Before there was DIEGO

42 digital scans Saturno b

This is missing some of orginal because my scanner was too small (an O3 scan of  NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC / JANUARY 2006 / page 76-77).

Project director Bill Saturno and project artist Heather Hurst stumbled on a new way to document the mural that revolutionized how they work.

Originally Bill brought his laptop and Epson scanner into the field because he thought it would be “cool” to scan the fallen fragments and then put them back together on the computer like a puzzle. That would spare the pieces from being handled extensively, necessary if the team had tried to fit the actual fragments together.

But Bill and Heather faced another challenge: taking decent photographs of the murals. There were numerous problems with standard photography: keeping the camera a constant distance from the surface; preventing the heat of the camera’s lights from damaging the mural; and photographing parts of it from oblique angles.

In a eureka moment, Bill put his flatbed scanner to the wall and made a beautiful, clean 8.5×11-inch scan. Because the scanner was compact, was a fixed distance from the mural, and had its own light source and no heat, this was an ideal solution.

The quality of the images impressed them: The scans are 400 dpi, 40 megabyte images. Bill can’t think of any other comparable ancient works of art with such a detailed digital replica. And they allowed Heather to make short work of producing a scaled-down reconstruction of the artwork. The project would ordinarily have taken two or three years, but she was done in months. Once Bill scanned a section of the mural, he stitched the images together. Then Heather reduced them by 50 percent, printed and traced them, and refined the images by comparing them to the original scans.

—Taryn L. Salinas

The story behind ‘Storied Walls’


Exhibit, talk illuminate Maya mural
By Roberta Gordon

Special to the Harvard News Office

Thursday, March 20, 2008

In March 2001, Bill Saturno, a newly minted Harvard Ph.D., was in Guatemala searching for recently uncovered hieroglyphics as a research associate of the Peabody Museum. It turned out that his guides were overbooked and his planned expedition had to be canceled. As a sort of consolation prize, the company offered Saturno a three-hour Land Rover ride to San Bartolo in the Peten jungle, an area unexplored by archaeologists, to take a look at a Maya pyramid. Three hours turned into an overnight stay, then an arduous eight-hour hike in 100-degree heat to the pyramid.

Saturno took shelter in a trench dug by looters and trained his flashlight on the wall, exposing a small section of an ancient mural depicting the maize god, a principal figure in the Maya creation myth.

He knew he had found something important: The only other known complete Maya mural was the Bonampak mural, which dates from 800 A.D. and depicts a military scene. He hastened back to Cambridge with photographs, and then he and his colleagues at the Peabody scrambled to get emergency funds to seal the site and guard it until studies could begin.

On March 11, 2008, Saturno left his tent in San Bartolo, where he lives with his wife and three sons during the three-month fieldwork season, took a seven-hour Jeep ride overland to Flores, Guatemala, a plane to Guatemala City, then two more planes, and was in Boston by 1 a.m. on March 13. Saturno arrived at Harvard’s Yenching Institute later that day in time to deliver a talk that evening to launch the new exhibit at the Peabody Museum, “Storied Walls: Murals of the Americas.”

It is almost seven years to the day since Saturno’s remarkable discovery. The mural is now uncovered and opened like a book. It has been photographed with an ordinary desktop flatbed scanner, ideal for the narrow conditions in the trench, and pieced together, then redrawn by Heather Hurst, an archaeological artist, which lends it a startling freshness. Saturno puts an image of it up on a screen and reads it like a Renaissance painting.

The mural is in an odd room with an unknown purpose, 4 meters wide and 9.5 meters long, with five doorways open to the outdoors, and attached to the back of a large pyramid. Perhaps it is a backdrop for a ceremony. It depicts a transfer of power from an avian deity to the maize god. The principal bird deity is seen four times, at the four corners of the world, receiving a sacrifice each time, and losing power with each sacrifice. The sacrificial victims — a deer, a turkey — are remarkably realistic, as are the fountains of blood from the humans’ ritual cutting. At the end of the picture story, the bird is defeated and the maize god is victorious. “It is,” Saturno says, “a divine charter for kingship.” It is similar to the Popul Vuh, the Maya sacred book of the 16th century, but it dates from 100 B.C.

