Video: Decoding Maya Hieroglyphs with 3D Technology


The Peabody Museum has conducted archaeological research in the Maya site of Copan, Honduras, since the 1890s. One of Copan’s most iconic elements is a staircase made of over 620 blocks carved with Maya glyphs. Dating back to the eighth century CE, this stairway has captivated Mayanists since its discovery, but the meaning of its texts has remained a mystery—until now. Barbara Fash discusses how 3D technology and scholarly collaborations are merging to decode the Hieroglyphic Stairway, in conjunction with Honduran and international organizations aimed at conserving this World Heritage Site.

Barbara Fash, Director, Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions Program and the Gordon R. Willey Laboratory for Mesoamerican Studies, Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology

Recorded 11/08/17


[00:00:07.20] Welcome, everybody. It's my pleasure tonight to introduce Barbara Fash, an artist and director of the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions at the Peabody Museum. This is a key and important part of what the Peabody does, and is a unique program that we've had for many, many years. Barbara is also co-director of the Mesoamerican Lab and the Santander Program for Research and Conservation of Maya Sculpture.

[00:00:38.67] In her Corpus role, she carries on the Peabody's publication of the flagship catalog of hieroglyphic inscriptions, started by Ian Graham in 1968. And she's just published a new volume on a Cotzumalguapa sculpture, which is spectacular and has just rolled off the press. She's also curated numerous exhibits at the Peabody. Many of you have probably seen these over the years, including Fragile Memories, Distinguished Casts, Storied Walls, and the more recent Maya section of All the World Is Here. If you haven't seen it on our fourth floor, please come up and see it some time.

[00:01:18.39] In addition to museum works, she continues to build on her 40 years of research at the Maya Archeological site of Copan, Honduras, including as a creator of the Copan Sculpture Museum. We have a publication on that too. Most recently, Barbara has begun collaborating on analysis of a new Maya mural at the Plaza de Las Columnas project in Teotihuacan, Mexico, along with many articles and book chapters.

[00:01:45.33] Her publications include Precolumbian Water Management-- Ideology, Ritual, and Power with Lisa Lucero in 2006, and the Copan Sculpture Museum-- Ancient Maya Artistry in Stucco and Stone, the one I just mentioned, in 2011 with the Peabody Museum Press. In 2008, she was awarded the Hoja de Laurel de Oro in Honduras, and in 2015, the Orden del Pop in Guatemala, in recognition of her service in preserving and documenting the cultural heritage of Copan, Honduras.

[00:02:19.68] And as you'll learn tonight, she continues to develop new and interesting and cutting edge ways to record and study these Maya inscriptions. And we will see that tonight in Decoding Maya Hieroglyphs with 3D Technology. Please welcome Barbara Fash.

[00:02:37.11] [APPLAUSE]

[00:02:40.46] Thanks. All right. Well, thank you, everyone, for coming tonight. Thank you, Jeff. Thank you, Jane especially, for the invitation to speak about this subject. And I liked the staff's work so much with the poster that I took some of the color for my opening a slide here. So 3D technology is really everywhere now. And I just have one question. I won't ask any others, but I'm just curious. How many of you out there feel like you've had some experience with some aspect of 3D technology?

[00:03:22.41] Wow. I think 10 years ago had I asked that question, maybe two to five people might have raised their hand. So we've really come a long way over the years. And you might say 3D technology goes back to these stereo photographs from the 19th century, when people were taking views of objects, just a slightly different angle from each other and looking through those stereo lenses to create a 3D image that they could study.

[00:03:57.16] But today, I think we really think of 3D scanning and 3D models and fabrication. And that part of it really only got started in the cultural sector in about the 1990s. So before that, it was really, primarily, in industrial engineering and aerospace and car design. And then architecture and then CAD models. And then it slowly crept into the cultural sector, the cultural heritage sector. And now, it's really being developed so quickly that it's just amazing, the range of applications. It's used from movies and video games to people can home print toys.

[00:04:43.72] But on the other side of the spectrum, to medical science and for things like bio-tissue printing, bone replication. Maybe you've been at the dentist office and had a 3D scan of your teeth. And prosthetics and museums are using it more and more as well. So I think of 3D technology and cultural heritage as somewhere in between the home printing toys and bio-printing of tissue. We're sort of in the middle there. Why do we use it and how do we use it?

[00:05:21.15] Well, mainly it improves our accuracy and precision of documentation. So virtual files are really much simpler to share, and they take up a lot less physical space than the old method of making plaster casts, which you can see went from being stacked like this in Peabody's storage to being stacked like this in Peabody's storage. And suddenly, it takes up a lot more space to improve the storage. But we have-- I'm going to just show this little movie here, see if it'll work-- oops, it didn't. There we go.

