April 6, 2024
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Revolutionary Techniques to Safeguard Tulum’s Ancient Murals and Decorative Treasures

TULUM, Quintana Roo – In a groundbreaking conservation effort funded by the Archaeological Zone Improvement Program (Promeza), the Mexican Ministry of Culture, through the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), is employing state-of-the-art technological tools to meticulously document the condition of the mural paintings, stuccos, and various decorative elements found in the Tulum Archaeological Zone. This initiative marks a significant advancement in the preservation of movable and immovable assets associated with the architectural wonders of this ancient Mayan city.

For over a decade, the methods used to record interventions and assess the state of preservation of these assets in the walled city have adapted to the specific requirements of each working season and the available resources of the Conservation and Research Project for Mural Painting on the Eastern Coast of Quintana Roo. However, as Patricia Meehan Hermanson, the coordinator of the conservation project linked to Promeza, explains, this new endeavor focuses on more detailed and precise graphic records of the architectural ensembles, buildings, mural surfaces, and decorative elements on facades and sidewalks. It aims to create a unique corpus of knowledge for future restoration work.

Revolutionary Techniques to Safeguard Tulum's Ancient Murals and Decorative Treasures

Orthomosaics and digital surface models, along with other products of drone-based photogrammetry, are processed by architect Emilio Fernández Gamboa from the INAH’s Archaeological Studies Directorate. Gamboa has trained other team members in this field, enabling restorers to obtain three-dimensional images of elements with specific damage and have an accurate understanding of the before and after of their interventions.

The specialist from the National Coordination of Cultural Heritage Conservation (CNCPC) at the INAH emphasizes that the work plan includes interventions in seven structures: the Temple of the Frescoes, the iconic Castillo, the Temple of the Descending God, the House of the Halach Uinik, the Palace of the Columns, the House of the Chultún, and the North Tower of the city walls. “Our priorities are the mural paintings, stucco reliefs, and plasterwork, with or without color, as well as floors and sidewalks. This represents a great opportunity for the project, as it offers a more homogeneous level of conservation to Tulum, in addition to systematizing these tasks, something we hadn’t achieved due to a lack of human and financial resources, and time,” says Meehan.

The objective is to leave the site with an acceptable level of conservation and, based on that, develop maintenance plans for different time frames. Meehan is joined in this endeavor by a dozen restorers, two architects, and twelve field support staff. The conservation project works closely with the archaeological research project led by Antonio Reyes Solís from the INAH Quintana Roo Center, as the preservation of murals, stuccos, and other elements is closely linked to the structural stability of the buildings.

Revolutionary Techniques to Safeguard Tulum's Ancient Murals and Decorative Treasures

Due to its proximity to the Caribbean Sea, the plasterwork in Tulum commonly contains salts, which are preserved due to their high hardness, resulting from their magnesium content. However, they also exhibit preferential deterioration in the form of cavities, resembling the holes in a block of Swiss cheese. Another conservation concern is related to the fauna inhabiting the walls and roofs of the buildings, such as iguanas and bats. The Tulum-Promeza conservation project addresses these challenges by using harmless and compatible materials that adhere to the original construction techniques, both in the restoration of damaged areas (removing interventions that no longer serve their purpose due to the passage of time or changing preservation criteria) and in mural conservation.

In the interest of long-term preservation, the specialist suggests re-burying certain elements that are currently exposed to the public eye. However, prior documentation of these elements will allow for the future dissemination of high-quality images, ensuring their legacy continues to benefit from the graphical archives constituting this initiative.

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