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Preserving Mexico’s Cultural Heritage

Mexico’s rich cultural heritage, embodied in its archaeological sites, presents both opportunities and challenges for preservation and conservation efforts. During my travels, I had the privilege of visiting Chichen Itza, Uxmal, and Sihunchen in that order, each with its distinctive restoration approach. This progression, from the extensively restored Chichen Itza to the partially restored Uxmal and the untouched Sihunchen, provided a fascinating insight into the interplay between restoration efforts and preserving the authenticity of ancient sites. I also gained valuable insights into the complexities of restoration and conservation in Mexico. From understanding the role of the Mexican government in restoration decisions to witnessing firsthand the varying degrees of restoration and the absence of restoration at Sihunchen, this journey deepened my appreciation for the importance of conservation.  

Chichen Itza: Question of Authenticity

The famous Kukulkan Pyramid at Chichen Itza standing on a flat, open space with tourists.  

Beginning our journey at Chichen Itza, we encountered a site overrun by tourists that was meticulously restored to showcase its former glory. As one of Mexico’s most iconic and globally recognized sites, Chichen Itza receives substantial restoration efforts. However, the extensive restoration work has led to some debate about the balance between authenticity and preservation. Chichen Itza’s buildings are complete and polished with no to minimum imperfections. Also, the remains of Chichen Itza are located in flat, wide areas that have been substantially cleared of trees. It appeared that the environment was adapted to accommodate all the tourists, which lowered the overall experience for me.      

The pyramid has undergone a substantial reconstruction after it’s “rediscovery” in 1840. (For comparison, a photograph taken by Teobert Maler in 1892 shows the pyramid before reconstruction)

The Mexican government plays a crucial role in approving and carrying out restoration efforts at archaeological sites. They strictly regulate the whole process. The limited funding and competing priorities present challenges in allocating resources. Major sites like Chichen Itza often receive priority due to their global recognition and significance. Consequently, lesser-known sites like Sihunchen face difficulties securing restoration funding, creating a vicious cycle where the need for investigations and restoration competes with available resources, as the very process of excavation can cause damage necessitating restoration.   

Uxmal: Minimal Intervention

This is the Pyramid of the Magician at Uxmal, which has undergone restoration with concrete (evident in the whiter areas of the pyramid) for support through natural disasters. (Here is a photograph taken in 1913 before the pyramid has been restored)   

Continuing our exploration, we arrived at Uxmal, where we encountered a different approach to restoration. While restoration efforts were evident, they were more minimal compared to Chichen Itza, allowing the authentic character of the site to shine through. As our guide led us through the site, he showcased the restored parts, characterized by the prevalent use of whiter concrete. Concrete and restoration techniques in Uxmal focused on stabilizing the structures rather than extensive reconstruction like Chichen Itza. This approach provided a deeper connection to the original construction and allowed us to appreciate the weathered beauty of the ancient city.   

This part clearly shows the restoration as the wall is held together with modern concrete.
The guide at Uxmal pointed out this wall that shows the restored parts on top with the concrete, while the bottom portion is unrestored with nothing holding the stones together, like the way Mayans had built it centuries ago.   

The juxtaposition between the restored and unrestored sections highlighted the delicate balance between restoration and preserving the original character of a site. It provides a captivating glimpse into the city’s former glory while also allowing us to appreciate the original splendor of ancient Mayan architecture.   

Sihunchen: Untouched and Unrestored

This was once a temple at Sihunchen; there have been no restoration efforts since its archeological discovery.  

In stark contrast to Uxmal, concluding our journey at Sihunchen, we stepped into a world untouched by restoration efforts. The structures appeared as piles of rocks, presenting a raw and unfiltered representation of the passage of time. During my visit, an archaeologist shed light on the reason for the absence of restoration at this site: limited resources and the Mexican government’s prioritization of funding for major sites. There was a sense of this authenticity that existed on the site, even though to an untrained eye, it was just rocks. Despite its seemingly unremarkable appearance, Sihunchen invites visitors to exercise their imagination and knowledge of Mesoamerican architecture to grasp the significance of its collapsed structure, unlock the site’s hidden narratives, and appreciate its historical importance despite the lack of visible restoration.   

The archeologist who accompanied us at Sihunchen pointed out the red paint on the rock that was still intact.

Balancing Restoration and Authenticity: Commitment to Preserving Cultural Heritage  

My journey through these sites deepened my commitment to becoming an art conservator. Witnessing the challenges faced by Mexico’s archaeological sites and the necessity of preserving our cultural heritage intensified my desire to contribute to conservation efforts. The progression from Chichen Itza’s extensive restoration to Uxmal’s minimal intervention and Sihunchen’s untouched state prompted profound reflections on the delicate balance between restoration and authenticity. While restoration efforts can revive the past and create visually impressive sites, they also raise questions about the degree of intervention and potential loss of original materials. Restoration efforts revive the magnificence of ancient structures, providing a tangible link to the past. However, in certain cases, such as Sihunchen, the decision to preserve the natural decay serves to honor the authenticity of the site. As aspiring art conservators, we must navigate this balance, employing our expertise to conserve while respecting the inherent beauty and historical significance of cultural artifacts.      

This was an archeological site on Chichen Itza that was still being dug up, which I imagine will be restored like the other buildings on the site.    

My exploration of Uxmal, Sihunchen, and Chichen Itza illuminated the intricacies of restoration and conservation in Mexico. From the challenges posed by limited funding and the government’s prioritization to the importance of balancing restoration and authenticity, the journey underscored the significance of preserving Mexico’s cultural heritage. As I nurture my aspiration to become an art conservator, I am inspired to contribute to the conservation and protection of our world’s diverse cultural treasures.     

If you are interested in learning more about preserving cultural treasures, you can do it in Sicily! Learn about the Sicily Applied Biotechnology Program

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