Monthly Archives: November 2023

Seminar at Museo De La Plata: Colecciones cientificas en movimiento

Tuesday 28th November from 9:30 to 16h (local time)/in Auditorio de la Facultad de Ciencias Naturales de La Plata (in the administrative building), Avenida 60 y 122

  • 9:30- 12:30: Presentations First Session
  • Nathalie Richard (Université du Mans, Francia): “”CL” About a tag and specimens on the move”
  • Mariano Bonomo (CONICET- División de Arqueología, Museo de La Plata): “From French Prehistory to La Plata Museum”                                          
  • Frank Laurent (Université du Mans, Francia): “Between science and art, philosophy and poetry: Roger Caillois and his floating collections”                            
  • José Pardo- Tomás (CSIC Barcelona, España):  “Aimé Bonpland as a farm entrepreneur. Uses and destinations of its botanical collections”
  • 12:30-13:30  Free Lunch
  • 13: 30- 16hs  Presentations Second Session
  • Laura Chazaro (Cinvestav, México): “Trade and circulation of medical instruments. The case of Legay’s apparatus in a Mexican laboratory at the end of the 19th century”
  • Julianna Morcelli Oliveros (Becaria PICT- Archivo Histórico del Museo de La Plata): “Blurred boundaries and changing meanings: apothecary’s shop as collection space“
  • Alejandro Martinez (Facultad de Ciencias Naturales y Museo, UNLP): “The incorporation of American plants into the European materia medica at the end of the 19th century. The case of Jaborandi”.
  • Sara Montemayor (CONICET- División de Entomología del Museo de La Plata): “What is behind Auguste Puton’s exceptional Heteroptera collection?”

There will be an online transmission on the youtube channel of the Museo de La Plata

III Seminario: Colecciones científicas en movimiento (

A Round Trip? The Lintels 33 and 39 from Yaxchilán

By Christian Stenz, Universität Heidelberg

During my SciCoMove stay in Mexico City I intended to study the history of the Maya collections in the Museo Nacional de Antropología (MNA). Therefore, the Archivo Histórico of the MNA houses interesting documents that shed light on the trajectory of many objects exhibited in the museums Sala Maya. Due to my research focus on Guatemala and Sothern Mexico, I was particularly interested in a collection of lintels and stelae from the former Mayan city of Yaxchilán (Fuente: 1967). This ‘archaeological site’ is situated at the border to Guatemala in the Usumacinta region. The blog entry, however, is not about the lintels and stelae still present and exhibited in the Sala Maya. It rather follows two objects named by archaeologist lintel 33 and lintel 39 of Yaxchilán. These objects appeared in the list Esculturas Procedentes de Yaxchilan en el Museo Nacional de Antropologia (figure 1). While visitors to the Sala Maya today will find some of the lintels and stelae from this list, the two lintels 33 and 39 are missing. In the following lines, I will follow the trajectory of the two lintels, starting with their excavation and photographic recording by Teobert Maler in 1900 (Maler 1901: 113). Secondly, the blog entry deals with their journey to and integration in the MNA and ends with their return to Yaxchilán. Thereby, I want to highlight the varying and contested meanings, which were attributed to these objects in their different spatial and social contexts.

Teobert Maler – Science, Art and Technology

After studying architecture, Teobert Maler joined the Cuerpo Imperial de Voluntarios of Emperor Maximilian I. When his military service ended in 1867, he opened a photography studio in Yucatán which he called Fotografía Artística and Científica (Kohl 2018: 18). With his photographic equipment, he undertook several expeditions to various former Mayan cities in Yucatán, Petén and Chiapas. In the early years, this was a difficult endeavour. With the conventional collodion wet plate process of the time, the photographs always had to be developed immediately. Accordingly, it was necessary to carry a considerable amount of equipment. This changed when Maler returned to Yucatán in 1885 from a trip to Europe. There he obtained new photographic equipment and studied the gelatin silver process (Kohl 2018: 17-18). This new technology has not only significantly reduced the amount of equipment necessary but also made it possible to take photographs in different formats.