[00:06:03.14] 3D objects like this, it really lets us zoom in on an object, farther than we can see with the naked eye. And so you're going to see in a moment that when this turns around, there's some really fine detail over here in the center, that little hole. And things like that, we can just barely see if we take a photograph or are looking at it in just regular time. So this kind of study of monuments and this preservation aspect of it is really what we've come to use, at least in the Mesoamerican and Maya hieroglyphic sector.

[00:06:48.29] We can also use it for replacing and replicating an original. So in the case of this wonderfully beautiful polychrome panel of stucco, modeled stucco at Copan-- we call it the Margarita panel-- it's way deep in a tunnel, and it's not something that we can let people in to see. And so making a 3D model of it is the best way to share it and also preserve it for the future. And here, it's being fabricated-- as you see at the bottom there-- for an exhibit that was at the University of Pennsylvania in 2012. It's just phenomenal that the subtractive method here that's being used could replicate the actual piece in very close proximity and precision to what the original looks like.

[00:07:42.52] We've also come a long way in computer performance, and that assists us with sharing 3D work. For example, on the web, we can share 3D PDFs or 3D models for all ranges of study. So I asked Alexandre Tokovinine, who was just graduating with his PhD back in 2007, to join the Corpus program and help head a 3D documentation program. And Alex is now at the University of Alabama, but we continue to collaborate.

[00:08:13.12] And this is one of the examples, a piece of stela that was missing and it's at the Met. And so we scanned it and then they were able to bring the piece to Mexico and reunite it with the original sculpture. And you can share it, like Alex has done with his class here on Sketchfab, where you can rotate that big, giant stucco frieze from Holmul that he scanned. And then-- you see those little numbers around it-- then his class can just click on a number and get some information about that section of the frieze.

[00:08:54.43] So I first became involved with 3D scanning 20 years ago in 1997. I hadn't really had any experience with it whatsoever before that. And the Honduran Institute of Anthropology asked me to figure out a way to make a copy of this famous monument, the Hieroglyphic Stairway at Copan. The reason was that we were losing it to erosion.

[00:09:19.85] So for anybody that's unfamiliar with Copan, I'll just point out where it is here on the map. And Copan is generally referred to as the southernmost Maya site. So you can see, it's at the very southern end of what's considered the Maya area. And it's very well known for these elaborate, freestanding monuments carved in the local volcanic tuff. You can see some of them in the photo there, in the stairway in the background.

[00:09:50.08] Copan has been a World Heritage Site since 1980, and the stairway was a major reason and a major factor in this designation. Now, you see the map of the Copan Valley and all the settlement there. They're settlements that go back as early as 1400 B.C. But the main part of the site is that sort of black area in the center that says, principal group, and the hieroglyphic stairway is there in that part of it.

[00:10:21.37] So the stairway is the longest hieroglyphic inscription in the New World. It rises 26 meters from the plaza floor. And pictures just don't prepare you for what it's like when you get there in person and you see this monumental text just rising in front of you. Today, it's reconstructed as 64 steps. It has a altar at the base. Let me see if I can point this out. I think we have to turn this on. Turn on. There we go. OK. There we go.

[00:11:01.12] So there's the altar at the base. OK. And this is the head, actually, of a mythological beast. We think of it as a centipede or an obsidian butterfly combination. And the body of this beast goes up the side balustrades here. And you can see it, maybe, better in this photo. There's these curling legs with obsidian signs in them. So it's really kind of a fiery beast. We think, possibly, a fire serpent, maybe like the Xiuhcoatl of the Aztec later on in time.

[00:11:37.93] But what's really interesting is its body encompasses this whole historical text. Now, it looks really nice, doesn't it? But this whole thing is totally out of order except for the first 15 steps. And the reason was because-- and we'll see in later photos-- the whole thing had tumbled down from earthquakes and landslides in ancient times. And so it was pieced back together like this in the 1930s and 40s.

[00:12:10.59] So I've had a 40-year involvement with the monument. I really inherited it. I didn't start the project. I didn't start working on it, I inherited a lot of material that was already done. And I began working in Copan when I was an illustrator on the Harvard Project that was under the direction of Professor Gordon Willey at the time in 1977 and '78.

[00:12:35.78] In that season, two epigraphers came to visit, Linda Schele and Peter Matthews. And my husband, Bill, and I went out with them to the steps. And listening to their excitement about the decipherment possibilities, it became clear someone really needed to draw this, because no one had attempted to do the entire text. And the erosion of the details, as you can see here, was happening faster than anyone even realized at that point.

