Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Site of Bonampak -- "Painted Walls"

In the eastern part of the Lacanha Valley, in the rainforest of the Mexican state of Chiapas, lies Bonampak (meaning "Painted Walls" in Yucatecan Maya). Near a tributary of the Rio Lacanja, this ancient Maya site is about 12 miles south of the site of Yaxchilan.

Thought to be under the control of Yaxchilan (though their relationship seems to have stayed peaceful), Bonampak reached its height in the Late Classic period (about 600 AD to 800 AD). Rediscovered in the 1940s, it is the home of the famous Bonampak murals.

General Layout
The main area of construction at Bonampak looks vaguely u-shaped. A large group of structures forms the bottom of the "u" while longer structures heading away from the group of structures form the sides. The base of the "u" is where the acropolis and various temples and two stelae exist. The space within the "u" is the main plaza. In the middle of the "u" are two stelae, and at the mouth of the "u" are four structures.

Beyond the "u" is an airstrip, and across the river is a group of buildings called the Quemado Group. Beyond the airstrip is the Frey Group.

Rediscovery
It is not entirely clear who rediscovered Bonampak. However it is currently believed that the western world first came into contact with the site when a member of the Lancadon people named Chan Bor (or Chan Bol) showed two travellers -- John Bourne and Charles Frey -- the ruins in 1946.

Murals
A man named Giles Healey told everyone about murals he'd seen at Bonampak the same year that the two travellers were shown the site by Chan Bor. These murals -- dating from the Late Classic Period (ca. 600 to 800 AD) --  are located in the three rooms of a building (designated Structure 1, Temple 1 or Templo de las Pinturas). This building, in which each room has a bench, is prominently placed in the site's acropolis.

Archaeologists do not all agree as to what is happening in the murals. They do think that they depict scenes of activities, and it is possible that they are a narrative (they tell a story) that highlights events that happened over a span of time.

Rendering Project
Yale University is conducting a project -- directed by Department of the History of Art's Mary Miller -- to digitally render the murals online, called the Bonampak Documentation Project. This project began in 1995, when National Geographic Magazine published a study where certain photographic techniques were used to make restored images of the murals.

About one year later, the Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia gave its permission, as well as assistance, to the project to make a complete series of color photographs and infrared photographs. The processing of these images is still ongoing, and people working on the project are attempting to give viewers a sense of what the murals are like in the structure.

References
University of Texas Press: To Be Like Gods

Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University: Storied Walls

Yale University: Bonampak Documentation Project: Overview

"To Be Like Gods: Dance in Ancient Maya Civilization"; Matthew George Looper; 2009

"Moon Chiapas"; Liza Prado, Gary Chandler; 2009

"Lonely Planet Yucatan"; Ray Bartlett, Daniel C. Schechter; 2006

 "Shadows of Bonampak"; S. Roeling

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