The ethics of ruins in Petén, Guatemala : problematizing architectural conservation in the context of people, practice, and politics



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Maya buildings have always been multifaceted in nature, both in the past and during present times. The preservation of such artifacts is dictated by current archaeological research, tourist agendas in the region, conservation practice, and national cultural policies. This dissertation problematizes the practices of the architectural conservator in Petén, Guatemala, situating them within the many challenges currently faced by archaeological research and the study and preservation of ancient constructions. In this approach, it is argued that architecture is a living artifact charged with historic significance serving variable roles in archaeology, tourism, heritage, or Maya religion. The history of conservation in the Maya area has proven successful for professionals working with a multidisciplinary agenda in which the methodologies employed by archaeologists and conservators coexist, but this thesis focuses on the philosophical dilemmas that specifically surround archaeological work in Guatemala today. The role of the state and its cultural policies is questioned in the context of archaeology, international conventions on cultural heritage, and activist demands of local communities and indigenous people. While the technical aspects of conservation have reached new levels of acceptance among the archaeological community, this dissertation argues that the ethical dilemmas inherent in the conservation of Maya ruins need to be addressed from the particular vantage point of a multicultural and multiethnic country like Guatemala. Based on ten years of fieldwork, this research describes and reflects on the conservation work at the site of San Bartolo, Petén, and the multi-faceted dynamics that influenced the intervention. Finally, this dissertation addresses the possibilities of transcending the current multidisciplinary work among Maya scholars and transforming it into a community-based and inclusive archaeology that incorporates long-term sustainable conservation methods with shared values and interests.