Reconstructing archaeological ruins

Submitted by Sammy Smith (

One thing we have to consider when reconstructing ruins of any sort, including historic and ancient buildings, is the period or date to make the reconstruction match.

For example, we know that the main house at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s plantation just outside Charlottesville, Virginia, was modified and rebuilt over more than forty years. In addition, after Jefferson’s death, there were other modifications and restorations.

Any restorer has to make choices. In the case of Monticello, do you restore the building to the way it was on the day that Jefferson died—to the extent you can determine it? Or do you pick another date? Which, and why?

The same is true for archaeological ruins, for which we have far less information than we do for Monticello’s architecture and renovations.

Consider the example of the largest temple-pyramid at Chichen Itzá, a Classic-period lowland Maya civic-ceremonial and residential settlement on the northern Yucatán Peninsula in southern Mexico. This structure has long been referred to as El Castillo.

Here’s an historic photo of El Castillo (rather poorly scanned), published in T.A. Willard’s The City of the Sacred Well (Century, 1926). Willard doesn’t date this photo, but it was probably taken sometime in the first quarter of the twentieth century.

Compare it to this photo from 2003, taken early in the morning when the ground fog made the pyramid more mysterious. The photographs are probably of different sides of this relatively symmetrical pyramid.

Both have the same number of levels, when you examine the profile of the edges and corners of the sides. The staircase is on a separate plane “above” the levels. However, the reconstruction staircase has borders running from the top to the bottom that are not clearly present.

Why? Is it because the photos show different faces of the pyramid? Is it because the historic photograph is of a relatively poor quality and we cannot discern the exact form of the staircase? Is it because restorationists opted to add this detail to make climbing the pyramid safer for tourists? Or…?

Click here to go to Monticello’s website.

Click here to go to the Chichen Itzá entry in the Wikipedia.

Click here to go to the El Castillo entry in the Wikipedia.