Dr. Nicholas Hellmuth


Dr. Nicholas Hellmuth, the Director of the Foundation for Latin American Anthropological Research (F.L.A.A.R.), is still at work studying Maya vase iconography in Guatemala. Maya research has kept him busy in Latin America for several decades.

Currently (December 2001) Hellmuth is Visiting Professor at Bowling Green State University of Ohio, where he is Director of the Large Format Digital Imaging Division, under the Center for Applied Technology (Joe Catalano, Director), part of the College of Technology.


Nicholas Hellmuth
Dr. Nicholas Hellmuth at La Ruta Maya Conservation Foundation

Professor Hellmuth spent 1998 doing digital imaging reviews as a beta tester for leading corporations. He resides in Germany where he was working on a major book to report on his several seasons photography of Maya pottery in the museums and private collections of Japan. He lectures widely in both Germany and the USA. Past lectures were in Bremen (early April '99) and at Washington University in St Louis (mid April '99) on high-end digital imaging technology. His speciality is digital turntable rollout photography of polychrome Maya vases.


At age 16, Nicholas was infected with Maya fever when he visited the Maya ruins of Palenque after attending summer school in Mexico to learn Spanish. In 1962 there was no highway to this part of the remote Chiapas tropics. The hotel, a renovated barn, cost 50 cents a night. There were two other people visiting the site that day. The "road" from the village to the ruins was a dirt path which required 4-wheel drive to traverse in the wet season.


Nicholas returned to prep school in Missouri, wrote his high school thesis on the Maya, and with the $50 first prize money, plus financial help from his parents and grandmother, he returned to explore pre-Columbian Mexico. While in Tabasco, he was invited along on an INAH expedition to Bonampak, so at the tender age of 17, he was hiking through the Lacandon jungle from Lacanja to Bonampak with a team of archaeologists.


Thereafter, Hellmuth spent every summer in Mexico, taking a train from St. Louis, then a bus. He reached Copan, Honduras, at age 18, on the back of a cargo truck.


His enthusiasm for Maya civilization and adventures in Mexico had already infected him. By age 19, Hellmuth had also traveled to Tikal, Guatemala. Tikal made quite an impression, so he returned for another week in the summer of 1964. Archaeologist Christopher Jones kindly arranged a place for him to stay in the archaeologist's camp since Jones's cousin was in the same Harvard dorm as Hellmuth.


Hellmuth's dedication at an early age to photographing Tikal must have made an impression, since the day he left Tikal Peter Harrison asked the young student if he would like do photography at Tikal the next season!


Nicholas was now totally immersed in teaching himself all that was then available about the Maya. Fortunately Harvard had the largest archaeological library in the world, and Tatiana Proskouriakoff was a kind and helpful teacher, allowing Nicholas to visit her lab daily and to pester her with questions during lunch. Robert Smith, who had done so many ceramic reports, especially on Uaxactun, was also helpful in answering the constant stream of questions posed by the enthusiastic student.


While still an undergraduate, Nicholas was allowed to take graduate-level seminars. The most memorable had about 12 students and about 12 professors, including Alfonso Villa Rojas (of Chan Kom fame), Evon Vogt (Zinacantan), H.E.D. Pollack (Puuc and Chenes expert), Ledyard Smith and Robert Smith, Brent Berlin (linguist), Gordon Willey, William Bullard, Tatiana Proskouriakoff, plus additional professors. It would be rather difficult to get a comparable Maya education with so many renowned Mayanists anywhere today. The graduate students were as helpful as the professors: Sabloff, Tourtelout, Freidel, and Mayanists of comparable rank today were all graduate students at Harvard during the 1960's.


While at Tikal, Nicholas was gradually raised up the ladder of responsibility, trained in surveying by Stan Loten and in archaeological technique by Bill Coe, Chris Jones, and other specialists. After 10 solid months of field training in-situ, Hellmuth was assigned to excavate Structure 5D-73, a large pyramid which, however, lacked any temple on top. Hellmuth's assignment was to see whether this pyramid ever sustained even the foundations for a temple. If there was no temple, the next chore was to date the pyramid in order to ascertain whether this was because the pyramid was Terminal Classic--still under construction when Tikal collapsed and was abandoned. The natural way to ascertain the date of the pyramid was to find the burial which was under 95% of such pyramids. The grave goods in the burial would date the pyramid rather nicely. The rest is archaeological history. At age 20, Nicholas, and his crew of Norberto Tesucun and Alejandro Montejo de la Cruz, discovered the Tomb of the Jade Jaguar, the second richest royal tomb yet found for the Late Classic period in all of Guatemala. The important artifacts from this burial are still on proud display in the national museum in Guatemala City and in the site museum at Tikal. 

Professor Hellmuth divides his time equally among Germany, the USA (he spent the last six years a Visiting Professor at Brevard Community College in Cocoa, Florida) and doing research photography in the Maya area. Dr Hellmuth is also a Research Associate at the Dept. of Anthropology, Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri. Dr Hellmuth has also done archaeological field work in Peru, once for the Peabody Museum, Harvard University and a second season for the Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale University.


In Germany, Hellmuth has lectured in Mannheim, Bonn, Hannover, Leipzig, Berlin, Zerpst, and at the University of Hamburg. While residing in Austria he lectured throughout that country. While in Germany he resides with his companion Andrea David, who arranges his photo exhibits and slide lectures in Germany. Andrea recently spent 6 months in Guatemala as an intern at a Guatemalan law firm. She then returned to Germany and passed her law bar exams.


In addition to studying Maya archaeology, Nicholas is intensely interested in tropical flora and fauna, and recently finished a 5-year honorary position at Yale's Peabody Museum of Natural History. His project through F.L.A.A.R. was to form a photographic archive of all the tropical flora and fauna which appear in the art of the Maya, Aztec, and Teotihuacanos. This project is still on-going (now sponsored entirely by F.L.A.A.R.), and offers an opportunity for volunteers to participate in Dr Hellmuth's expeditions to photograph exotic tropical flora and fauna.


Heliconia species photographed in southern Belize, near the ruins of Nim Li Punit and Lubaantun. Photographed while on a field trip organized by F.L.A.A.R.


Thus Nicholas Hellmuth is the archaeologist who excavated the jade mosaic jar which was on the cover of an early edition of Robert Sharer's revision of Morley's The Ancient Maya. This treasure and the jaguar of solid jade, have traveled around the world in art shows, serving as an ambassador of Guatemala's patrimonia nacional. Even at age 20 Nicholas was already a complete fanatic for thorough photography. The burial chamber and every centimeter of all the offerings were exhaustively photographed (all together about 200 photographs were taken during the recording of the architecture of the crypt and the placement of all the offerings).


It is widely considered that this tomb was the resting place of Ruler B, son of Ruler A (who was buried under Temple I). Hellmuth's field report was an exhaustively illustrated 400-page Honor's Thesis at Harvard. This opus was awarded a Summa Cum Laude and overall he graduated from Harvard with Cum Laude.


Since then Hellmuth has been awarded three research positions at Yale University and recently was honored by being appointed Visiting Professor for the winter semester at the National Museum of Ethnology, in Osaka, Japan. Dr Hellmuth received his Ph.D. in art history from Karl Franzens Universitaet, in Graz, Austria, where he resided for many years. He currently resides in Cologne, Germany and Bowling Green, Ohio, USA. During the summer Dr Hellmuth teaches digital photography at Universidad Francisco Marroquin, Guatemala City, Central America.



New page format posted November 10, 2009
last updated December 5, 2002