When Maler came to Yaxchilán in 1897 and for a longer period in 1900, these new technological possibilities and his studies in architecture doubtlessly shaped Maler’s engagement with the Mayan material culture. In contrast to many other archaeologists of the time, he was very critical of the removal of objects from their architectural context. Maler rather tried to analyse the architectural structures and their integration into the landscape in order to find missing parts and dig for them in the right places. The new photographic technologies further shaped Maler’s approach. While the older techniques just allowed the production of photographs in the relatively small carte-de-visite (5,4×8,9cm) and carte-imperial (10,8×16,5cm) formats the new processes enabled Maler to create bigger images. This made it possible to take pictures of whole architectural structures placing the lintels and stelae in their contexts.

Nevertheless, like many other travellers and archaeologists of the time, Maler also wanted to ‘save’ the Mayan material culture he encountered along the Usumacinta from its apparent ‘natural decay’. Sandra Rozental has already shown how the Mayan material culture in this region was embedded and influenced by a highly dynamic ecological landscape (Rozental 2020). Something that travellers like Maler usually interpreted as an eminent threat. He, for example, remarked that “some structures […] in consequence of the erosion, gradually fell into the river” (Maler 1901: 114).

For Maler the photographic recording of the remaining archaeological structures and especially the objects, which contained glyphs and figurines, also functioned as a means of ‘’saving’ them. And such photographs became highly popular, as it was not just easy to circulate them but also because of their apparently unmediated reproduction of ‘reality.’ Reading Maler’s report carefully, however, shows that these photographs were not so much an unmediated reproduction but rather highly artistic images. The production of these images was an elaborate and arduous task. After Maler dug out lintel 32, for example, it “had been carefully brushed and washed off and placed in a favourable light” (Maler 1901, 131-132).

The Lintel 33, which was excavated during Maler’s expedition near what he called ‘Structure 10’, “was broken in two” (Maler 1901: 132). For the photograph (Figure 3) he put the two halfs together, removed them from their context and highlighted the depicted glyphs and figurine by using artificial lighting. The same he did with all the other Lintels and Stelae in relief he excavated in 1897 and 1900. Among them also Lintel 39, which he encountered in ‘Structure 16’. Apparently astonished by the beauty of his encounter he wrote in his report: “The human form lies in so graceful an attitude that a modern artist could scarcely improve upon the delincation[sic!]” (Maler 1901: 135). Ultimately, Teobert Maler’s photographs were a conflation of scientific and artistic practice that, despite his insistence on contextualisation, highlighted specific aspects of Mayan material culture, such as the glyphs and figurative representations.

Becoming national heritage

The fascination for the material culture in Yaxchilán continued throughout the 20th century. Many archaeologists and adventurers from Europe and the United States followed Teobert Maler and often tried to remove objects from Yaxchilán. At the same time, the MNA, as a government institution, tried to control the Mayan material culture in the Usumacinta region, which they regarded as national heritage. Therefore, they hired a certain Miguel de la Cruz as “guardián de la Zona Arqueológica de Yaxchilán” (MNA, AH 1959). As guardián Miguel de la Cruz had to protect the archaeological site not just from ‘unauthorized intruders’ but especially from the dense and rapidly growing vegetation.

To fulfil this task, the MNA sent de la Cruz technical equipment such as a motor and other machinery (MNA, AH 1959). In a letter from 10 March 1959 the director of the MNA Luis Aveleyra A. de Anda thanked de la Cruz for his work and his support when they transported the first “piedra” to the MNA in Mexico City. In the following years they removed more objects from Yaxchilán to be exhibited in the new anthropological museum in Mexico City that opened its doors in 1964. Unfortunately, I could not find any further documents in the Archivo Histórico of said museum neither on the removal and transport of these objects from Yaxchilán nor on their installation in the new museum. So far, the only known documents are the list and a croquis (figure 2) of the Sala Maya where also the two Lintels 33 and 39 appear.

The social and historical context in which the lintels and stelae came to the museum, and in which the Maya material culture of the Usumacinta region was increasingly monitored, is well known. The trajectory of the Lintels 33 and 39 as well as the many other objects that came to the new museum was, as Sandra Rozental highlights, “tied to the authoritarianism of a modern centralist state that insists on forging patria through heritage.” (Rozental 2020). In this way, the Mexican state did not just try to prevent ‘foreign intruders’ from robbing the national heritage. The water of the Usumacinta, the tropical vegetation and the local population were also regarded as a thread to a national heritage in need of protection.

