spacer spacer spacer
yalealumnimagazine.com   about the Yale Alumni Magazine   classified & display advertising   back issues 1992-present   our blogs   The Yale Classifieds   yam@yale.edu   support us


The Yale Alumni Magazine is owned and operated by Yale Alumni Publications, Inc., a nonprofit corporation independent of Yale University.

The content of the magazine and its website is the responsibility of the editors and does not necessarily reflect the views of Yale or its officers.


Comment on this article

Secrets of the Temple
Using infrared photography and other sources, a team led by art historian Mary Miller has brought back to life an extraordinary record of the Maya civilization.

In 1946, a group of Lacandon Maya Indians led Giles Healey '24, a photographer for the United Fruit Company, into the temple complex at Bonampak, a ruined city in Mexico from the eighth century. What Healey saw there—three rooms painted with elaborate polychrome murals—shattered illusions that the Maya were a peaceful people and shed light on the sophistication of their arts, culture, and economy. Since then, archeologists and art historians have been engaged in a close reading of the murals, searching for clues about the Maya in paintings that were made just before their civilization collapsed.

But such research has been hampered by the difficulty of viewing murals damaged by 1,200 years of calcium deposits, flaking paint, and other wear. After decades of efforts to document the murals—beginning with photographs made by Healey himself—a team led by Mary Miller, the Vincent Scully Professor of the History of Art, has completed a seven-year project to provide a definitive record of the murals with state-of-the-art photographic methods. With new and old documentation in hand, Miller hired painters Heather Hurst and Leonard Ashby to reconstruct the murals at one-half scale. The project was completed last fall, and one of the murals is on display at the Peabody Museum of Natural History through spring of next year.


“When you copy every line, you understand the people who did the original.”

“If you want to choose any single artifact from the ancient American past, this is the most informative and complex,” says Miller, who wrote a book about the murals in 1986. “This is an account of the Maya court, including the wars and battles of a ruling family in crisis at the end of the eighth century, filled with pomp, pageantry, and sacrifice.”

The murals fill the walls and vaulted ceilings of three small rooms in the Bonampak complex. Their depictions of Maya life range from tableaus of musicians and state visits to graphic scenes of violence and sacrifice. Room 1 features a set of visiting ambassadors on one side paying tribute to a king. (Next to him is a bundle marked with hieroglyphics indicating that it contains 40,000 cacao beans.) An heir to the throne is being presented to the court. On the other side of the room, musicians and dancers prepare for a ritual dance. Room 2 depicts a bloody battle, with scenes of defeated captives being tortured and mutilated. And in Room 3, the royal family appears again alongside scenes of ritual sacrifice. Throughout, the colorful figures are sharpened by a calligraphic black outline that is also used to make hieroglyphic captions for some of the images. Rooms 1 and 2 are complete, but work on Room 3 seems to have stopped somewhat abruptly—leading Miller to wonder if the artists were called away to battle during the empire’s last days.

Even before Miller and her team began the Bonampak Documentation Project (BDP), the murals were an extraordinary resource for those who wanted to understand the Maya. Efforts to reproduce and disseminate the images in the murals began not long after Healey’s first visit. Healey himself captured the murals with conventional photographs and infrared photography, which brings out details—particularly the black outlines—that otherwise are no longer visible. In 1947 and 1948, a pair of illustrators made two large-scale copies of the mural on site that Miller says were “remarkable” in their accuracy, except that the artists avoided confusing or problematic details. “Fortunately, their sins were of omission, not commission,” says Miller. This early documentation would prove valuable later on, as the calcifications that obscured the murals became more pronounced in the 1960s because of mistakes in the conservation process.

In the 1980s, an initiative to scrape some of the calcifications off their surfaces brought whole sections of the murals back to life. Building on this new work, Miller founded the BDP in 1995. Funded by grants from the Getty Foundation and the National Geographic Committee on Exploration and Research, the BDP photographed the murals with color transparency film, infrared still photography, and infrared video.

Once all the visual information had been assembled and studied, Miller hired Heather Hurst, an archeological artist with experience in Central America, to paint a reconstruction of each room’s murals. The idea was to restore as much detail as possible to the murals without overspeculating. “We brought back things that were lost,” says Hurst. “But we didn’t fill things in where we didn’t know what was there.”


