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Lost Murals at Chichen Itza

Posted On October 23, 2019 | 16:26 pm | by ostmannj01 | Permalink
María Teresa Uriarte highlights remarkable women in the history of Pre-Columbian archaeology

María Teresa Uriarte, director of the Pre-Hispanic Mural Painting in Mexico project at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), was a visiting scholar in Pre-Columbian Studies in spring 2019. Her recent talk, “Remarkable Women, the Mayas, and Art History,” built on overlooked contributions by Mesoamerican women researchers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.


Q&A with María Teresa Uriarte 

Who was Adela Breton, and why is her work important?

Digging into the history of archaeology in Mesoamerica, I saw that when women did research, they were not taken very seriously. The first amazing woman I encountered was artist Adela Breton, who was born in Bath, England, and came to Mexico by herself in 1892. She went all over the country, as well as the United States and Canada, via railroad. Breton was an outstanding watercolorist. She made drawings and watercolors for most of the places she traveled, many of which she left to the Bristol Museum in England. 

The most important legacy Breton left to Mexico and to the world are her paintings of the Upper Temple of the Jaguars at Chichen Itza—one of the last great kingdoms of the Mayas in Yucatán, Mexico. Chichen Itza was known since early colonial times, but in the middle of the nineteenth century it was in some respects rediscovered by Western travelers. Breton made drawings for the Peabody Museum at Harvard in 1/4 scale, but her full-scale drawings are kept in Bristol.

The murals in the temple have since disappeared. One reason mural paintings disappear is that water infiltrates the wall, then is forced out onto the paintings. In the 1960s, a new technique to preserve paintings by covering them in plastic substances became fashionable all over the world. But this has proven to be the worst solution. Water has to escape the wall, so it seeps out onto the mural paintings, then gets caught under the plastic and stays there, degrading the paint. At Chichen Itza, there are no paintings left outside, and the very little pieces left are forbidden to the public. 

If it were not for Breton’s paintings, we would not even know that this building was fully painted with amazing scenery of battles and rituals and dances. Yet she is not well-known anywhere besides maybe Bristol, despite all the work she contributed to the art history of Mesoamerica.


How does your research build on Breton’s work? 

Archaeologists did not used to pay much attention to mural paintings. I believe this is because they couldn’t understand what the paintings meant, and they were looking for something outstanding—the burials of important kings and queens, for example. So mural paintings did not seem important.

Then almost 30 years ago, Dr. Beatriz de la Fuente and I started the project La pintura mural prehispánica en México at the National University of Mexico. She taught me to pay attention to every detail in mural painting. It’s amazing what you can learn about Pre-Columbian societies and cultures if you do.

For example, here at Dumbarton Oaks, the research I have done concerns the murals of the southwest and south walls of the Upper Temple of the Jaguars, where Breton made so many drawings. Your eye goes to the huge figures, so most people who look at the paintings say, “There are battle scenes here. This room is related to battle.”

But the temple is above the largest ball game court in Mesoamerica. My first question was, why is this mural in the ball game? Earlier in my career, I realized that short-sized figures tell you a story. Because it’s like they are moving; they don’t have the still, frozen posture of the large figures—the chiefs or saints or deities. There are more than 124 little figures (15 cm or 7 in. high) in one of the drawings Breton made and around 130 in the other. 

I started looking at every one. And then I realized, they are not hitting each other. They have shields and spears, but they are not wounding anyone. Why is that so? It turns out they are dancing. What we thought at first was a battle actually is a recreation of a battle. In Pre-Columbian times, theater and the recreation of myths was very important.


Tell me about some other remarkable women you found.

Alice Dixon was a photographer with her husband in Chichen Itza. They invented a method to develop images on-site using collodium. She kept a diary of life in Yucatán in the nineteenth century and traveled all over the United States giving lectures.

Then of course I knew the outstanding work by Tatiana Proskouriakoff, a wonderful artist who started out drawing for Carnegie Institution work in Central American archaeology. She made some outstanding discoveries that are sometimes more attributed to men than to her. She was a key figure in understanding Maya history. She understood that Maya writing was not only dates and names but told a story.

There are more, and they are all my heroines. I like these women for being so forward, opening paths for me and for you. 


Julia Ostmann is postgraduate writing and reporting fellow at Dumbarton Oaks. Photo by Elizabeth Muñoz Huber, postgraduate digital media fellow.