Back to the Roots?

The enormous effort and technical means used to create a ‘national heritage’, scientific or artistic images show that such meanings are not intrinsic to the objects. The trajectory of the lintels 33 and 39 further underline this argument. Present in the Sala Maya during the inauguration of the Museo Nacional de Antropología in 1964, they returned to Chiapas years later. This highlights once more that the Mayan material culture, even when they were embedded into an institutional framework under an “authoritarian and centralizing state” for a while, they remain mobile and its meaning contested (Rozental 2021: 286).

During my research stay, I was not able to follow the Lintels to Chiapas and visit them in their new spatial and social context. But it would strike me to elaborate further on what happened with these objects after they returned. Did their meaning change and for whom? Did they even really ‘return’ and what would that mean? The Usumacinta region and the site of Yaxchilán did not remain stagnant during the 20th century. Historical and ecological changes also took place in this region. So, instead of perceiving the latest transfer as a return should we not rather speak of another step in the long history of these two lintels? A history shaped by creativity and ambiguity, but also by violence and exclusion.

Sources and References

Fuente, Beatriz de la: Las Esculturas de Yaxchilán en el Museo de Antropología, in: Anales del Instituto de Investigación Estéticas 9/36 (1967), p. 5-13.

Kohl, Frank Stephan: Fotografie, Beruf und Berufung, in: Teobert Maler. Historische Fotografien aus Mexico und Guatemala, ed. by Frank Stephan Kohl/Gregor Wolff, Berlin 2018, p. 11-22.

Letter from Luis Aveleyra A. de Anda to Miguel de la Cruz from 10. March 1959, Museo Nacional de Antropología, Archivo Histórico, Volumen 178, Expediente 29.

Maler, Teobert: Researches in the Central Portion of the Usumatsintla Valley. Report of Explorations for the Museum, 1898-1900, in: Memoirs of the Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University 2/1 (1901), p. 5-216.

Rozental, Sandra: A Monolith on the Street, in: Museum Matters. Making and Unmaking Mexico’s National Collections, ed. by Miruna Achim/Susan Deans-Smith/Sandra Rozental, Tucson 2021, p. 265-288.

Rozental, Sandra: Estelas del Río, in: entre ríos (2020), online: [10.11.23].

Barcelona: armoured Xenarthrans and catenaries

by Richard A. Fariña. Martín Batallés, Luciano Varela & P. Sebastián Tambusso

Departamento de Paleontología, Facultad de Ciencias, Montevideo and Sauce, Departamento de Canelones- Uruguay

In this post, we take advantage of our secondment to celebrate the works of prominent Barcelonans: the Salvador family, Antoni Gaudí and Jorge Wagensberg (to our dismay, we had to leave aside the deserved homages to other Catalonians, such as Salvador Dalí and Montserrat Caballé).

A collection with a South American twist

The Salvador collection is the main core of the Salvador Cabinet that is kept in the building of the Institut Botànic de Barcelona, in Montjuïc ( This is an amazing product of a lineage of Barcelona apothecaries and naturalists who, from the beginning of the 17th century to the mid-19th century, assembled a very important library and scientific collections.

Among the curiosities, a distinctly South American guest catches the attention: an armadillo must have been seen as a mind-boggling exotism, an example of the prodigious diversity of the New World that offered the existence of a completely armoured mammal, able also to build underground galleries.

An architect that was not fond of Physics

It is widely known that Antoni Gaudí (1852-1926) was an innovator of architectural forms and construction techniques thanks to a rigorous and methodical work of geometric research. As a student, he had better qualifications in projects than in theoretical subjects.

For instance, he made a crucial advance in the historical imperative to build temples underscores the need for spacious, lofty structures. Temples must accommodate many people sharing a collective identity, with their height inspiring contemplation and perhaps awe of the divine. Early architectural technology allowed little more than horizontal beams between vertical columns until the progress of the Roman semicircular arch, which provided more dignified spaces for worship. Gothic architects elevated this further, constructing cathedrals over 100 metres tall, aiming at the proverbial skies. However, stability necessitated buttresses, compromising elegance and spirituality. It was Gaudí who introduced innovative catenaries, exemplified by the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona Wagensberg (2004). Among other buildings, that iconic cathedral benefitted from his mastery in resourcing into the catenary and soars vertically beyond 150 metres without lateral diversions, with your full attention thoroughly directed upwards.

