Two rivers, terraced lush sloping hills and soil rich with volcanic ash and iron drew the Olmec and later Maya tribes to settle at the site now known as Takalik Abaj outside El Asintal in Guatemala. The site, which means "Standing Stones," features several lush terraces and a great variety of carved stonework featuring glyphs, Mayan script and images of deities and kings.
I was invited to join a team of archaeologists led by Travis Doering and Lori Collins and their graduate students who were working on a National Science Foundation grant – “The Takalik Abaj Stone Monument Project.” Archaeology typically conjures notions of lost tombs, scientists in tan fedoras digging with spades and pick axes. Our work at Takalik Abaj, which is a national park in Guatemala, focused on using short and long range laser scanners and photography in tandem to capture a total corpus of data for use by researchers and students of Meso-American antiquity.
Despite falling ill three days prior to departure and then while on site coming down with a 24-hour illness that left me feverish with seasick symptoms, I rallied and was able to pull my weight for the project. I concentrated on location photography — documenting the stela, glyphs and monuments using location lighting and light raking — from Wednesday, February 24 to Monday, March 1. Using Nikon’s Creative Lighting System (CLS) along with OnOne’s Remote DSLR software for the iPhone, I was able to set up complex two and three-strobe photo set ups and then trigger the camera on the tripod remotely via the iPhone using Liveview mode. This proved incredibly effective for capturing overhead angles of Mayan altars, stela and glyphs.
Headquarters for the project was Finca Buenos Aires, a coffee plantation that sits on a terrace not 200 yards from the park. The farm is owned by Felippe Guzman, a close friend of Professor Doering, and is the home to more than 80 people who tend the coffee harvest and rubber tree farming. Constructed from a 1913 Sears and Roebuck kit house, the hacienda overlooks a pair of volcanoes and features a wraparound porch complete with a handmade hammock. The deafening whine of the chicharra, a Guatemalan cicada that is hatched from the ground and lives a short life burrowing into palm trees, permeated our evening gatherings around the laptops on the porch.
To complete the project and acquire as complete of data set as possible, we spent the majority of the second week at the National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography photographing stela and monuments from Takalik Abaj that are housed in the museum’s permanent collection. Due to technical difficulties with one of the short range scanners at the museum, the team relied on my abilities with a new technique known as Reflectance Transformation Imagery (RTI). RTI is a technique that uses variable light positions from more than 50 still images to create a file that acts much like a laser scan. Once the file is completed, a viewer can control and rake light from a variety of angles to reveal surface detail on the stones that cannot be seen with the naked eye. With the amazing results that often come from scanners, it’s nice to know that still imagery, and now RTI, remains an important component and tool in the H3D arsenal.
The trip concluded with a short jaunt over the mountains to Antigua, the old city and former epicenter of the Central American Spanish kingdom. Truly a photographer’s dream, Antigua is home to more than 500 churches, the majority of which are in a state of ruined grandeur due to the seismic grumblings of the volcanoes that encircle it. Known as the “land of eternal spring,” Antigua’s dwellings are shaped with open-air courtyards as architectural centerpieces as the cool mountain air keeps the temperature calming and cool.
With the approach of holy week, the pre-festivities were beginning with parades in the evening and I was fortunate to stumble into two of them to make pictures. The color in the evenings, enhanced by the smoke of burning cane fields on the coastal plain that drift between the peaks, was rich with saturation. Women in the traditional Mayan traje, rich hand-woven colorful textiles, sell their wares in open air markets and often get annoyed at camera-toting tourists who snap their portrait without paying a stipend or making a donation.
The most pervasive memory I have of those final days in Antigua is not of the motorcycle that I nearly flipped on a tangled mess of rock and dirt that locals mislabeled a road. Instead, it came on an unexpected late evening walk back to the Casa Noble hotel when we passed the open air former laundry fountain called Tanque de la Union. Here, in the sodium vaporlight, a woman in a bridal dress and flip flops sat atop one of the central wash basins, her body framed in the archway, her veiled head sunken into her hands. As we drew close, it became apparent that here was the denouement of an incomplete ceremony.
The camera hung at my side and, for a brief second, I reached for it but couldn’t bring it to my eye as the enormity of that moment shook me. I let it fall to my side and continued up the cobbled streets.
For more information on the project:
The Expedition Journal for the project appears here: http://aistexpeditionjournal.wordpress.com/
The Alliance for Integrated Spatial Technologies Flickr page with documentary images of the field work can be accessed here:
USF web site article on the project:
NSF Grant page:
Background info on Takalik Abaj:
USF Oracle newspaper article: