Arts & Culture

Peabody teams will scan other endangered monuments

5 min read

By January, the Peabody Museum’s Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions Program hopes to be in Copán, Honduras, scanning the imposing but fragile hieroglyphic stairway, the longest inscription in the New World.

The stairway, a long, broad stone step that leads up the side of the site’s main acropolis structure, tells the story of Copán’s ancient Maya ruling dynasty and is unlike anything in the Maya world. Marked with glyphs and sculpture, the stair retains an intimidating quality even today to those who stand at its foot and gaze up to where Copán’s rulers once stood. The stairway is the reason UNESCO declared Copán a World Heritage Site in 1980.

Despite its imposing appearance, time and weather have taken their toll: The hieroglyphics are slowly weathering, becoming more endangered with each passing year.

But there’s much to do before the scanning there can begin.

Corpus director Barbara Fash and Peabody Museum director William L. Fash, the Bowditch Professor of Central American and Mexican Archaeology and Ethnology, agreed Monday (April 30) that the Corpus’ recent trip to the Maya city of Yaxchilan in Chiapas, Mexico, to test the scanning technology was a resounding success.

As a field trial, they said, even the expedition’s difficulties were part of that success, as they learned the limitations of the equipment and the accommodations that may be needed to get good results.

The expedition to Yaxchilan, from April 16 to 26, involved 14 people from six nations, including two institutions from Mexico and a consultant from the Smithsonian Institution.

Its aim was to test 3-D digital scanning technology on an array of Maya monuments, from the tall, flat inscribed stone stelae to overhead door lintels; from fragile carved stucco moldings to Yaxchilan’s own one-step hieroglyphic stair.

“In broad terms, the trip was a huge success on many fronts,” Barbara Fash said. “We really found out what it [the scanner] could handle and what it couldn’t. Scanning a monument that faces skyward during the day doesn’t work with this equipment. You’re going to get better results at night.”

The Corpus plans to test similar scanning equipment from at least two other manufacturers on objects in the Peabody’s collection, she said. Though each of the other scanners has strengths, Fash said she was pleased with the equipment tested at Yaxchilan because it captured not only the monuments’ details, it also captured their color, something a similar laser scanner doesn’t do.

Once the additional testing is done, they have to make a decision about purchasing the equipment. After that, operators will have to be trained and international teams put together. It’s likely that more than one person who can work the equipment will have to accompany each expedition, ensuring that possible illness to one operator doesn’t sideline the rest of the team.

The conclusion of the Corpus’ trial has raised many questions about the future of the scanning technology, including its place in a broader push across the humanities to increase the use of digital technology. Peabody director William Fash said he’s already discussed the technology with the Digital Humanities Committee and has been asked to give a brief presentation on the new technology at a conference in October.

Once purchased, the 3-D scanner could be used by other collections besides the Peabody’s, since the technology would also work on artwork and historical objects. Once the gear scans a sculpture, a carved image or other 3-D object, it creates a precise digital file that can be examined on a computer screen or used to “print out” a replica of the object on a special 3-D printer. Digital files can be shared more easily than original objects, potentially advancing research by improving access to scholars around the world.

Another important consideration, Barbara Fash said, is ensuring the digital files remain readable into the future. With technology continuing its rapid march forward, the software that makes different file types readable also continues to evolve. It’s important to ensure that the digital files, or metadata, themselves are stored in a format that will remain readable into the future.

“Once you can’t access it anymore, it’s [as if] it doesn’t exist,” Fash said.

Though the Corpus’ scanning focus will soon incorporate Copán, Yaxchilan and other sites in Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize remain in the preservation picture. The international team resolved that the most important and immediate application of this technology is to prioritize the monuments that are most endangered, especially the fragile stucco reliefs throughout the Maya area. Plans are in the making for a meeting to bring international scholars and foundations — such as the World Monuments Fund, which helped fund the Yaxchilan trip — together to compose a priority list later this year.

Though no plans have been formulated yet to return and scan more monuments, Ian Graham, the Corpus’ founding director, and graduate student Alexandre Tokovinine may return in the fall to photograph and draw three so-far unrecorded stelae, preserving the images and glyphs they contain for another generation of scholars.