Digitising the Legacy of a Victorian Explorer

British Museum

The British Museum Google Maya Project

A. P. Maudslay
A pioneer of Maya research

In the 1880s the English explorer Alfred Maudslay travelled through Guatemala, Mexico, Honduras and Belize. He was fascinated by the remains of the ancient Maya cities there and was one of the first scientific researchers recording details about some of these sites.

More than 400 plaster casts are in the storage of the British Museum. These were made in the last decade of the 19th century from the moulds that Maudslay had made in Central America and Mexico.

Some of them were later painted, but overall they make up one of the largest repositories of ancient Maya writing in Europe.

The written record
Logbooks and diaries

Maudslay also left a range of field notebooks, diary-parts and sketches to the British Museum. The British Museum Google Maya Project has now scanned nearly 1200 pages of notes and measurements.

A typical page in one of Maudslay's journals, with a sketch map of an archaeological site (possibly Iximche, Guatemala), including distance and height measurements and calculations.

On the scan you can distinguish each individual pencil stroke - and clearly see that he was working with very dusty hands, as evidenced by the fingerprints on the right.

Travel photography
Pioneer of the captured image

Maudslay used a relatively new technique to take amazing photographs of ancient Maya sites and monuments. Dry-plate photography might have been more suited to travel than the wet-plate method, but it still needed the use of chemicals - and the transport of many glass plates.

Maudslay probably took very similar boxes to Guatemala, to ensure that his glass plate negatives (or at least the majority of them) would survive the long and strenuous travels.

The British Museum has more than 800 glass plate negatives from A.P. Maudslay in its archives, which are now being scanned by the British Museum Google Maya Project.

The high-resolution scans allow us to see the incredible detail of the photographs (here the negative on the lightbox).

3D scanning 
Preserving the captured images of A.P. Maudslay

To preserve the information retained in the Maudslay casts and to facilitate access and research, the project is using a structured light scanner to create 3D scans of the casts.

During the scanning of the casts we also discovered this signature of the plaster-worker, Lorenzo Giuntini, that Maudslay had employed to first make the moulds in Central America and then cast the monuments back in London.

This cast is one of 31 that make up the full-sized Stela E of Quiriguá. It is quite nice to see the face of the ruler close-up, as it is usually about 4-5m above any visitor to the site.

By 3D scanning all of the casts separately (here a screenshot of the ruler's face)...

...the casts can then be joined together again for a full model of the monument.

Capturing images in plaster
The plaster casts were made from moulds - the moulds themselves could be made from plaster as well, or from paper. 

This is an example of a paper squeeze or mould, used to create a 'negative' or an impression of a carving at the Maya site of Palenque. Back in London, a cast was then made from this impression, as a faithful copy of the original (left in situ in Palenque).

Some of the plaster piece moulds are still packed away in large crates from their last move - usually the focus is on the casts. The moulds are just seen as a vehicle to obtain a good cast and were often destroyed after casting.

For transport the plaster piece moulds were individually wrapped in organic padding and parcel paper and tied with a string.

So now they all have to be individually unwrapped again.

The material used for padding often sticks a bit to the surface of the moulds and has to be brushed away.

After cleaning, the moulds are then layed out on large sorting tables to find the right sequence of the overall monument mould.

The labels make it easier to sort the piece moulds into the correct order.

Nevertheless it takes a while to complete the puzzle.

Each individual piece mould is also digitised by using photogrammetry.

These 3D images of the piece moulds will hopefully allow a digital reconstruction of the complete mould of the full monument.

This is one part of the puzzle put together again. In this case these are just over 100 plaster piece moulds forming one part of Zoomorph P at Quiriguá.

The full monument comprises over 800 plaster piece moulds, so this really is just one corner of it.

It took Giuntini and Maudslay several weeks and about 2 tons of plaster of Paris to complete a mould of Zoomorph P at Quiriguá.

Image Innovation
Using the preserved images with new technology

Through the digitisation of the different objects in the Maudslay collections, the British Museum Google Maya Project is opening up the treasure trove of this important materials to the wider world.

For audiences enjoying our VR and AR visits to ancient Maya sites in Guatemala, enabling everyone to learn more about the ancient (and modern) Maya in an interactive and fun way.

And for Mayanists and epigraphers the digital access will enable them to update existing knowledge about ancient Maya writing and further the decipherment and understanding of the intricate hieroglyphic texts.

A.P. Maudslay, who was specifically interested in preserving the inscriptions and the incredible heritage he encountered in Central America and Mexico, would have probably enjoyed the possibilities and challenges of new technologies used in harmony with his pioneering work.

Credits: Story

All images © Trustees of the British Museum
Text and image selection: Claudia Zehrt
Thanks to: Kate Jarvis, Christos Gerontinis, Jonathan Mortemore, Dr. Christophe Helmke, and other BM Google Maya Project collaborators

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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