“They expanded the understanding of the story that is being told in the murals.”

Setting up a studio above a Chapel Street tattoo parlor, Hurst and her assistant, Leonard Ashby, pored over the photographic records to recreate the vivid figures, elaborate dress, and complex hieroglyphics. Along the way, they made some new discoveries and expanded the understanding of the story that is being told in the murals. Hurst, for example, observed that the heir to the throne depicted in Room 1 has a pattern of face paint that elsewhere in the murals is seen only on females, leading the team to speculate that, as Miller puts it, “the availability of only female heirs may have caused some difficulty for the family and may lie behind the creation” of the paintings.

For Hurst, who took a course in Maya hieroglyphics to prepare for this project, working in the shadows of ancient Maya artists was a “very special project.” She hired Ashby as an assistant once it became clear that the work was a two-person job: One painter had to keep the paper wet while the other followed with paint. Miller suggests that the original murals were likely painted by a team working in much the same way. Although they guessed that the work would take nine months, they finished last fall after two years of full-time work.

“When you have to copy every line, you come to a different understanding of the people who did the original,” says Ashby. Hurst adds that they established connections not only with the original painters but also the subjects, with whom they spent an inordinate amount of time. “We would actually say goodbye to the people every night when we left,” she remembers.

To get the colors right, the BDP team retained Mexican pigment specialist Diana Magaloni-Kerpel, who identified the sources of the original paints and mixed up versions in her laboratory. This gave the team an understanding of what the colors would have looked like when they were new, and the modern watercolors that were used in the reconstruction were matched to these ancient pigments.


“Maya viewers would have reacted much as we do to gold—a big ‘ooohh’ factor.”

As Hurst and Ashby finished each of the three rooms, they were visited by Miller and two of her colleagues in the BDP: Stephen Houston '87PhD of Brigham Young University and Karl Taube '88PhD of the University of California at Riverside. (Beatriz de la Fuente of the National University of Mexico was also on the team.) The scholars would examine the murals from top to bottom, checking frequently against the photographic evidence. “They went over every single line,” says Hurst. “And sometimes there would be some changes—we'd have to go back and add or change a toenail or a tooth or an eyelash.”

Now that the paintings are complete, they are expected to become the definitive reconstruction of the Bonampak murals, a source for students and scholars around the world. Last May, during President Richard Levin’s trip to Mexico, Miller presented the BDP’s documentation to the Mexican government. Miller also intends to publish the paintings in a book, and she hopes the paintings themselves will find a home on exhibit at Yale or elsewhere.

As for Hurst, her next project is a reconstruction of a much earlier Maya mural that was discovered last year in Guatemala. “Leonard and I were always joking about how there’s no job security here—how nobody will be finding us any more of these murals. Then just about the time we finished, they found one.”

For Miller, the murals and the process of reconstructing them have taught her more about the Maya—particularly the sophistication of both their art and their economy. For example, pigment analysis revealed that the blue paint of the original murals has azurite—a rare and expensive mineral from northern Mexico—ground into it, indicating a far-flung system of trade. (Because of the rarity of the blue pigment, says Miller, Maya viewers of the murals would have reacted to the blue areas much as we do to gold. “There would have been a big ‘ooohh’ factor,” she says.) Further, she says, the presence of lords and ambassadors in Room 1 suggests that the Maya court was “a place of incredible magnetism,” attracting emissaries from up to 150 miles away.

As for their art, Miller notes the sophistication of the murals' composition—with recurring characters and themes that suggest that the three-room scheme was planned out before any painting began. The representations include “repetition but not redundancy,” she says, pointing to the subtle differences in skin tone, clothing accessories, and facial expression among figures that are at first glance identical.

But the strife evident in the paintings—and in the abruptly halted work on Room 3—warns that this society would soon collapse. “The paintings are a window on a world that could not know its future,” says Miller. But thanks to their commitment to recording their history—and thanks to the BDP’s efforts to restore it—we are fortunate enough to know their past.  the end


©1992–2012, Yale Alumni Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.

Yale Alumni Magazine, P.O. Box 1905, New Haven, CT 06509-1905, USA. yam@yale.edu