Maya Initiative (1999-2009)
 
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The Maya civilization once encompassed a vast area of parts of present-day Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico. After its collapse, the intense biological activity of this hot and humid area resulted in vegetal recolonization of the temples and cities. Today the sites are under threat from both natural and human forces. To address conservation issues of this common heritage, the governments of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico signed a cooperative agreement to advance conservation heritage practices in the region. Photo: Guillermo Aldana.

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Map of Mesoamerica indicating some of the most important Maya sites. Credit: Eric Miller.

Joya de Cerén
 
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The archaeological site of Joya de Cerén is located in an area stressed by dynamic development, approximately 30 km from San Salvador, along the road to the municipality of San Juan Opico, in the canton of Joya de Cerén. Photo: Irene Sen.

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Eleven of the eighteen identified structures at the site have been investigated and are located in four sheltered excavation ditches. The ditches differ in depth and shape and contain a varying number of structures. Structure four, believed to be the remains of a storage house, is located in the deepest excavation ditch, which has the most stable environmental conditions of the four. Photo: Richard Ross.

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To better understand the condition of the archaeological remains, a detailed survey of the condition of each structure was undertaken. Given the hot and humid climatic condition of the site, it was important to record the conditions and changes of the structures over the wet and dry season cycles. During the first campaign, Concultura staff were trained in condition recording. The survey took eighteen months to complete and was supplemented by general environmental monitoring. Photo: Irene Sen.

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The topographic survey of the site and the architectural survey of each structure aided in identifying and locating each structure and area in relation to the soil surface. Mapping was an important tool to support the documentation of the site, to specify its delimitation and potential extension, as well as to locate proposed management plan activity. Map: Rand Eppich.

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While the planning process was being implemented at the site, a territorial plan was developed for the Zapotitan Valley, the area were the site is located. Collaboration between the management planning team, the institution in charge of the Zapotitan Valley territorial plan, and the municipal representatives allowed for the proposal and integration of land use restrictions that will benefit preservation of the site. Map: Rand Eppich.

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Site meeting to present results of the landscape project as a follow-up to the multisectorial meeting. Photo: Eduardo Gochez.

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Members of the project team—Concultura staff and consultants—preparing background materials for use at a multisectorial meeting. Representatives from national as well as local institutions and groups have been involved at all stages of the management planning process—participating in key meetings as individuals and professionals, and sharing their knowledge, experience and expectations for the site. Photo: Françoise Descamps.

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The management of the site was articulated through four programs, which are based on the conditions, significance and overall vision for the site. This diagram details the four programs: investigation, conservation, landscape (both the site's physical aspect and its surroundings) and human development (community impact, education and tourism).

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The management plan would not be sustainable if it did not take into account the need and expectations for local development. One of the purposes of the plan is to raise awareness among local communities about land use practice—a time-honored tradition whose roots can be seen in the agricultural remains surrounding the buried structures. Awareness of this continuity could bring support for maintaining traditional practices, which benefits both the site's conservation and provides a complementary experience to the visitors. Photo: Richard Ross.

Copán
 
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The Hieroglyphic Stairway is currently in overall stable condition; equilibrium exists between the stone and the environment. This stability is the result of the installation of a protective shelter that, since 1985, has maintained consistent dry and warm conditions throughout the year by blocking rainwater and direct sunlight and eliminating condensation formation on the stones, thereby preventing cycles of wetting and drying, and excessive cooling and heating condition changes. Every two years the fabric of the shelter has to be replaced. This operation requires a full day of work for a team of ten persons and favorable climate conditions. Photo: Eliud Guerra.

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Copán is managed as a cultural and natural site which covers approximately twelve hectares. Located in a restricted river valley with pockets of rich alluvial soil, Copán was well suited to the cultivation of Mesoamerican food staples like corn and beans, as well as tobacco and cacao. The central area of the site, called the Principal or Main Group, is made up of a series of large buildings organized around open plazas; however, it did not exist in isolation, as the Copán Valley contains thousands of archaeological sites. Photo: Richard Ross.

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The Hieroglyphic Stairway, which occupies the western side of structure 10L-26, was built in two stages during the eighth century. The figures standing in the middle of the stairway, the balustrades on each side, as well as the stela and altars at the bottom, form part of the monument. Carved on the Stairway's risers is the longest known ancient Mesoamerican text, making the Stairway a manuscript carved in stone. This unique text recounts four centuries of Copán dynastic history. Photo: Evin Erder.

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Over the years, the deterioration of the stone has been a major cause of concern because it directly impacts the readability of the glyphs. The stone blocks, which are made from volcanic tuff, have been exposed to natural and human actions and show significant signs of decay. A careful study was undertaken to better understand the condition of the Stairway and its causes of decay. Photo: David Carson.

