The National Pre-Columbian Mural Heritage Conservation Program

The National Pre-Columbian Mural Conservation Program was implemented in 2010 by the National Anthropology and History Institute’s Cultural Heritage Conservation division. [1] The National Anthropology and History Institute (INAH) “researches, preserves and disseminates the archaeological, anthropological, historical and paleontological nation to strengthen the identity and memory of what holds society.”[2] The program, designed to preserve Mexico’s Pre-Columbian mural paintings, has executed a number of projects since its launch. [1] The program has examined and executed work at 101 sites—covering 133 square meters—restoring pictorial manifestations that are of historical importance to Mexico. [1] The program set out to begin in a number of archaeological areas including: “Calakmul, Campeche; Tlatelolco, Mexico City; Cholula, Puebla, and Mayapan, Yucatan.”[3] Teotihuacan is another region where the INAH are promoting conservation, as it is believed that “‘this ancient city was one of the most decorated (with murals and paintings) of the ancient world.’”[4] Advancement in conservation technology is an important factor in the Pre-Columbian Mural Conservation Program, allowing experts to perform newer, effective treatments and ultimately leading to the recovery of Mexican cultural heritage. The program aims to preserve murals that display “impeccable craftsmanship and unique iconography” as well as those that are of “great historical and aesthetic value.”[1] Restoring and publicizing these early murals gives Mexicans an identity to relate to, and a connection with their cultural past.

Before any technology can be put into action, careful planning and processes must be executed in order to ensure the most appropriate future for each mural or mural fragment. [5] After the death of San Francisco architect Harold Wagner, who had illegally removed 70 fragments of Pre-Columbian murals from Teotihuacan, his collection went to the Fine Arts Museums in San Francisco. [5] The fragments retained much of their original colour, with “some root damage to the surface which left squiggly marks where pigment had been pulled away,” as well as a slight mineral build-up. [5] The INAH was in collaboration with what became the Teotihuacan Mural Project, which set out to restore the mural fragments. [5] Before any restoration can be done, curators must pre-determine what type of environment the mural fragments will be exposed to. [5] The result of this process limits the type of the treatment that will be performed. [5] The final decision should allow the mural to be easily exhibited, transported and stored while keeping it accessible from all angles. [5] Once the pre-treatment decisions have been made, experts can restore and exhibit the restored art for the public enjoyment. Following the restoration of the Teotihuacan mural fragments, 55 of them were sent back to Mexico and exhibited in February of 1986. [5]

Once a mural has been examined thoroughly, depending on the composition of the piece, experts can move forward with treatments. To better understand the restoration process, it is beneficial to recognize the traditional methods that were used to consolidate wall paintings, as well as the specific damages that require fixing. Over time, wall paintings develop cracks, and their initial porousness deteriorates. [6] To solve this, limestone was burned into quicklime, which, when mixed with water produced hydrated lime. [6] The hydrated lime was typically mixed with sand and water forming a mortar. [6] This mortar was effective in preventing cracks and keeping the wall paintings porous. [6] However, lime mortars do not hold up well to salt crystallization processes as they are weak mechanically. [6] Salt contamination was a significant issue in regards to Pre-Columbian murals as it has an extreme effect on frescoes. In frescoes, because the paint layer is directly between the wall and the environment, it is highly susceptible to salt crystallization. [6]

Due to the ineffectiveness of traditional preservation methods, scientists have turned to the use of inorganic materials to minimize risk and prevent “unexpected side effects.” [6] With the use of chemically stable inorganic materials, paintings remain porous allowing for the treatment to last longer. [6] With the advancement of technology, experts have discovered improved restoration methods. Dr. Piero Baglioni, a professor at University of Florence, works with “applying nanotechnology to preserve cultural goods, allowing stabilization of pictorial work in several archaeological sites in Mexico.” [3] The introduction of nanoparticles has brought on a significant improvement in conserving Pre-Columbian wall paintings. [6] Encyclopædia Britannica defines nanotechnology as “the manipulation and manufacture of materials and devices on the scale of atoms or small groups of atoms.” [7] This [link]i shows the result of nanoparticle treatment after six months of application. [6] “Nanotechnology is an effective method for consolidating wall paintings as it uses smaller particles, so they are able to penetrate the thin layer of paint more accurately. [6]

A recent example of a successful wall painting restoration occurred in El Tajin, where the INAH restored a mural building. [8] The process, beginning in 2007, spanned over 3 years and resulted in the removal of a layer of salt which had built up over the wall painting [link]ii. [8] From this project, the INAH restoration team restored 30 linear metres of wall painting [link]iii. The article emphasizes the uncovering of the original colour, which is symbolic in reuniting its iconography with the public. [8]

The Pre-Columbian period was conceived as “glorious” and harmonious, like a “Golden Age.” [9] By restoring the wall paintings and making them available to the public, Mexicans can visualize their cultural identity, strengthening the connection between the locals and their heritage. [10] Daan Hoekstra, a muralist and independent researcher, stresses the need to protect Pre-Columbian wall paintings as change and modernization are eroding “cultural, natural, and intangible heritage around the world,” specifically in Mexico. [11] Hoekstra emphasizes a how important it is to protect these bits of cultural heritage as they are at risk of disappearing. [11]

Robyn Gilles

Works Cited

  1. “Mexican Specialists Work to Preserve Pre-Columbian Murals” Hispanically Speaking News, August 9, 2012.
  2. “Who Are We?” Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, July 11, 2012.
  3. “Prehispanic Mural Painting Conservation Program Announced.”, February 25, 2010.
  4. “Mexico’s National Institute of Archaeology and History announces Mural Painting Conservation Project.”, June 3, 2013.
  5. Bone, Lesley. “Teotihuacan Mural Project.” WAAC Newsletter 3 (1986): 2-7,
  6. Giorgi, Rodorico, Moira Ambrosi, Nicola Toccafondi, and Piero Baglioni. “Nanoparticles for cultural heritage conservation: calcium and barium hydroxide nanoparticles for wall painting consolidation.” Chemistry-A European Journal 16, no. 31 (2010): 9374-9382.
  7. Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s. v. “nanotechnology.” Accessed November 21, 2013.
  8. “RECOVER TOTONACOS COLORFUL MURALS AND SYMBOLISM.” Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, September 30, 2010.
  9. Sullivan, Edward. Latin American Art in the Twentieth Century (New York: Phaidon Press Limited: 2000), 22.
  10. Park, Shoshaunna, Patricia A. McAnany, and Satoru Murata. “The Conservation of Maya Cultural Heritage: Searching for Solutions in a Troubled Region.” Journal of Field Archaeology. no. 4 (2006): 425-432.
  11. Hoekstra, Daan. “Fresco: Intangible heritage as a key to unlocking the links between the conservation of biological and cultural diversity in Alamos,” International Journal of Intangible Heritage 5 (2010): 69.

Other References

“What is Intangible Cultural Heritage?” UNESCO, 2012.

Referenced Images

Link i:

Link ii:

Link iii:

This entry was posted in archaeology, INAH, Mexico, Mural conservation, nanotechnology, National Anthropology & History Institute Heritage Conservation, Teotihuacan, wall paintings. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The National Pre-Columbian Mural Heritage Conservation Program

  1. robyngilles says:

    Reblogged this on Robyn's Hood.


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