[00:13:04.71] This is a photo I took in 2001, and this is a photo from the Peabody Museum's 19th century glass plate negative collection. And you can just see how much loss there is on this one particular glyph. So the Harvard Project was followed by a Honduran government project. And in 1978 and '79, I started to do a freehand scaled drawing of the monument.

[00:13:36.08] Now, we didn't have digital photos then. We didn't even have a darkroom. We had a camera, but it wasn't until later that I was able to then use photographs and trace over the photographs to make a more precise drawing. By 1999, though I was using digital technology to take my images and drawings of the stairway and make-- whoops, didn't want to do that-- this whole composite digitally put together-- this is a little bit zoomed in so you can see that I've numbered all of the different stairway blocks.

[00:14:14.99] And some of the blocks have one glyph unit on them and other ones are long and they have as many as five or six glyphs across them. Some of the glyph blocks are divided. So you have 2 and 1/2 glyphs or 2 and 3/4 glyphs or 1 and 1/4 glyph. So this is a key thing that we need to keep track of while we're working on the monument and putting it back together.

[00:14:43.64] I still had to produce a final inking of it at this point, and I thought, well, then I would be finished after that. But then, other important sets of documentation started to come to light. And this happened three different times. This one is here at the Peabody Museum. George Stuart, who is at the National Geographic Society, came across this in Mexico.

[00:15:11.21] And this is Raul Pavon Abreu's collection of the stairway. And he had an artist do a drawing of the whole monument. It's really not that helpful of a drawing because the person didn't understand the glyphs, but it gives us a fair idea. The measurements were good and the photographs were pretty good, also. And so this is a moment in time that we didn't have represented.

[00:15:40.79] So we went through all of these and I would comb them for more details that have since eroded. And the epigraphers and I would work together to add this back into my drawings. Now, I've likened this experience to sort of going up the down escalator, sometimes wondering if you're ever going to get to the top. So now, the technology has advanced again, and I'm revising the drawings using 3D models. And I'll get back to that a little bit later.

[00:16:15.63] So let's talk a minute about why this stairway is an important monument to understand and document. It's basically a large history book carved in stone. So from a point of history and language and social identity, it's hugely important. And in order to understand it and verify it, excavations were necessary, to reveal the depth of the construction history in this pyramid and how it came to be there. So you can see a cutaway section here. OK. And all of these different colored forms represent earlier building constructions underneath that final phase of the stairway.

[00:17:02.96] So let's take a minute and go to the discovery of the monument. So the first excavations into the steps were done by Alfred Maudslay in the late 1800s. He dug a trench up at the top, and the Peabody Museum's expedition from 1891 to 1900 essentially picked up the work after Maudslay. And this is what the mound looked like when the Peabody Museum got there and, unfortunately, cut down all the trees.

[00:17:31.34] But you can see Maudsley's trench there in the middle. And all of his back dirt that he threw over the stairway, that was visible. Now, this part of the stairway that's visible here is important, because it's part of the stairway that used to be up here and it slid down. And it has slumped down over the other part of the stairway that's still in place underneath here. And all of this stuff has just splayed out and tumbled down in all sorts of disarray.

[00:18:04.88] So Charles Bowditch, who you see down here, he was a benefactor of the museum and he funded most of this expedition. And he was very interested in Maya hieroglyphs. And he and Frederic Putnam then sent graduate students John Owens, George Byron Gordon, and Marshall Saville to carry out several seasons of fieldwork. And this glass plate negative, then, in the Peabody Museum's collection shows the progress that Gordon followed. He was respecting the original order of that slumped area. And here's the 15 steps that remained in situ. And then all of this is just the mess that is a complete jumble.

[00:18:50.33] Now, remember this, OK, because it's going to come up a little bit later. So he put it all out there on the grass like that and kept it in good order, really. This wasn't easy work at all. There weren't hotels or restaurants like they are today in Copan. These guys had to rely on going out and shooting game for meat, and relying mostly on tortillas and beans. They got sick a lot. They were bitten by plagues of ticks and mosquitoes. And tragically, John Owens-- this is the only photo we have of him-- he died in Copan, probably from yellow fever in the second season.

[00:19:32.48] These folks are-- that's Gordon there and this is George Shorkley and Edmund Lincoln. And this is Ismael Vallecido. So during the Fragile Memory exhibit work, we were able to identify many people that we didn't know previously in the photos. And one of them was this man, who is Don Juan Roman Cueva at age 27. And he, importantly, was the liaison to the Peabody Museum project. And when they weren't there, he was taking care of things. And when they were there, he was pretty much the manager of the project for them.

