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A New Dimension for Documenting Ancient Maya Stelae

Posted On March 11, 2022 | 16:10 pm | by kathys | Permalink
Latest volume from CMHI sheds light on stelae at Yaxchilan through documentation techniques new and old

By May Wang

Bound in a sturdy deep red cover, the left side of the sizable folio—twelve inches across and fifteen inches tall—is almost entirely occupied by a photograph so highly resolved you can practically imagine the roughness of the limestone beneath your fingertips. Dramatic shadows in the image attest to the depth of the ornate carvings—sometimes several centimeters deep. On the folio’s right side, a sharp line illustration makes evident the intricacy of the design with strong outlines and more delicate stippling to indicate negative space. Blank spaces and jagged edges remind us of what has been lost to time, while encouraging us to marvel at all that has been preserved, too.

This is the experience of paging through the latest installment of the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, a bilingual folio highlighting thirty-two stelae at the ancient Maya site Yaxchilan. Since the inception of the Maya Corpus in 1968, CMHI publications—part of Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography—have been marked by their comprehensiveness and meticulous detail, including past publications on the doorway lintels and hieroglyphic stairways at Yaxchilan. This fascicle (Volume 3 Part 4) quite literally adds a whole new dimension to the documentation of the site and our understanding of the monuments by introducing emerging techniques of 3D scans and photogrammetry presented alongside up-to-date digital line drawings, traditional photographs, and bilingual metadata. The volume is copublished with Dumbarton Oaks Publications, which has been beneficial for supporting the specific needs of the publication.

Work at Yaxchilan began in the 1970s under CMHI founder Ian Graham, when standard practice for illustrators and archaeologists was to bring, camera, pencil, and paper into the field to make a preliminary record of every detail of the monuments by hand in scaled drawings and analog photographs, later using the photos as a guide to trace over with pen and ink on drafting film for the final drawing. Drawing by hand not only allows for maximal control over the details included in the illustration but is also instructional for the draftsperson, a process of committing each monument to their memory that aids in seeing connections among monuments later on. As Barbara Fash, director of CMHI since 2005, described in Past Presented: Archaeological Illustration and the Ancient Americas (2012), “The ability to see an inscription and to transfer it to paper cements an understanding of the monument. It instills better visual recall than merely studying a photograph or three-dimensional image does, and it helps lay the groundwork for making connections between objects.”

3D scanning in the field, 2007. Photo courtesy of Barbara Fash.
3D scanning in the field, 2007. Photo courtesy of Barbara Fash.
But 3D scanning, especially in recent decades, offers another tool for understanding the monuments, and this volume lays out CMHI’s standard for using the process to document ancient Maya monuments with increased precision. “3D scanning doesn’t replace anything,” Fash clarifies, “it just complements” and aids the traditional hand-drawn documentation process by providing a more accurate image with less distortion than an analog photo. 3D scans are particularly useful for capturing all the different details at higher resolutions.  Raking light, or light projected on the surface at a steep angle, can be adjusted manually from any direction across the model on screen to bring out more details than are often visible to the naked eye. “It’s amazing how many details become visible when lit from one angle that fade in another,” Fash marvels.

Barbara Fash, director of CMHI, documenting Stela 31 in 2007. Photo courtesy of Barbara Fash.
Barbara Fash, director of CMHI, documenting Stela 31 in 2007. Photo courtesy of Barbara Fash.

CMHI’s earliest forays into 3D imaging began at Yaxchilan in 2007, starting with field tests of a rented Breuckmann triTOS system. “I specifically chose Yaxchilan as a testing ground because it is a very special site with some of the most elaborately carved sculptures,” says Fash, but also to see if the challenges of using the sensitive technology in the field could be overcome. Yaxchilan is accessed by traversing a river by boat for miles, climbing up stairs and into the steamy jungle, an unsteady journey for the expensive multi-camera set-up that also required a computer and a generator. The scanner consists of a bar with two cameras at each end and a central projector that casts a pattern of light off the surface, which the cameras capture, akin to absorbing radar. Since the cameras can only scan ten centimeters at a time, and each area has to be scanned from multiple different angles to capture all the contours, the images must be preliminarily stitched together in real time, to ensure everything is documented, then later the lengthy final processing into a high-res model is done in the lab. “One monument might have anywhere from forty to 200 scans—some very large monuments took over 400 scans,” says Fash. Capturing the images is also best in total darkness to create the highest contrast, but the 2007 scanning team, including Fash, Smithsonian conservator Basiliki Vicky Karas, and CMHI Research Associate Alexandre Tokovinine, was not permitted to stay overnight, so they draped tarps around the monuments and the scanner set-up to achieve optimal conditions.

Stela 35 at Yaxchilan, one of a few monuments depicting women. Photo courtesy of Barbara Fash.
Stela 35 at Yaxchilan, one of a few monuments depicting women. Photo courtesy of Barbara Fash.

The pay-off of this somewhat cumbersome process, however, is evident from the level of detail the new volume offers of several of Yaxchilan’s unique stelae. Stela 31, for example, is an unusual stela carved out of a stalagmite (a calcified column naturally formed on the floor of a cave) instead a smooth slab of limestone like most other stelae. Meticulous photogrammetry (a process of photo stitching digital images into a 3D model) by Tokovinine and painstaking image-processing has produced a rollout screenshot for the folio, capturing the irregular shape and textures of the unusual monument. Also, among the thirty-two stelae in the fascicle are several that depict women. “It’s very rare that women are depicted on monuments in general,” explains Fash, “but Yaxchilan has a few women carved on their monuments,” including one depicted on both sides of Stela 35. “That’s also a beautifully preserved stela that gives you a sense of just how finely detailed the monuments can be.”

For Fash, the volume also underscores her and CMHI’s long connection with the site. Over the course of his long tenure at the head of CMHI, Ian Graham had drawn the inscriptions for many of the stelae included in the new volume. Picking up where he left off after so many years was challenging. For example, upon joining a team from the Instituto de Antropología e Historia in 2019 to reopen the site bodega that hadn’t been visited in several years, the group set to work to lift and turn a stela (Stela 23) that was over a meter tall and lying inscription-side down on the floor, one of the few monuments Graham had not yet drawn, to document its inscriptions. “Drawing that one completely by myself just gave me an impression of what doing all the other ones must have been like for [Graham],” recalls Fash. “That was a moment for me to really feel a connection with the site.”

In addition to paying tribute to Ian Graham’s decades of work at Yaxchilan, the volume also seeks to honor and widen the web of collaborators preserving and using these ancient monuments by offering a bilingual translation of the entire text in both English and Spanish. “It’s the first full CMHI volume (introduction and metadata) to be fully available in Spanish,” says Fash (only the introduction of Volume 1 was previously translated). “I wanted to resume the practice of making the Maya Corpus available to a wider audience, especially to the people of Mexico and Central America, where the sites are found.”

May Wang is postgraduate writing and reporting fellow.