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Fall 2009
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Web Map as Time Machine
An ancient story of conquest is heard again
By Monica Pratt, ArcUser Editor

This article as a PDF .

Almost nine months of intensive work was required to digitally restore the Lienzo de Quauhquechollan to its original appearance by eliminating stains and blurs.

Lienzos are maps that tell the story of a place. The story of the Lienzo de Quauhquechollan, one of the oldest of these maps, is being told on the Web 500 years after the events it records occurred. A responsive and intuitive Web site developed by the Universidad Francisco Marroquín (UFM) and Geosistemas y Tecnología Avanzada, S.A. (Geosistec), Esri's distributor in Guatemala, using the recently implemented ArcGIS API for Microsoft Silverlight, has made sharing this cartographic treasure with potentially millions around the world possible.

The Original Multimedia Experience

For the peoples of Mesoamerica, place and past were inseparable. Lienzos not only recorded the details of a geographic location but also communicated what happened there in a form of mapping now described as historical cartography. Graphic symbols designate people, places, and dates while stylized images of plants, animals, rivers, roads, and other features indicate where the story took place.

Lienzos were not meant to be studied silently by individuals but were performed aloud for groups by a narrator who brought to life the events shown on the map. The story was recited to audiences assembled at market days and other community gatherings.

A Uniquely Important Map

Dating from circa 1530 to 1540, the Lienzo de Quauhquechollan tells a story of great adventure—the Spanish conquest of Guatemala. It is an important historical document for many reasons. Not only is it the first known map of Guatemala, but it also provides the only firsthand account by indigenous people of this military campaign.

This account changed previously held beliefs about the conquest of Guatemala. The lienzo illustrates how the Quauhquecholteca of central Mexico, who viewed the arrival of the Spanish conquistador Jorge de Alvarado as an opportunity for enhancing their own power base, allied with his forces to conquer Guatemala.

The lienzo was worn; faded; discolored; and, in places, torn. Identifying locations and deciphering the pictographs were difficult, but trying to physically repair the map's fragile cloth would likely damage it.

The Quauhquecholtecan artists recorded this triumph on 15 rectangular pieces of cloth. Together, these panels show selected elements, both events and locations, that these artists felt would help listeners best experience the story. The existing map is 10 feet, 6 inches wide by 8 feet, 5 inches long. However, the lienzo did not survive intact. A portion of the right side of the lienzo—perhaps as much as one-third of the original—was cut off.

A Hidden Treasure

The original Lienzo de Quauhquechollan had been for many years (and remains) part of the collection at the Museo Casa de Alfeñique in Puebla, Mexico. However, its significance was not initially appreciated because the location of the events depicted had been misidentified. While its pictographs clearly show the activities of Spanish conquistadors, it is Guatemala—not an unidentified area in central Mexico—where these events occurred. Florine Asselbergs, a Dutch archaeologist working on her doctoral thesis, correctly located these events. Her 2004 book, Conquered Conquistadors: The Lienzo de Quauhquechollan: A Nahua Vision of the Conquest of Guatemala, is based on her thesis and recounts her findings.

Understanding this type of map with its nonlinear representation of events was difficult for western researchers. Identifying locations and deciphering the pictographs were also challenging because the lienzo was so worn; faded; discolored; and, in places, torn. However, attempting to physically repair the map's fragile cloth would likely distort or destroy it.

Restoring without Destroying

As part of its Explorations on History program, the UFM, in Guatemala City, Guatemala, gathered a team drawn from many disciplines to digitally restore the Lienzo de Quauhquechollan. The project, cosponsored by Banco G&T Continental, brought together experts in anthropology, archaeology, epigraphy, ethnobotany, various digital technologies, graphic design, history, lighting, photography, storytelling, and textiles. The project's goal was not limited to restoring the original map digitally. Using the Internet and GIS, the project would make the lienzo accessible to both researchers and the public so its secrets could be unraveled.