[00:20:12.10] He's posing here next to a statue that many of you probably know came to the Peabody Museum and is here in the collection. So let's jump ahead several decades and go to the 1930s and '40s, when they start to reconstruct the stairway. So the Carnegie Institution of Washington expedition-- Gustov Stromsvik who you see up in the corner there, Sylvanus Morley, he published this massive tome on the inscriptions of Copan, and Tatiana Proskouriokoff the Russian-born architect-- all went to work on working on the stairway.

[00:20:48.76] And they decided that it should be reconstructed and they decided to take that section that Gordon had laid out on the grass and put it back up in place. And then after they got that up, they decided well, we might as well do the rest. And so there put everything else up. But it was all out of order.

[00:21:08.35] But this iconic image that we now think of as the stairway is in everybody's minds, this beautiful watercolor that Tatiana Proskouriokoff painted. And it's lovely, but it's not exactly what it looked like. So we have to keep that in our mind or take it out of our minds, whatever you want to think as not being a total accurate representation of the stairway.

[00:21:36.22] And this man over here, Adan Cueva, he was Juan Roman's son at the time. He was a teenager when they were doing this work and he later became the second director of the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History. So one of the big bodies of data came from these earlier expeditions for us to work with.

[00:22:03.97] But it had been followed by a lot of projects that we have worked on here. Most recently, we're working with the Peabody Museum, the My Corpus project, the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, and the Institute of Anthropology and History in Honduras, using a Santander Bank grant that we have been granted for several years. And that is helping to promote the work that we're doing now.

[00:22:34.91] One of the biggest challenges is addressing the erosion of the monument. So these are some photos from the 1970s that show bio-growth on the stairway. It was heavily covered with lichens at this time. Unfortunately, at that point in time, a Smithsonian biologist thought a good idea would be to spray it with biocide. And so the whole stairway was sprayed and all of that lichen was killed and fell off.

[00:23:01.94] And we saw all kinds of things we hadn't seen before. But it also destabilized the stone, and so the little fissures where the roots of those lichens had been let water and other things in. And then they slowly started to flake off. So things started to erode all the faster. It's also been restored by the Carnegie with Portland cement, and so that wreaks havoc on it, because the salts from that gravitate through the stone and destabilize it even more.

[00:23:34.10] So our task is really complex, because even though we're interested in doing the recording of it, we have to always take preservation measures into account at all times. And unfortunately, some of the very most eroded blocks may never be able to be restored to their original location. This is a kind of extreme example of one of the steps, the lowest. It's the second step on the stairway.

[00:23:58.76] And you can see what happened. You have the 1895 image up there and then the 1946 images from the Pavon archive. And then some other government projects have done documentation of the whole thing. And in 2006, we did the first color register of the entire monument as well. But you just can see the gradual deterioration of that section on the left-hand side.

[00:24:30.24] So, 3D scanning. So in 1998, I had been put in touch with the Canadian Research Council through the Getty Conservation Institute. And they suggested that since they were doing some pioneering research in laser technology that maybe this could work for heritage applications for the stairway. So they came here to the Peabody Museum and they set up their equipment. And you can see this rail and two big heavy tripods. And it would cast a laser beam, more or less like this, across the monument.

[00:25:11.21] We found the results really intriguing, but the equipment was just way too cumbersome, and it also took a full nine days just to do that back then in 1998. And so clearly, we realized it wasn't ready for prime time on the stairs. So we waited some years. And eventually then, the Smithsonian Conservatory started to test different equipment. And they found that a 3D scanner using an optical structured light system was available and worked really wonderfully. Very high resolution and detailed 3D scans could be made of objects.

[00:25:52.67] So we went ahead and tested it. And as I said, I asked Alex to join the team, and then he started heading a 3D scanning documentation program that year. He trained a group of Honduran folks to work with him, and that's his team, and they continue to go around the Maya area and scan monuments. But one of the main tasks at the beginning was to scan the hieroglyphic stairway. Not a small task at all. So you can see that this equipment needs to operate in the dark. And so we're out there in the dark under the tarp. Everything had to be carried out after 5:00 PM.

[00:26:38.24] It really wasn't an easy task at the start. It took many hours in the dark and buggy nights. You can see the guy hitting his neck, you know. We had to figure out how to maximize the scanning process and protect the monument at the same time. So we had to do things like wrap the cable in a protective cloth. We put socks and protective things on the ends of the tripod. We had to always wear socks when we were up on the stairway. And we couldn't really have a table like that up there. So eventually, we had to design a table for use on the stairway.

