An Adventurer's Tale

British Museum

Alfred P. Maudslay in Guatemala

A. P. Maudslay
Although the ‘lost cities of the ancient Maya’ were at least in part well-known to local inhabitants (and the source of construction materials for Colonial towns), it was not until the 19th century that they became more famous in the western world. One of the early explorers whose contributions to Maya research and our knowledge about hieroglyphic writing remains underrated was Alfred Percival Maudslay (1850-1931). He retired as a Colonial Officer in the South Pacific in 1880 and went on to travel through Central America.

He was at least in part inspired by the popular books by J.L. Stephens (1805-1852) (Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán from 1841 and Incidents of Travel in Yucatán, 1843).

Stephens travelled with Frederick Catherwood (1799-1854), an architect and artist, and together they visited 44 ancient Maya sites. Catherwood’s detailed drawings (and later the lithographs and engravings that were produced from them) are very accurate, but also show the slightly romanticised image of exploration.

Travelling in the 1880s
The long way to Quiriguá

The British Museum retains some of the field notebooks and diaries Maudslay wrote on his travels. Most of the pages are measurements and recordings, but you also find some random sketches in them.

Maudslay brought a lot of equipment on his travels; not only personal items, but the many boxes of glass plates and chemicals for his photography and sacks of plaster of Paris for the mould-making, for example. In more accessible areas these items were carried on 'mule-trains', but especially in mountainous terrain, the work of porters was invaluable.

Here you see one of Maudslay's camp-sites, probably in the early 1890s, when he was travelling through Guatemala with his wife Anne.

Anne had very little riding experience before going on the trip with Alfred, but at the end of the trip she 'was saying good-bye to an old friend' when having to leave her sure-footed mule behind.

Some of the equipment Maudslay took on his trips look very cumbersome to us today, like this collapsible camp-bed for example.

The ubiquitous teapot though is far more understandable.

By all accounts, Anne and Alfred's hotel in Antigua, Guatemala, was a bit of a disappointment, but the magnificent scenery and their trip up the Volcan de Agua (in the background) and the view from there, more than made up for that.

Measuring, moulding and photographing a Maya site

In 1883 Maudslay visited the site of Quiriguá for the second time, this time arriving with plenty of time, a group of collaborators and big plans to scientifically explore the ancient city.

“It was the unexpected magnificence of the monuments which that day came into view that led me to devote so many years to securing copies of them, which, preserved in the museums of Europe and America, are likely to survive the originals.”
(Maudslay 1899, p. 149, talking about his 1882 visit to Quiriguá)

Maudslay was very interested in the ancient Maya hieroglyphic descriptions. Although they could not be read at the time, he was sure they would be deciphered eventually and wanted to make sure that a good record existed for their study.

In order to gain a detailed record of the inscriptions, he employed a professional plaster-worker from London, Lorenzo Giuntini, and shipped 4 tons of plaster of Paris from Carlisle to Quiriguá.

This is Zoomorph P while Giuntini is using nearly 2 tons of plaster of Paris to make a mould. As the carving is in deep-relief, separate moulds have to be made of small areas. In this case, there are more than 600 plaster piece-moulds that make a rather large puzzle of this monument.

Then these piece-moulds would have been carefully packed, each one in a padded parcel, to be sent back to England where they would be used to create a full cast of the original with all the details.

Apart from the moulds, Maudslay's photographs also show the monuments and their inscriptions in context - and zooming in also in detail. Here is Zoomorph B with beautiful glyphs.

He had also detailed drawings made of the inscriptions, based on the photographs and casts and checked later on the original monument. Here you can see part of the text on the side of Zoomorph B in the last picture.

Today, we are using structured light scanners to create 3D images of the casts made by Maudslay as a next step in the history of the captured image. The preservation of the inscription on the casts is often better than the one on the original monuments today, so giving further access to researchers through modern technology is advancing the ongoing decipherment of ancient Maya writing.

The British Museum archives contain more than 800 glass plate negatives from Maudslay.

The detail and clarity of them in many cases outshine our modern digital snapshots.

And with new technology helping us make high resolution digital copies of the negatives, we can now appreciate not only the image of Maudslay's team in front of the little 'ranch' he had built for the work at Quiriguá, where he and his collaborators spent quite a few months.

But we can also find more of the details in the faces of the men working with Maudslay at Quiriguá in 1883.

With at least one of his companions ready for new adventures and further exploration and research of the fascinating world of the ancient Maya.

Credits: Story

All images © Trustees of the British Museum
Text and image selection: Claudia Zehrt, project Curator British Museum Google Maya Project
Thanks to: Kate Jarvis, Amy Drago, Christos Gerontinis, Jonathan Mortemore, Jago Cooper, 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.
Translate with Google