In 2017, archaeologist Jacob Welch was conducting excavations at Ucanha, a site on the Yucatán Peninsula near the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, when he came across an enormous Maya mask sculpted out of stucco, or lime-based plaster.
Now, reports local news outlet Novedades Yucatán, experts from Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) have restored the mask, which portrays an unidentified noble or deity and appears to date to the Late Preclassic period of the Maya empire (around 300 B.C. to 250 A.D.).
As INAH notes in a statement, per Google Translate, “The Ucanha mask represents a unique element in this region.”
Vibrantly colored sculptures typically placed near stairways with pyramid-shaped bases, these kinds of Maya masks were known as stucco reliefs. Researchers have found examples of the monumental sculptures across the former Maya kingdom, from Tikal in Guatemala to Kohunlich in Mexico’s Quintana Roo state and Xunantunich in western Belize, according to the statement.
The recently unearthed sculpture shows a figure with a large, protruding nose and an elongated head. Intricately carved symbols flank the face on both sides. Though the INAH did not release the mask’s measurements, photographs of the find suggest it stands “as tall as a person,” writes Patrick Pester for Live Science. Comparatively, the stucco reliefs at Kohunlich measure around six feet tall.
When Welch originally found the mask, he and his colleagues took samples from around the area, analyzed the pigments used to paint the statue and temporarily reburied it to protect it from the elements. The next summer, the researchers returned to the site, removing the mask and a nearby staircase for refurbishment. They completed the restoration process—which involved cleaning the mask’s surface, strengthening its fragile sections and moving dislodged fragments back into their initial positions, per Live Science—in 2019.
Following the restoration, the team reburied the mask at Ucanha to ensure its long-term preservation. Though the archaeological site is closed to the general public, it lacks legal protection, potentially placing its artifacts at risk of looting, erosion and tree root growth, reports Carlos Rosado van der Gracht for Yucatán magazine.
As curator James Doyle pointed out in a 2016 essay for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Maya created statues out of materials ranging from stucco to wood, bone, shell and fired clay. Like the stucco reliefs, most Maya art tended to depict supernatural beings or rulers. Royal courts employed professional painters and sculptors who were tasked with decorating palaces and temples, in addition to creating regalia like scepters and jade amulets.