[00:27:18.49] This is how the scanner works and this is what it looks like. This is the one we used, anyway. It has a projector in the middle and two cameras. And it projects a series of patterns like this onto the object. And then by triangulating it with the cameras, it's then brought into the equipment and software. And it then produces a scan of that part of the object. Now, you can have different fields of view. So you can have a scan this big or this big or this big, depending on the kind of object you're scanning and how much detail you're able to capture and want to capture.

[00:27:58.61] The blocks alone were a challenge. We wanted to do every block individually so we could then take that block and move it around later on, but the sculptures on the stairway were really very difficult. And so something like that altar at the bottom here, this giant, big piece, we wanted to do all in one model. And so that took 400 some odd scans just to do alone. You have to put the scanner at all different angles to capture every part of it, you don't want any gaps in it.

[00:28:31.46] The really wonderful thing about 3D models is that we can use different lighting situations on them and we can project, artificially, the light from different angles. And so that can pick up details that we wouldn't otherwise be able to see if you only took one photo. Or even if you just took photos with different lighting, you still wouldn't see the amount of detail that you're going to see in these models when you can zoom in on them.

[00:29:01.01] So the team worked only during the dry season. And so that meant that it took over four years for the whole thing to be scanned. And we're still completing the high-density processing of the models. Meanwhile, we can work with lower density models, such as the one you see here. This is the same block under different lighting conditions. And you can see, it really does change the way it looks. It almost looks like a different block completely altogether.

[00:29:31.05] That's the table that we designed with legs only on one side, and it would fold up and we could carry it up and down the stairway. This is a real masterpiece of the first model and reconstruction of many, many scans of individual blocks that Alex united into one model. And it's a digital version, then, of the lowermost 15 steps. And that was, basically, what the Peabody Museum expedition found in situ.

[00:30:09.38] Now, of course, everyone had a lot of curiosity about what we were doing. And so we invited people out to watch. But they discovered that watching a 3D scanning of little sections was really pretty boring and repetitive. So let me just give you a sense of what that's like. That's it. Want to see that again? You do that over and over and over again, all night long. So audiences don't last very long.

[00:30:54.49] Now, the files are very large, often, and they can take a long time to process. And so even though we wanted to capture as much as we could on the stairway and other monuments, we had to set some guidelines for ourselves, because people were getting so excited they would just, oh, let's scan an entire site. And we're like, oh, wait a minute.

[00:31:18.15] So these are the guidelines we set down, is that first and foremost, we were going to scan for preservation reasons. So if something was going to be at risk in some way, then we would make an effort to scan it, so that that would be recorded. We also would scan thing for decipherment needs. So the stairway kind of fit both of these. But there's also some monuments that people were specifically studying, and they really wanted to have high-resolution and high-definition scans of it.

[00:31:48.72] But we also wanted to make sure that everything we scanned could be saved in multiple archives, because you don't want to have gone through all this work and you don't want to have just digital copies in one place. You really need several places. And you need the ability to have that data migrated in the future. So many of you, I'm sure, know about data migration, and that if you don't migrate your data in 10, 15, 20 years, you're not going to even be able to access it.

[00:32:15.73] Well, we don't want that to happen, because we were trying to save the information of the stairway as it's eroding. And this is the only way to do it. So you could print copies, but we didn't want to have people printing lots and lots of copies of things either, because that decreases the value of the original. So only when they're needed was our guideline.

[00:32:41.27] Now, just to show you a different type of scan, this is a 3D range scan of the entire stairway. And we carried this out so that we would have a basis, a structural basis for how to reconstruct it in 3D space. And our scanner could not handle this. It could not do an entire building, it's much too high resolution and detailed. The amount of triangles is much too dense. This is much less dense and a lower resolution, but it has its use also. So it's important to know that different scanners are useful for different things. There's not one that's going to do everything for you.

[00:33:25.05] That's the range scanner up there on the building of the ball court near the stairway. And that's just an example over here of just-- we have the outline of the stairway, but we don't have any of the details from that. Now, the scans also allow us to make new technical drawings, and this is what I'm in the process of producing now. And we do a lot of our drawing now, we do all of our drawing now on these pen displays, a digital drawing.

[00:33:58.60] And anybody who's still using pen and ink is going to have difficulty, because in this manner, you can snap together lots of layers of different photos and versions of a monument and then you can toggle between them and do your scan right there on the computer. And you don't have to scan it later, you can just draw right on the computer. And this increases the precision, so you're not distorting anything on other scans. It takes a while to learn to draw this way after you've been used to pen and ink, but there's many, many advantages.

