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Architecture, Restoration, and Imaging
of the Maya Cities of
The Puuc Region, Yucatán, México



When we visit an archaeological site, we are of course not looking at an ancient city as it appeared centuries ago. In fact the city today does not look as it did anytime in the past, not even a century ago, and much has changed in recent years.


How have these cities changed? Even in their prime, Maya cities were far from static. Quite often, monumental buildings were constructed on top of other buildings, sometimes 3 or 4 layers deep. If a city was defeated in war, its sacred places were sometimes destroyed by its conquerors. When the Spanish invaded, they stole gold and other precious artifacts. Catholic priests burned books and destroyed sculpture to eradicate idolatry. As the Spanish occupiers built churches and haciendas, they carted off readily available stones from pre-Hispanic buildings.

The abandoned Maya cities were gradually taken over by dense vegetation, tree roots splitting open walls of buildings while rain eroded their plaster and paint and undermined foundations. The wood, plaster, and thatch of domestic huts that spread out from the urban center and housed the majority of the population disintegrated, leaving only stone foundations, cisterns, broken pots, and other markers.

Euro-American explorers stole sculpture and other trophies, followed by looters who continue to supply the now worldwide illicit trade in archaeological objects. Like the looters, later explorers conducted excavations, often leaving the excavated cavities exposed. Early attempts at restoration were often poorly researched, sometimes constructing finished buildings with marginal resemblance to their originals.

Fortunately, in the Puuc region, damage to ancient Maya buildings and sites has been less severe than in the southern Maya areas. Because gold and polychrome painted ceramics were not found in the Puuc area, there was less attraction for looters. The rains are less intense and the vegetation lacks the dense, tall forests of the south. Moreover, the Puuc region has not been cursed by the modern industrial pollution that in many historic cities has caused the stone to deteriorate so severely.


Against this background, it is amazing to realize what has been accomplished by the Mexican government, Mexican archaeologists, and their occasional associates from other parts of the world. As documented in the images, captions, and annotated bibliography on the web site, already in the late 19th century a national government agency had been created, and over the years laws were passed and policies established for the preservation and restoration of the Mexican archaeological heritage. Academic programs have been established and archaeologists trained. Funding has been provided, comprehensive surveys conducted, previously unknown ruins discovered, cleared and stabilized, individual buildings and plazas studied in depth, sites mapped and settlement surveys conducted. Provisions have been made to attract, accommodate, and educate the increasing number of tourists, and local residents have become involved in caring for their pre-Hispanic sites. Extensive restoration has taken place at major archaeological sites and, although little publicized, restoration has also been underway at much smaller sites. None of this has been without controversy, but the results are most impressive.


Because the terms used in describing archaeological restoration differ from country to country and within different professions, and because they are used in different ways, it is important to explain how these terms are used in this web publication. My aim has been to use the commonsense meanings of all terms rather than the more specialized terminology of professional discourse. In all cases I have attempted to use these as straightforward descriptive terms, devoid of any value judgment.

“Restoration” is here used as the overarching term referring to any human initiated physical change in a building or archaeological site intended to preserve it and return it more nearly to its original condition and appearance. Thus, “restoration” is used to include anything from limited “cleaning” of vegetation from the surface of a building to major “reconstruction” of portions of a building.

Of course, these terms overlap in various ways. Restoration work on most structures involves a combination of approaches. For this reason, in the captions to images on this web site, I have mostly used the general term “restored”. However, where photographs or diagrams emphasize specific forms of restoration, such as stabilization, consolidaton, or reconstruction, I have sometimes found it more informative to specify the type of restoration.

"Reconstruction" is  the form of restoration involving major rebuilding of entire walls or vaults, sometimes of nearly entire buildings. Professional archaeologists now carry out such major rebuilding projects following strict professional standards, carefully studying the fallen stones so that they can be replaced as nearly as possible in their original positions and clearly indicating any stones or wooden lintels that are new. For this reason, professional archaeologists generally use the term "restoration" even for these major jobs of rebuilding.

“Stabilization” and “consolidation” are used to describe procedures aimed primarily at the preservation of a structure, types of restoration in which relatively few physical changes are visible to the normal visitor. Significant structural support may be added or large interior cavities filled, but these are barely visible to the normal viewer. As with the term "reconstruction", I have found it useful to distnguish these significantly different forms of restoration.

Reports of the restoration of Uxmal, Kabah, Sayil, and Labná are described in the bibliography of publications on which this web site so heavily depends.