A Visual History of Archaeology at Tikal

By: Sharon Aponte Misdea

Originally Published in 2002

View PDF

Since its introduction in the mid-19th century, photography has played a prominent role in documenting archaeological sites. Photographs record excavations and artifacts, compiling visual inventories that become mnemonic tools during the lab work and analysis that follow completed fieldwork. But beyond such traditional categories of documentation, photographs also capture, both intentionally and unintentionally, the life of an archaeological project. These images reflect the living dynamics of archaeological camps and local communities. Some images are posed and constructed for publicity purposes, while others are spontaneous and candid — meant to be seen by only a small circle. As they freeze intimate moments, the candid shots later help us understand the history of archaeological inquiry and pursuit. As archaeological historian and theoretician Michael Shanks explains, “It is the detective work and experience of doing archaeology that interest so many people, as much as the things found.” Shanks reminds us that archaeology is as much about the people and ideas involved in recovering the past as it is about the past.

Professional photographers and researchers created more than 60,000 photographic images from 1956 to 1970, when the University of Pennsylvania Museum carried out archaeological investigations at the ancient Maya city of Tikal in Guatemala. A great many of those images recorded data about the Maya past, including architectural restoration, excavations, surveys, and laboratory work. Fortunately, those staff members produced an equally rich photographic record of the people involved in recovering that past during the Tikal Project — the largest-scale archaeological investigation ever under-taken in the Americas.

Several professional photographers were part of the staff in Guatemala in the early years of the project. Between 1956 and 1964, George Holton, Joya Hairs, and Walwin Barr created historic images of Tikal ’s archaeological remains and of the site archaeologists, fieldworkers and their families, and visitors. Many of the 118 researchers were also skilled photographers, and they continued to photograph the work and surroundings at Tikal throughout the 1960s. Their visual contributions to the Museum ’ s Tikal archive are stunning. Among the archaeologist-photographers who produced photographs that rivaled those of the professionals were Bill Coe, who directed the Tikal Project during its last seven years; Nick Hellmuth, who is influential in digital imaging in Maya studies today; Stuart Scott; Peter Harrison, whose photographs have traveled in museum exhibits; and Virginia Greene, now senior conservator for the Museum.

The images alone narrate a history of the Tikal Project. The photographs of people and architecture document archaeological practice, as well as the monumental scope of the project. Images of the camp reveal daily life in the Petén, which appears to be anything but routine. Beautiful portraits, intended for publicity, reflect very practical concerns with the cost of an undertaking of this scope. In all the images there is an intimacy that entices the viewer — unable to travel to Tikal in the past — to want to learn more about the individuals who were part of Tikal’s archaeological history. The 13 images here, selected from hundreds, represent the aesthetic richness preserved in the Tikal photo archive, but they only begin to touch on the story of doing archaeology at Tikal.


Cite This Article

Misdea, Sharon Aponte. "A Visual History of Archaeology at Tikal." Expedition Magazine 44, no. 2 (July, 2002): -. Accessed February 29, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/a-visual-history-of-archaeology-at-tikal/

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

Report problems and issues to digitalmedia@pennmuseum.org.