[00:34:39.04] So we'll be eventually publishing the stairway and a whole set of the images in the Corpus. This is a sort of sample mock up page of what that might look like. We would include all of the different photo documentation of every block. And then, the drawing would be up in the corner. And the reason for doing all of that is so that people can follow the progression of erosion. And if we've added any details into the drawing, then you can verify where that information is coming from.

[00:35:13.04] And it would be really nice to then use all four different lighting directions that we've set up for the 3D models as well. Now, you can see down here from this photo just how important lighting is. This is a piece in the Peabody Museum, photographed with two different lighting methods. And they look completely different. And obviously, you need something that's going to bring out the details with raking light.

[00:35:44.46] So what does the stairway say, you might be wondering. So as I said, those of us today, we've inherited a lot of work that was done previously on the monument. The early explorers, they were really interested in the dates. Pretty much that was all that anybody had deciphered up to that point. And so we started with a number of historical dates that Gordon and Bowditch had put together. And they published in one of the first Peabody memoirs, in 1902. But they really didn't know at that time what the dates referred to, other than a point in time. They didn't have the other information that went with it.

[00:36:28.70] By the 1980s though, David Stuart and Linda Schele had figured out the names of many of the rulers and the dynastic history from this monument, Altar Q, at Copan. And there's a cast of it up on the third floor. But basically, it's a progression of the rulers in order around the monument. And the exciting thing that started happening as we were working on the stairway and trying to do some of the early decipherment on it was that some of these ruler names started to appear on the stairway.

[00:37:05.94] So in 2006, we started a series of workshops with epigraphers David Stuart and Steve Houston and Simon Martin, who maybe you heard his talk in September. These were funded through Harvard's David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies and the Peabody Museum. And here, you see us poring over the newly-scanned and digitized glass plate negatives. So this collection at the Peabody Museum from the 19th century expedition produced glass plates that are 6 by 8 inches. And that's all we had ever been able to see is, basically, a contact sheet or a contact print of that photo. And so with the digital images, we were able to zoom in to them in a way that we had never been able to before.

[00:37:53.58] This was all funded by NEH research project at the museum in 2006 and 7. 2005 and 6, excuse me. So this is a turning point in our understanding of the stairway, because in those glass plate negatives, we realized for the first time that our slumped section there, that slid over the altar and the stairway at the bottom, is a front view in the background of these photos. And it always had just looked like a blur in the back. And suddenly, we were able to zoom in and see details on that that we hadn't been able to see before.

[00:38:34.84] So there's really a revelation in these photos, that we figure out that this photo on the right is taken by Owens and his first expedition work when he started working on the stairway. And this part here is different than five years later when Gordon, after Owen's death, goes back to work on the stairway, and he's starting to lower the blocks.

[00:39:06.93] And you can see all of that there, on the left side, is the washout of this. And it's fallen back over, there's the altar just peeking out of all of that wash that's come down. So all of this material here, we lost. And when Gordon laid all of that material out on the grass, he didn't have that information there. So we got very excited and started to be able to zoom in and identify some of those blocks.

[00:39:37.19] So using the current stairway and the drawings we have here, then we were able to do a reconstruction of what the parts in situ that we could see from the glass plate negatives were. And then we had all these leftovers. And this is the area in the glass plate negative we just saw previously, that we were able to reconstruct that many glyph blocks.

[00:40:04.40] So any of you who have done puzzles, you know the more you fit together, the fewer there are left options for the other things. So as we work, we get closer and closer to getting the real thing put together. But also, this prompted us to have to go back to the field and check some of the details, because we're seeing things on the glass plate negatives and we were trying to verify if they were still there on the monument.

[00:40:35.51] So all of this, and especially the slumped section revelation, led David Stuart to making a new photo mosaic reconstruction. And around the same time, the idea was solidifying that there were two versions of the stairway and two construction phases. And one was built initially to cover the tomb or to commemorate the tomb of Ruler 12 and his reign. And he died in 695. And then his son, Ruler 13, dedicated the first stairway in 710. His son, Ruler 13, is Waxaklahun Ubah K'awil. We can now read his name, but some of you may know his earlier nickname, which was 18 Rabbit.

[00:41:22.51] In the final version then, there's an addition to the early stairway, and it's still referred to as the steps of Ruler 12. So each version is a self-contained text, but they're complementary inscriptions. Now, the seam of those two versions is somewhere in the middle of that slump. And it's not at the right height on the stairway now, but you can see that this is the area of that slump that is still the intact pieces of the steps that had slid down.

[00:41:58.76] Now, both dedicatory passages can be read with the verb potwan, which means to build or to shape. And so that's how they describe the making of the stairway, as potwan [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH], which means built are the steps of the burial of the Copan lord. So later in the dedication by Ruler 15, they repeat this. And that dedication is then in 755.

