AIC’s 39th Annual Meeting – Objects Session, June 1, “Recovering Painted Organic Objects from Ancient Mesoamerica: Strategic Considerations in the Field and the Lab” by Harriet F. Beaubien.

The first session of talks for the Objects Specialty Group focused on archaeological materials.  Fitting to the theme, Rae Beaubien opened the talk by picking up the headlamp near the computer (improvisation by the always-prepared Program Chair Sanchita Balachandran when the podium light was missing) and exclaimed “Oh good, there’s a headlamp!”  Then she proceeded to wear it long enough for the audience to laugh.  This welcome humor introduced a talk that focused on her extensive fieldwork experience in Mesoamerica and practical considerations for the recovery of fragile painted organic objects (you guessed it, the acronym is none other than POO).  I was particularly looking forward to this talk because of my interest in archaeological material and my awe and respect for Rae’s knowledge and treatment skills (introduced to me when she was an adjunct archaeological instructor during my conservation training at Buffalo).

These painted organic objects, typically made of gourds or wood, are often only detected if they are associated with an inorganic material like stucco, paint, or stone.  They were a significant part of ancient Mayan material culture during the Classical Mayan Period (3rd – 9th centuries C.E.) and are commonly associated with offerings and furnishings in high-status tombs.  Due to the incredible instability of the material, the prolific nature of these organic materials is only known through depictions on Mayan art, written descriptions from Spanish missionaries, and similar examples in use by modern cultures.

Rae illustrated examples of surviving objects from the sites of Chichén Itzá in Mexico, Cerén in El Salvador, Copán in Honduras, and Waka’-El Perú in Guatemala.  The ability to successfully excavate this type of material is based on conservation involvement, as well as other factors:  How accessible is the deposit?  How much time is available?  Can the high-value materials be cleared first to prevent looting? Can conservation be done later?

Through images and anecdotes, Rae illustrated a number of conservation strategies and practical recovery methods  for a variety of excavation situations.  For example, a jumbled deposit of paint flakes, jades, shells, stone, and ceramics from Copán was collected within a grid pattern of 350 squares, stratigraphically if the layers were preserved.  If the surface required consolidation, it was photographed, then B-72 was used with a subsequent facing of Japanese tissue and methylcellulose.  The material within each grid square was transferred to a container and brought to the lab for a slow and careful excavation under the microscope.  Incredibly, they were able to identify a painted wooden burial platform from hundreds of lifted containers.  Other considerations were mentioned and addressed, such as:  Does it need pre-consolidation? Can you gain access underneath the object?  Can the floor be cut?  Is it resting face-up or down?  For objects resting face-up, can you clean and photograph them first?

Rae’s talk was peppered with clever terms, such as:

  • “articulated removal” to join groups of fragments using methylcellulose and Japanese tissue
  • “informational reconstruction” of a large object based on multiple lifted areas
  • “assisted lifting” (my favorite!)

For the most fragile objects, block lifts were performed to keep the fragments in their original alignment and to buy extra time for excavation in the lab.  Methods were used such as wrapping in plaster bandages and applying cyclododecane.  Extensive stabilization was required, as the objects had to be packed and carried on rough hiking trails two miles back to camp.

The talk ended with a reiteration that even failed block lifts can yield valuable information (through loose fragments to categorize, cross section, or use for pigment analysis) and that any effort to retrieve these fragile objects is worth it.  The talk successfully balanced an overall conservation strategy with practical treatment examples, and I came away with an increased knowledge of Mesoamerican organics, their fragility, and the conservation involvement that has played a crucial role in their recovery and interpretation.