There are still tens of thousands of fragments of painting to study at San Bartolo, says Saturno. There is another mural, with fine detail. In addition, in 2006, a piece of early writing was found at the site (Science, March 2006) in deposits securely dated to 300 to 200 B.C. It is unlike Mayan writing found anywhere else.

Saturno’s discovery has reset the clock on Maya culture and writing, and there is more to come. As Saturno said in concluding his talk, “There are more storied walls in the near future.”

In an interview at his office at Boston University, where he is an assistant professor of archaeology, Saturno says he has had an interesting affirmation. A group of shamans from the small lakeside village of Santiago Atitlan heard of the mural from a North American charity worker, who undertook to fly them by helicopter to San Bartolo. They brought musical instruments and food offerings to the maize deity. “It was the first time in 2100 years that Maya music had been played there,” said the delighted archaeologist, “but what they really wanted to know was, why was I chosen to find this mural?”

“I thought about it,” Saturno said, “and then I thought — I knew how to excavate using tunnels. I knew the archaeological illustrator, the importance of conservation; I had the tools to interpret the mural. I had a team from my thesis days in Copán to work jointly on this. Few people could have walked in and known what to do. I was not conscious of all I had learned, until I found this and had to deal with it.”

The shamans told Saturno that they dream of him, and they dream that he will find many more things.

In “Storied Walls: Murals of the Americas,” the sparkling new Peabody exhibit, visitors can see a video of Heather Hurst, the archaeological illustrator, drawing the San Bartolo mural. The mural, in digital scans in real size, is pieced together on the wall. There is the modern, painterly reconstruction by Hurst and a diorama of the room, as well as a video of Saturno navigating his blue Jeep through jungle mud. The famous statue of the maize deity, from the Peabody expedition of 1895 to Copán (Honduras) stands guard over all, as if to remind us of the Peabody’s long involvement in Maya archaeology.

The exhibit gives equal attention to four different murals and their contexts, sites that have long been studied and supported by the Peabody Museum: San Bartolo, Guatemala; Bonampak, Mexico; the ancient Hopi pueblo of Awatovi in Arizona; and the northern coast of Peru. Sam Tager, the designer of the exhibit, has assigned the wall of each section its own color (red oxide for San Bartolo).

“We wanted to have an exhibition about the pre-Columbian world that visitors don’t usually see,” explains Jeffrey Quilter, deputy director of curatorial affairs. “It is very difficult to access murals because they are mostly in situ. New technology for recording and examining the murals and replicating them is now feasible to do in an accurate and interesting way.”

For example, the Bonampak mural, one of the most magnificent artistic creations in the Americas, is shown in several versions, the latest painted in 2004 after infrared photography revealed new detail.

“It’s Peabody research in action, ” says Pamela Gerardi, the Peabody’s director of external relations. “Each of the four sections had its own curator. What binds the choice of subjects is Peabody involvement.”




4 Responses to “Before there was DIEGO”

  1. 1 boatdog
    September 26, 2009 at 10:52 am

    Thanks for the info Ot. I had never heard about this before, so it’s breaking news to me. You gotta love the art work from this place and time. But I doubt I would have wanted to live there and then. ….did you get a load of that spike that maize god is jamming into his privates?

  2. 2 O3
    September 26, 2009 at 5:56 pm

    I was more focused on the scanner info and the stitching as we have been doing in panorama’s. The Shaman paragraph was cool too.
    I didn’t notice bloodletting til you mentioned. Diego and Mayan’s have alot in common with disturbing subjet’s.

    One of the reasons I like Lila Downs (Mixtec and Zapotec,desendant) is in her music I hear emotions far beyond comercial music and even deeper than the best classical.

    I’ve sat out in the power shed in surrond-sound, weeping with joy listening to her music.

    The mural has also got me interested in doing a pano of a tree in regards to “The Tree of Life” which is focus of mural and the movie “THE FOUNTAIN”.

  3. 3 bobi
    September 27, 2009 at 11:54 pm

    I was amazed and delighted to see my article from the Harvard Gazette reproduced once again, with the additional info on scanners.

  4. 4 marcial
    December 19, 2009 at 10:00 am

    does anyone knows where to download the original scans, or the best illustrations from heather hurst??

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