[00:42:32.86] So we also came to see that there were two distinct carving styles on the monument and they are five decades apart. And the first one is this more ornate style over here. And you can see the really fine details, smaller glyph blocks. And then this later style, that becomes a little smoothed out and puffy and is larger blocks. So this is key to us, because then we can start to divide the blocks into which style they fall into.

[00:43:04.12] We did a paper, a chapter in the RES journal about this, Steve Houston and Dave Stuart and myself, on the hands, masterful hands on the stairway. We have to remember that decipherment really goes hand in hand with excavations, and so one informs the other. Once the basic dynasty of Copan was clearly worked out in the 1980s from Altar Q, then we started to do excavations into the other layers of these pyramids. And monuments started to be found that cross-referenced some of the information on the stairway in some of the earlier temples.

[00:43:47.65] So as I said, Bill Fash directed the excavations over several decades of the entire structure. And he directed tunnels into the pyramidal structure and found these earlier constructions. And these all support the historical data that's on the stairway. So tunnels were really important in figuring out some of the continuity in this one particular space. So these are some of the early monuments as they were buried. These tunnels have recently been 3D mapped by Laura Lacombe who's working with us on a conservation program with the Institute of Anthropology.

[00:44:29.60] So this was an exciting discovery near the base, one of the earliest buildings down here at the bottom of the stairway sequence. This is what we call the Motmot marker. It's the earliest dated monument at Copan that we know of. And it shows the founder, over here, and his son, Ruler 2. And there's a set of hieroglyphs in the middle there. And they're performing a baktun ritual, at a period ending of 400 years. That is very important for the Maya calendar.

[00:45:03.47] But unlike the stairway references, this is a contemporary monument to his reign. So it's great, because for the first time, we have absolute verification that he was a historical figure. And likewise, this monument cites Ruler 4. That's his name, we've done a 3D scan because it's a strange monument. It's laying sideways and it's very difficult to read it or draw it. So the 3D scan really helps us change the orientation and see the inscription more clearly.

[00:45:37.02] And then, of course, the tomb of Ruler 12 was discovered and confirmed under this sequence, which is what the steps are actually commemorating in the first and second versions. He was buried with these large effigy figures. Well, they're about this large, and they are the lids to pots. And they were found in four quarters around the tomb. And there are 12 different images, and we interpret that to be like an Altar Q in clay at that point in time.

[00:46:13.77] They were found crushed, and so they've been carefully and painstakingly restored over the years by Honduran restoration specialist Antonia Martinez. So it became clearer that the earlier dates that the 19th century people, like Gordon and Bowditch had been putting together, that Morley had put together with the Carnegie Institution, that these really were the accessions and deaths of specific rulers. And a pattern starts to develop, where we have accession of a ruler, the death of a ruler. The accession, the death, and so forth. And these were the ones that we could figure out the most clearly at the beginning. The rest are somewhere within the jumbled parts.

[00:46:58.95] But there's other information in the stairway too, that we haven't quite fit together where it actually goes. Now, K'inich Yax K'uk'Mo' is the founder's name, and his accession has been assembled by David Stuart. All these red squares represent the blocks in here, and you can see they're all over the stairway. But it goes together in one phrase. And he has part of it over here in his reconstruction.

[00:47:31.72] There's also the death of Ruler 13 that happened, and that's when the second version started to be made after his death. We know he died at the hands of Quirigua and that these are some of the war references to that event. So like I said, the more you fit together, the fewer possibilities you have. So it keeps us going.

[00:48:01.57] And right now, we feel we have about 20 steps that we still need to reconstruct from the loose pieces. And there's also a outset panel that we believe goes up here. So that would look very different on the stairway, and may have been where some of the rituals, like a new fire ceremony, might have taken place.

[00:48:24.74] So how do we reassemble this? Originally I had planned to reconstruct the stairway virtually on a computer. I don't know what I was thinking. If anybody has gone online and ever tried to open a 3D model, you know how long it might take to load. And then you start to turn it and it doesn't respond. Can you imagine moving over 600 blocks into virtual space on a computer, trying to do it that way? We'd still be watching one move across the screen, I think.

[00:48:58.63] So I decided instead that we should do a 3D print of everything. And we started to printed out at a scale of 1 to 10, which is what I did my drawings at. And we started doing it with a maker bot, you know. And we thought we could, oh yeah, we can do it with a maker bot. It takes a long time. One of these can take hours and hours and hours, and jams. And it just wasn't working, so we eventually had to outsource to a company that could give us a lot more quick results and get everything.

