Located within the deep tropical rainforest of Chiapas, Mexico, the ancient Maya site of Bonampak is home to the most complete and important mural program of the ancient Americas.
These three murals first came to modern attention in 1946, when Lacandon Maya who lived in the region showed photographer Giles Healey (Yale ’24) what they had not previously shown to any outsider: a small temple whose three rooms house paintings that cover all surfaces. Painted around A.D. 800, these three rooms of paintings reveal, in astonishing detail, the ancient Maya at the end of their splendor, engaging in court rituals and human sacrifice, wearing elegant costumes and stripping the clothing from fallen captives, acknowledging foreign nobles and receiving abundant tribute. No other surviving work features so many Maya engaged in the life of the court, whether second-tier warriors presenting captives to the king or the king’s mother pushed to the side by her imperious daughter-in-law. Costumes, musical instruments, and the weapons of war are all rendered with great detail, making Bonampak an unparalleled resource for understanding ancient society.
The ancient Maya began to build vast cities in northern Guatemala during the first millennium B.C., mastering a harsh tropical environment with shallow soils and annual cycles of deluge and drought. These cities were the foundation of what would be the greatest civilization of the ancient New World. By A.D. 700 their towering pyramids and dramatic public monuments could be seen at tens of Maya cities, across what is now Honduras, Belize, southern Mexico and Guatemala. One of the distinguishing characteristics of ancient Maya civilization is its hieroglyphic script. Alone among New World writing systems, Maya hieroglyphs faithfully reflect spoken language and reproduce its vocabulary, syntax and grammar. The script is a “mixed system” that combines signs for whole words, syllables and pure vowels. At any one time as many as 500 individual signs were in common use.
From at least the 5th century onward, lords at Bonampak skirmished with those from Yaxchilan, 26 kilometers away; but by the 8th century the royal families at the two cities had achieved détente. The king who commissioned the paintings at Bonampak, Chaan Muwan, married a Yaxchilan princess. By A.D. 800, when the paintings were completed, the region was suffering from deforestation, exhausted farmland, and overpopulation. Some cities were burned to the ground; others were simply abandoned. By A.D. 900 the forest had begun to reclaim the area. Years later Spanish invaders found the region of Bonampak sparsely inhabited, although great Maya populations survived in Yucatan and Guatemala.
Incomplete copies of the murals made during the 1940s have formed the basis for almost all study of these important paintings. Concerned about the continued deterioration of the murals in the rainforest environment, Mary Miller, Vincent Scully Professor of the History of Art at Yale, established the Bonampak Documentation Project in 1995 to record every detail of the murals before they disappeared. Funded by the National Geographic Committee for Research and Exploration and the Getty Grant, a team began work at the site in 1996.
One important goal of the project was to use infrared film to document the paintings, which reveals details invisible to the naked eye. Team members directed and assisted photographers at the site, recording every scrap of paint within the three narrow chambers in three formats: color film, photographic infrared, and video infrared. The new technique of video infrared was particularly useful, as it reads deeper into the infrared spectrum than its photographic analog, thereby providing more detail. Also, the results can be reviewed in the field on a video monitor while work is in progress. The Bonampak murals have provided the best evidence to date of the value of infrared as a tool of archaeological recovery.
Back in New Haven, with Getty Grant support, Professor Miller and her students began to assemble and study the data. In 1999 archaeological artist Heather Hurst joined the project. Her task was to complete a hand-painted reconstruction that would incorporate all data sets into a single large-format work. With the assistance of painter Leonard Ashby and guidance from project members, Hurst completed the reconstructions in about two years. They are half actual size.
Hurst painted the reconstructions as far as possible in the same way the ancient Maya would have painted the originals. She began with the figure outlines, drawing them in a red ochre. Then, using just a few watercolor pigments, she blended the basic colors; less commonly used colors were achieved by layering one pigment atop another, much as the ancient Maya did. The colors were produced by Yale graduate student and pigment specialist Diana Magaloni-Kerpel of Mexico, who matched modern watercolor pigments to the ancient paints.
Like the ancient Maya, the modern-day artists completed the backgrounds first, leaving the figures and texts unpainted, and slowly filled in costumes and bodies. The last element to be applied was the lively black carbon line that the ancient Maya used to accentuate facial features, emphasize dramatic gestures, and to record most texts. Only the most skilled artists painted this final outline: the Project has determined that no more than two such skilled artists worked on any single wall. Because this pigment was painted last, it has been the most vulnerable to the ravages of time. Its recovery through infrared photography has informed much of the reconstruction.
The Peabody Museum is exhibiting one of these spectacular and exquisitely painted 30-foot reconstructions, and reproductions of the reconstructions of the other two rooms. Together with some beautiful Mayan objects from the Museum’s own collections, this exhibition is a window onto a world whose “collapse” would soon lead to abandoned cities and the end of elite society in the region.