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In 1985, a shelter was constructed to protect the Stairway from direct exposure to sun and rain. This shelter also impacts the perception of the site by visitors. The effect of the protective shelter and the conditions it generates around the Stairway—both visual and protective—were studied by the project team. Photo: Françoise Descamps.

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Close-range photography of the stairway has continued, as appropriate, to support the condition survey. A one-time well-documented photo survey of the stairway was completed through stereo photography. This survey will provide the basis for potential digital reconstruction and manipulation of the stairway block. Photo: Paul Brooks, Photarc.

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Deterioration phenomena such as superficial loss, fractures, flaking, and biological growth, as well as information concerning past conservation interventions, were visually observed and recorded directly on digitized photos of the Stairway. Photo: Evin Erder.

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The main objective of the condition survey was to create base documentation of the Stairway's condition by graphically recording the types, extent, and location of deterioration. The condition survey was to be used as a diagnostic tool, together with other types of investigation (environmental monitoring, scientific studies, archival research, etc.), and as accurate baseline data for future monitoring of the Stairway's condition and for the planning and recording of future conservation interventions.

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A solar-powered environmental monitoring station was installed at the top of the Stairway. The station sends daily data on air and surface temperature, relative humidity, and wind movement to an on-site computer. General climatic data is also collected at another station located on the Jaguar's Plaza. Photo: Richard Ross.

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Contour map displaying the discrete wet season perimeter time of wetness events on the Stairway at noon on September 24, 2001. Because of the protective shelter, the Hieroglyphic Stairway was assumed to be dry, which is now known to be incorrect, as evidenced by the above map. The black borders within the figure delineate the top step of the Hieroglyphic Stairway and the north and south edges of the Stairway balustrade.

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Samples of stone and mortar from the Stairway were analyzed in the GCI's laboratories to identify the inherent characteristics that may lead to decay. Photo: Dennis Keeley.

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In order to evaluate the quality and compatibility of repair material, mortar mixes were carefully prepared using a selection of locally available limes and aggregates and set into samples forms. Analysis of the material and of the mixes as well as analysis of their behavior at the site will provide reference material to support the conservation strategy. Photo: Françoise Descamps.

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In situ trials of mortar removal and repointing were carried out in two locations on the Stairway using mortar mixes similar to ones tested in the laboratory. Reconstruction mortar was removed with a hammer and chisel to a depth approximately equivalent to the width of the joints and was therefore not necessarily completely removed. The joints were then filled with mortar slightly below surface level of the block, and, when large voids were present, stone chinkers were inserted. The mortar was compacted using pointing keys and surface-finished the same day or the following day with wet spray and sponge. Photo: Elsa Bourguignon.

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Surface treatments can be divided into three main operations: general cleaning, removal/reduction of previous interventions, and stabilization. Each requires a different set of materials and equipment. Reduction/removal of previous treatments carried out on the Stairway using acrylic or polyvinyl acetate (PVAc)-based resins requires chemical solvents. Some solvents, including acetone and distilled water, are found locally in pharmacies and hardware stores, although other basic solvents such as toluene are not available for retail purchase in western Honduras, but can be found from wholesalers in San Pedro Sula. All basic tools and materials for removal/reduction of previous treatments (scalpels, brushes, cotton swabs, etc.) can be found in San Pedro Sula. Photo: Richard Ross.

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In July 2008, a follow-up visit allowed for the review of ongoing activities at the Hieroglyphic Stairway and the Stairway's condition. Photo monitoring of the control block has been performed every six months since July 2007. Very few changes in the conditions of the carved surface were noticed. While at the site, recent damage to carved surfaces that had occurred on Step 7 due to visitor access could be observed, as well as repair work that had recently been completed, including reattachment of several fallen fragments found on the step, following methods used during the treatment trails. Photo: Françoise Descamps.

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In July 2008 the team discussed applying the method used at the Stairway to monitor and assess the condition of the stone of two stelae suffering from direct exposure to the natural elements. Photo: Françoise Descamps.

Dissemination
 
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Conservation panel audience. In July 2008, the GCI with the Asociacion Tikal organized a panel focusing on the conservation of archaeological sites in the Maya region within the context of the XXII Simposio de Investigaciones Arqueologicas in Guatemala City. The aim of the panel was to bring attention to the specific technical and managerial issues of archaeological sites exposed to environmental and human threats as well as to explore potential ways to improve the conservation of Maya archaeological sites. Photo: Françoise Descamps.

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Visitors on the main plaza of Tikal looking at the North Acropolis. Tikal is the most visited site of Guatemala and attracts both national and international visitors. Visitors can freely access temples and buildings, adding stress to the fragile fabric of the structures. The Tikal stone is a very fragile limestone and as a result, the most important sculptures have been covered by thatched roofs. The site is also used today by indigenous groups who come to celebrate traditional Maya ceremonies. Photo: Françoise Descamps.