Classic Maya ceramics are among the most intriguing and valuable sources to reconstruct Ancient Maya society and life. No books have survived from the Classic times (AD 300-900), and many public stone monuments are eroded or only provide limited information. Ceramics, on the other hand, paint an intricate picture of Classic Maya royal courts, warfare, ballgames, deities, animals; of Classic Maya life in general. Yet because of their beauty, Classic Maya ceramics have been targeted by looters for decades. Consequently, few are found in archaeological context – thus losing much of their archaeological value – and many resurface in museums where they are more or less adequately stored.

Lynn Grant tells an engaging story of 19 polychrome ceramics that were excavated in the Alta Vera Paz in Guatemala and acquired by the University of Pennsylvania Museum in the early 20th century. In her introduction, she does not reflect upon this process of acquiring ceramics – clearly because the interest to acquire important objects contributed to the looting of sites by farmers. These acquired, or excavated, vessels were initially restored in Guatemala, restored further in the late 1930s, and then later yet again. In the late 1990s it was realised that restoration methods had been inadequate and several pieces had already collapsed in the vault.

Grant shows how she began a project of disassembly and reassembly, using the latest techniques, which inflicted no further damage on the ceramics. With detail, she tells how vessels were disassembled in solvent chambers and removed of old restorational adhesives; how sherds were tested for the right cleaning solution; how consolidants were then applied to protect the integrity of sherds; and how the ceramics were prepared for exhibition. In the course of this process, several interesting details were uncovered, including evidence that some of the vessels had been used as containers for Kakao, the discovery of Classic Maya finger prints, and even a new form of vessel.

This is an engagingly written book: it is recommended for those with a love of ceramics, an interest in conservation, or a fascination for the Classic Maya culture.

Review by Pierre Robert Colas, Maya specialist and Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Vanderbilt University, USA.


This article is an extract from the full article published in World Archaeology Issue 30. Click here to subscribe

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