolises and elaborate temples.

The Maya had a highly developed artistic sense, recording the deeds of rulers and important dates in their history in beautiful stone carvings, stucco artwork, and painted murals. They erected enormous stone slabs called “stelae,” carved with images and glyphs that were part of their written language.

Today, millions of Maya live in the same part of Central America as their ancestors did, speaking many languages, some of which are thought to be descended from the tongue of the ancient city-builders. But by the time European explorers and settlers arrived, the Maya’s writing system was lost. Lost along with it was an understanding of the ancient civilization’s history. Harvard’s Peabody Museum has played a key role in conserving the still-impressive remains of the Maya’s cities and in deciphering the written language.

The Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions Program was established to help the decoding process by dedicating itself to recording and publishing as many ancient Maya inscriptions as possible, making their glyphs and images available to scholars around the world.

But there have to be monuments in order to record their inscriptions. Over the decades since their re-discovery, the Maya monuments and artwork have been under assault. The tropical heat and humidity has taken its toll, eroding critical details of the Maya’s elaborate glyphs. In addition, vandals and looters have destroyed or stolen carved Maya monuments.

The desire to preserve the monuments, or at least to create reproductions that are as exact as possible, prompted the Peabody expedition to Yaxchilan. Barbara Fash had tested similar technology in 1998, but it had proven impossible to use in the field, where most Maya monuments remain. Nearly a decade later, the technology has improved to the point where, despite its difficulties, it can produce quality scans of monuments in the field.

Having the 3-D digital scans is important because 2-D photography does not reveal as many tiny details on the monuments that may be key to understanding a particular glyph’s meaning. And, though the written language is about 85 percent decoded, work to understand the remaining 15 percent is ongoing. The 3-D digital scans are very precise and should be able to create an exact three-dimensional model of a monument that can be “printed out” layer by layer on a special 3-D printer or viewed on screens. This will enable scholars to view 3-D models of the monuments, and also allow the information to be shared more freely with scholars around the world.

Yaxchilan was chosen as the site for the field trial because it possesses examples of the major types of Maya carving and artwork: stelae, carved lintels, painted murals, and carved stucco. The Peabody’s expedition was purposely international, including members from Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History and from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. It has become apparent, Corpus director Fash said, that so many monuments need to be recorded that the effort will only succeed through the cooperation of many institutions. Fash consulted Maria Teresa Uriarte, dean of humanities at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, while the trip was in the planning stages. Uriarte helped secure the necessary permits for the trip and participated, bringing two staff members.

Discussions about future priorities have already begun, with Corpus director Fash consulting with expedition member Carlos Pallán, director of the Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History’s Digital Archive of Maya Glyphs and Iconography Project.

Fash said they discussed the need to begin scanning the most endangered monuments, including the modeled stucco artwork, which is more fragile than the carved stone. Pallán said he’s looking forward to continuing to work with the Peabody in the future and that he’s carefully watching the results of the trial of the scanning equipment.

“It’s important to participate in the trials that Harvard is conducting to consider whether it’s feasible to get similar equipment,” Pallán said. “The whole idea is to decide whether the time is right to incorporate this technology now.”