This post is part of the series Excavating Archaeology, which features selections from, and research on, the Jay I. Kislak Collection of the Archaeology & History of the Early Americas and related collections, housed in the Geography and Map Division and in the Rare Book & Special Collections Division of the Library of Congress.
Break a vase, and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than that love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole. –Derek Walcott, The Antilles : fragments of epic memory : the Nobel Lecture.
Archaeology is the story of fragments—what survives and what does not. It is the task of re-building worlds, cultures, and works of art, from the bits that happen to have made it through wars, natural disasters, and the immense destructive power and deep forgetfulness of time. Because things break, shatter, decay, and get separated, history can be a kind of jigsaw puzzle–especially for archaeologists.
Tatiana Proskouriakoff (1909-1985) knew a lot about fragments and archaeological jigsaw puzzles. She was one of the great archaeologists of the last century, whose work on both the Mayan language and the reconstruction of jade objects, found in the Cenote of Sacrifice, at Chichen Itza, in the Yucatan of Mexico, are considered to be two of the outstanding accomplishments of modern archaeology in the Americas.
Initially educated as an architect, she went to work for the University of Pennsylvania Museum, drawing reconstructions of the architectural remains at the Maya site of Piedras Negras in 1936.
Starting in 1958 until her death, she was a curator at the Peabody Museum at Harvard University and worked during that time on the reconstruction of Maya jade objects dredged up from the watery depths of the Cenote of Sacrifice. The Cenote, a large, deep, and water-filled sinkhole, contained a vast array of jade, wooden objects, animal bones, tools, jewelry, gold, human remains, and textiles, and is one of the richest Maya archaeological sites in the Yucatan of Mexico.
The jades found in the Cenote were recovered by the archaeologist Edward H. Thomas between 1910 and 1917. For the most part the jade was highly fragmentary, and had to be reconstructed, like a jigsaw puzzle made of thousands and thousands of pieces. Their fragmentary nature came about because they shattered from thermal shock, having been heated on the coals of an incense burner, before being cast as offerings into the sacred waters of the Cenote.
Jade was traded widely in Mesoamerica and was one of the most important stones to the ancient Maya. The trade routes upon which it moved are still not well understood nor are the beginnings of its use and carving. The jades studied by Proskouriakoff came from across the Maya world as the Cenote at Chichen Itza was a popular pilgrimage site, and so contained many styles, colors, and forms of this important mineral.
Proskouriakoff presented the fruits of her nearly 20 years of research on the jades found by Thompson, along with her reconstructions, in a book entitled, Jades from the Cenote of Sacrifice, Chichen Itza, Yucatan, published by the Peabody Museum for Archaeology and Ethnography, in 1974.
It is a book of seminal importance. The reconstruction of the shattered jades was a painstaking and long process. She writes,
Very few pieces are even approximately complete, and the majority remained in disarticulated parts. In order to make the nature of their designs clear, it was necessary to reconstruct the missing portions. […] The object, however, was not to restore the original appearance of the pieces, but only to clarify the nature of the surviving fragments.
Looking at any page in the book shows just how fragmentary each of these jades pieces are. The gray sections of each drawing represent the reconstructed areas, added in as speculations, only after Proskouriakoff reunited the surviving small fragments.
The Kislak Collection, at the Library of Congress, contains many examples of the kind of jade that Proskouriakoff reconstructed and her work has been critical to determining their origin. The jade she worked with consisted of more than 3,700 nearly complete or restorable jade pieces. And with an additional 15,000 fragments, it was an archaeological jigsaw puzzle of considerable size, with a complexity, like few others.
Fragments of objects and sherds of pottery are by far the most numerous kinds of objects found in archaeological digs, and present a reconstruction challenge for anyone trying to study them. Recently, I gave a talk and seminar at the Scholar’s Lab and Interdisciplinary Archaeology Program at the University of Virginia, on how modern researchers are beginning to use three-dimensional modeling and what are called Markov Random Fields, to reconstruct archaeological fragments in a way that might be more efficient than the eye-balling methods used by Proskouriakoff. Countless researchers have spent countless hours, over the last century, working to reconstruct and illustrate collections of jade fragments, sherds of pottery and even large chunks of monumental carvings in museums around the world.
Today, using laser scanning and photogrammetry, fragments of almost any object can be modeled in three-dimensions and mathematically characterized in a way that allows groups of fragments, found as assemblages in archaeological context, to be matched and rebuilt by computer.
By looking at the kind of quadratic surfaces that make up a fragment, which is, simply put, a measure of how the geometry curves and changes across it, these kinds of digital reconstruction methods are helping to bring the slow and difficult task of rebuilding things like vases, ancient inscriptions, and monuments into the realm of computational tractability.
New algorithms from computer vision (the same technology that may one day drive your car) are shortening the time it takes to reconstruct damaged archaeological finds and are allowing the creation of dramatic visualizations of objects that had previously been incomplete or known only from pieces. Many of these computational tools are in their early stages of development, with new kinds of geometric modeling and visualization now being applied experimentally to a wide variety of objects–all to help archaeologists solve complex reconstruction puzzles, like those faced by Tatiana half a century ago.