And it is founded on tortoises (but not armadillos!), of course…

Fig. 1. Base of a column in the Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona (Photo:

A kindest philosopher and physicist and museologist and…

Jorge Wagensberg (1948-2018) was professor, researcher, author as well as a finest human being. Born to Polish-Jewish parents who had relocated to Barcelona in the 1930s to escape persecution, he was multilingual, fluent in Yiddish, Catalan, Spanish, German, English, French and Italian. He was a prominent figure in the field of scientific communication, known for his work as an editor, lecturer, writer, and museologist. Among his most remarkable achievements, he created and directed the Science Museum in Barcelona (CosmoCaixa). As a scientist, he made significant contributions across various fields, including thermodynamics, theoretical biology, entomology and philosophy of science. He was also an accomplished author and editor and received several prestigious awards and honours. Here we are proud to follow is legacy by extending his approach on the size and shape effect of biological and human constructions.


The catenary arch is the shape that a cable takes when it is hung from two points and only supports its own weight. If the load it supports is horizontally uniform, when it is hung from two points it adopts a parabolic shape. If it supports different point loads, the cable adopts the shape called funicular arch. (Gómez, 2002). Despite the optimal quality of the catenary arch in terms of resistance, for a long time it was considered to have an inelegant shape and difficult loading on the pillars. It was not used in traditional architecture, for which arch shapes were considered better. circular, elliptical, etc. However, Gaudí’s uniqueness consisted in applying the catenary arch spatially and creating the design model of the Church of Colonia Güell (Fig. 2) by means of some rope elements from which small bags of shot were hung that made it possible to obtain the load axes of each of the elements of the roof without using complicated mathematical calculations. By placing a cloth inside the model of the nave, he obtained the interior space and also the inverse of the work (Gómez, 2002).

Fig. 2. Multifunicular model of the church of Colonia Güell. (Photo:AA.VV., Gaudí 2002. Misceŀlània, Ed. Planeta, Barcelona (2002), author unknown)

This project did not come to its end, but this experience served the architect for his great project: the towers and the temple of the Sagrada Familia for which he used the same principles as in the catenary model of Colonia Güell (Bassegoda, 1999; Huerta, 2003; Bonet, 2004).

From the armadillo to the cathedral

For those that love statistics, here’s how a, the relevant variable that describes the depth of a catenary, varies with increasing body size in armoured mammals, from small armadillos to giant glyptodonts (Figs. 3 and 4).

Fig. 3. Glyptodon sculpture exhibited in the Museu de Ciències Naturals de Barcelona, Castell dels Tres Dragons (Photo: Martín Batallés).

Using logarithmical scale, that relationship proves to be linear. In other words, the larger the animal, the narrower the catenary.

Fig. 4. A reconstruction of an individual of Glyptodon and the catenary curve describing the curve of its carapace.

It would have been just right if this relationship was kept at the enormous weight of the cathedral. However, reality tends to be more complex: the difference in the supportive materials denies us the pleasure of the Platonical perfection. In any case, three different traditions are gathered in Barcelona to bring us the treasures hidden in scientific collections.

Fig. 5. Parameter b (describing depth in the catenary formula) for armoured Xenarthrans (y-axis) in regard to log body mass in kg (x-axis), including the regression curve, its equation and the correlation coefficient.


Bassegoda Nonell, J. y García Gabarró, G.: La Cátedra de Antoni Gaudí. Estudio analítico de su obra. Barcelona. Ediciones UPC. 1999.

Bonet, J. El Templo de la Sagrada Familia. Conferencia en la Fundación Politécnica de Cataluña. Barcelona. 2004.

Gaudí y la geometría de la naturaleza

Gómez Serrano, J. Arcos catenarios. En Gaudí, estudis técnics. Espai, geometría, estructura i construcció. Col.legi d’Arquitectes de Catalunya. págs. 97-102. Barcelona. 2002.

Huerta, S. 2003. El cálculo de estructuras en la obra de Gaudí. Ingeniería Civil 129: 121-133.

Wagensberg, J. (2004). La rebelión de las formas. Barcelona: Tusquets.