10 MARCH 2009, PHILADELPHIA, PA—In earlier years this exhibition might have been only a display of interesting objects. Now, breakthroughs in our ability to read Maya hieroglyphs, new data from new archaeological discoveries, and new scientific techniques allow us to look at the artifacts in this exhibition from a fresh perspective. Scientific research leading up to and incorporated in to this exhibition include:
What does this tell us? The results from their analyses indicate that most, but not all, of the detailed polychrome vessels were manufactured in Chama—important information for the curator, reading the vessels’ storyline “headlines” as local news. Just as important, however, were results that indicate the various other ceramics of this site came from a wide variety of clay sources, clearly indicating extensive trade and exchange of these objects rather than a local origin.
Examination and CT Scans of the Human Record
Early in the 20th century, archaeologist Burkitt collected skeletal remains of 24 individuals from the site of Chama, and these specimens, primarily teeth and mandibles, were sent to the Penn Museum. In 1978, Dr. Janet Monge, then a first year graduate student working with Diane Chase and Stuart Eldridge, researched and reported on the collection. Now Acting Curator in charge of the Physical Anthropology section of the Penn Museum, she recently (2009) collaborated with the Radiology Department at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania to CT scan the collection, as part of an extensive CT project, funded by the National Science Foundation.
What does this tell us? Bones contain information about age of death, diet and disease. This collection has a story to tell. Many teeth were lost early in life from periodontal disease and cavities. The people of Chama seem to have suffered the effects of a primarily nutrient-poor carbohydrate diet of very soft foods, based on maize. Village life was tough and short – the average age at death of these people was probably 27 years of age.
Dr. Gene Ware, Brigham Young University, undertook multispectral imaging of a number of the pottery vessels in this exhibition during the conservation process in order to detect faint or missing designs. This method involves viewing these pots at different wavelengths within the electromagnetic spectrum from near ultraviolet through visible light to infrared.
What does this tell us? Different details become clear at each of the 11 different wavelengths recorded for each vessel, providing new and better information about the painted scenes. Because the carbon-based slip used to outline the figures is partially transparent to light at the longer wavelengths, we can pick up very fine details, including information that tells us how the artist worked—information that may help art historians to identify individual artists. In some cases, material identification becomes possible: with one vessel (object NA 10835), this technique helped explain an irregular brown line running down the vessel, as dark brown slip probably applied along a hairline crack on top of the painted scene, just before firing.
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