[00:49:35.41] But importantly, we had to close our models. So if this is the stairway, we had basically the top and the front of every riser scanned. It's like a little shell and you can't print that. You have to close your model. And so we started thinking, well, we'll make a rectangle and we'll have a bunch of little blocks.

[00:49:58.27] But it was incredibly difficult to make those rectangles. We had an intern working with us, Catarina Oreglia, and she was just experimenting with everything. But in the end, we decided the best thing to do is just to close it this way and make a triangle and fill it that way. And that works great, because then we can lay it out on the stairway like this, on a table like this, and put raking light across it and work with it this way.

[00:50:24.25] So that's on the table in our lab. And I made a map of every single block and numbered every single block. And so we could then lay out the pieces as they were produced on that map. And there's the whole thing. Now, we've put some of this on display for you on the fourth floor, in the exhibit on the 150th. And if you get a chance, go up there and look. Here's a little sneak preview of that Maya section that Jeff was mentioning. And you can see George Byron Gordon's pages from the Peabody memoir, and sort of see the progression of technology right there.

[00:51:09.99] So this is always a team effort. And Dave Stuart, Alex Tokovinine, Bill Fash. And Laura Lacombe now has joined the group, and she's been helping to close the models so that we could print them all. And also, doing that 3D mapping of the tunnels in Copan, and she's completed that now. But also, Floyd Lounsbury and Linda Schele were really important figures early on. They both passed away, but they were instrumental in helping figure out some of the Rulers' names and dates, and just verbs and other events that were in the Maya hieroglyphs.

[00:51:53.12] So you can just follow our process here a little bit. We start to reconstruct and take apart the one on the table. So you see the one we had all laid out, and then we started to take it apart and match it to the different reconstructions that David had of various parts of the stairway. And then, we start renumbering with Roman numerals these new steps. And we have different sections. And then we can move them around, but it's a lot of pieces and a lot of material to keep organized.

[00:52:26.90] And then we found out oh, we forgot a few things. And we had to go back into the Peabody collection and scan a few other things that had been overlooked the first time. Now, one thing about the 3D scans that we found out was just fantastic is that once these blocks are three-dimensional, you're getting breaks and things in the rocks in the back that you wouldn't see in a two-dimensional image.

[00:52:53.07] So you can see how we can fit something like this together, because there's a really nice seam there. Well, that would work fine in a photograph or a drawing, but this one is an example of there's a big gap there. And if you had a two-dimensional image only of that, you wouldn't see that the break in the back actually fits them snugly together. So this is a way to confirm some of the fits that we think we might be making.

[00:53:21.33] So here's where we are now. This is the part that we have not yet fit in. So it looks like more than 20 steps, but really once we get it all sandwiched together, it'll probably be around 20 steps that we still have to figure out. And as I said, some of the glyph blocks are split and divided, and so we can reduce some of the possibilities by just working with things like that.

[00:53:51.69] So what have we learned about the stairway in this whole process? We now know the text is a record of the Copan dynastic history, and earlier monuments corroborate the stairway's narrative. That different sculptural hands carved the text, which can help guide us in the reassembly process. That we know the stairway was constructed in two phases for different political purposes, and we know the names of rulers and key events in their lives. That the first stairway was dedicated to Ruler 12, and his resting place was a tomb in an earlier construction. And he was a revered ancestor, an historic figure. And he's honored again in the second edition of this stairway.

[00:54:31.22] And we cannot stop the stairway from deterioration, much as we would like to think we can. It's going to deteriorate with time. So all we can really do is slow the process and hope that even better technologies will be able to be applied to it in the future. What we've done with the 3D scans and our replication is to basically freeze it at a point in time.

[00:54:55.01] Now, some new technologies may be possible to use photogrammetry-- which is essentially stereo images-- to actually clip on a 2D image from the glass plate negatives and create a 3D model that looks like it was carved yesterday. It would be like stepping back in time. It'd be so cool. But believe it or not, the glass plate negatives have really proven as at least as valuable as the 3D technology in decoding the hieroglyphic stairway. So it's just amazing what a combination of the technologies will bring you.

[00:55:31.56] But what's really evident after all this work is that each generation is going to face challenges of migrating this amazing historical text into the future and saving it. Some of the next steps would be to take it from the printing stage, which we can only do in a small scale, and do it to larger, subtractive manufacturing. This may not happen in my career. It's a huge endeavor, and it's something I may need to pass on to the next generation of scholars. But one thing we that I've learned, and even though we may individually arrive at the top of that escalator some day, it's only one stage, and really, a constant progression of study on this monument. And I think it'll most likely continue indefinitely. So thank you for listening.