Almost nine months of intensive work has resulted in four digital layers that progressively restored the map to its original appearance by eliminating stains and blurs, reproducing the textures of the original canvas, restoring the colors produced by the natural dyes, and reinstating the black outlines of pictograph elements.

The Swipe tool shows the Lienzo de Quauhquechollan as it appears now and as it did when it was first painted nearly half a millennium ago.

From these restored layers, the team created several vehicles for telling the map's story. Embodying the spirit of the original lienzo performance, a narrated and animated feature adds movement and sound to the images of the pictographs. It features an original score based on pre-Hispanic and 16th century Spanish music. An exhibit about the map has attracted more than 18,000 visitors to UFM's cultural center. An exhibit catalog, El Lienzo de la Conquista Quauhquechollan—A Chronicle of Conquest, describes both the map and the project.

Sharing the Story

Although thousands of people have viewed the exhibit and the animated feature, a Web site could potentially share the map's story with millions of people worldwide. UFM approached Luis Fernañdez, president of Geosistec, about making the lienzo project accessible to more people.

"Our goal was to find a way to merge modern cartographic tools with the concept of ‘living geography' through which the Mesoamerican peoples communicated stories, legends, and traditions based on collective experience and which had a narrator as the key component," said Fernañdez.

Founded in 1994, Geosistec provides geodatabase management, thematic mapping, and geographic analysis to governments and companies in many fields. The creation of a comprehensive geographic database for Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras has positioned the company as a leading provider of geographic content for automated vehicle location (AVL) applications in the Central American region.

Geosistec had created dynamic Web applications for environmental monitoring, telecommunications services, and emergency response. However, the lienzo project was the company's first experience making historic documents and maps dynamically available over the Web. Geosistec has a history of adopting cutting-edge technologies.

After following the development of Microsoft Silverlight technology, the company chose it for this project rather than Adobe's Flex, a more mature technology, believing it to have more potential for rapid evolution. Silverlight has proved to be a strong platform for providing rich functionality and good user interactivity. The responsive, intuitive, and dynamic Web map built by Geosistec uses the ArcGIS API for Microsoft Silverlight.

The Flip tool exchanges the display of the modern map with a scene-by-scene description of events on the lienzo without requiring users to open another window or leave the current one.

Although this was the first time Geosistec had used Silverlight, the team of three staff members took just two months from conception to completion—working on a part-time basis. Developing the conceptual design and innovative tools for the site took half the time spent on the project. VisualSVN (Subversion for Visual Studio), a plug-in for the open source version control system Subversion, helped manage the project by sharing multiple versions of the code for easy integration and deployment of the application.

Relating this ancient pictographic map to a modern map presented certain challenges because the lienzo lacks a spatial reference and map units. In addition, its emphasis on the story line meant that a single location might appear several times if more than one significant event occurred there.

Using a timeline handles these problems and performs the function of the traditional narrator. It relates the events and images selected on the lienzo with locations and attributes on a smoothly scaling modern map.

Developing new tools for exploring the lienzo and related geographic content was among the most challenging aspects of the project. The Flip and Swipe tools promote unstructured exploration of the map's information. The Flip tool exchanges the display of the modern map with a scene-by-scene description of events on the lienzo without requiring users to open another window or leave the current one. With the Swipe tool, the user can explore the Lienzo de Quauhquechollan as it appears now and as it did when it was first painted nearly half a millennium ago.

Optimizing the user experience while exploring the lienzo and geographic content it depicts and incorporating information compiled by Universidad Francisco Marroquín on the places, symbols, clothing, and plants shown in the lienzo tested the team's mettle. The resultant Web application marries technology and tradition so the story the Lienzo de Quauhquechollan tells can be "heard" by people from around the world.


It is often said that maps tell as much about the mapmaker as the landscape. The Lienzo de Quauhquechollan project has given modern viewers, used to the conventions of western cartography, a different way of looking at geography—one that is intertwined with history. Deciphering this map has also provided new insights into the historical events surrounding the conquest of Guatemala. The Web site ( created by the UFM and Geosistec is retelling the dramatic story of one of the oldest and most striking lienzos to a 21st century audience.

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