Arts & Culture

Maya, Aztec monument casts get the shake-out, dust-off

5 min read

Renovation sparks assessment, reorganization of collection

Plaster reproductions of Maya and Aztec carvings, which preserve precious details now lost on the originals, are leaving dusty, haphazard storage for cleaning, cataloging, and crating that will prepare them for a new era of usefulness and relevance.

Made more than a century ago, the plaster casts, housed at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, re-create the elaborate stone carvings that adorned Maya and Aztec cities that once buzzed with life across Central America.

The original carvings held images of rulers and rituals as well as examples of script that have proven key to deciphering the Maya’s written language, a process ongoing today.

Over the years, some museum staff considered the casts a poor second to the original monuments, and they were nearly forgotten. Their odd sizes made them difficult to store, and the casts lay stacked along walls and corridors in the Peabody Museum’s annex.

But time has taken its toll on the originals left in the field. Driving rain and searing tropical heat have eroded the monuments, vandals have broken pieces off, and thieves have carted some away entirely.

The casts provide scholars an invaluable resource, preserving monuments that are gone and tiny details lost on those that remain. Those details can influence a glyph’s meaning, making the plaster casts an invaluable resource for scholars seeking to understand the written ancient Mayan language and what it tells us about their history and culture.

The five-month project marks the first time in 30 years the plaster cast collection has been tended to in a systematic way. Museum curators, students, and others working on the project have until Feb. 28 to remove all 700 casts from storage, clean them off, and assess their condition. They’ll also be prepared for 18 months’ temporary storage, after which they’ll be moved into a new, renovated home in the former High Energy Physics Laboratory.

Senior Collections Manager David Schafer and Head Conservator T. Rose Holdcraft said the project involves an unusual level of collaboration and coordination for the Peabody’s staff. The Peabody holds 1.2 million artifacts, so the 700 casts make up just a small part of the collection. They present an unusual challenge, however, because most of the Peabody’s artifacts are small, while many of the casts are quite large, requiring more than one person to move them.

“They’re large, they’re heavy, and even though they’re made of plaster, it’s 100-year-old, fragile plaster,” Schafer said. “We’re used to carrying pots and artifacts, not multi-hundred-pound casts.”

The project was sparked by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ plans to renovate the building. When completed, it will hold Physics Department labs, classrooms, and offices. It will also hold a new casting and teaching lab for the Peabody, together with a storage area for the casts.

“It’s been on our conservation priority list for many years,” Holdcraft said.

The project entails more than just cleaning and physical conservation of the collection. By its completion, the casts will begin a new era of usefulness.

As the casts are brought out of storage, Barbara Fash, director of the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions Program, is examining each one, updating its catalog information, and, for the many that are in several pieces, putting them back together. The catalog will be updated with scholarly data as well as practical information, such as how much each one weighs and how many people it will take to move it.

Once assessed, the big, bulky casts will be placed in new, rigid, dust-free, lightweight containers, packed with foam to protect them from damage. When the renovation is complete, each will have its own shelf, and together with the catalog information, become a much more accessible resource.

“We’ll know where everything is. When someone wants to see a certain monument, we’ll know where the pieces are,” Fash said. “It’d really be great, in the long run, to put the big ones back together, maybe in resin and put them outside so people could see them in their full glory. It’s sad to see them on the ground in pieces.”

Though the project is slated to begin in earnest this month, by mid-September, preparatory work had already begun. Dozens of casts lay spread out on the large open floor of the High Energy Physics Laboratory’s high bay. Fash, Schafer, and Holdcraft were at work, directing staff and students engaged in the project. Some moved among the casts while others toiled at nearby tables, examining and carefully cleaning casts with small, dry pieces of special latex sponge.

Katherine Brunson, a senior and archaeology concentrator, worked to gently vacuum and remove soot from one cast. Brunson was familiar with the casts from earlier projects she’d worked on, including one of an unusual monument adorning a cave wall in Yucatan, Mexico.

“I get to do hands-on work, see the pieces themselves, rather than a photograph. It’s a rare opportunity,” Brunson said.