The Ancient Maya at the British Museum

A brief history of the British Museum's fascinating collections

First a trickle, then a flood

The British Museum was founded in 1753, but it was not until around a hundred years later that Ancient Maya artefacts began to find their way into the collection, one by one at first, and then whole collections at a time. Scholarly interest in Aztec culture and art was already considerable by the early 19th century, and a large collection of Aztec sculpture, some on display in this gallery, was acquired in 1825. However, it was not until publication of the stories and illustrations of Stephens and Catherwood in the 1840s that the Maya began to gain international interest.

Alfred Maudslay at Chichén Itzá (1889)British Museum

Alfred Percival Maudslay

Interest in the Ancient Maya grew steadily during the mid-19th century, but it was perhaps the work of Alfred Percival Maudslay in the 1880s that kick-started a frenzy of archaeological research in the Maya region.

Maudslay's view of Tikal by A.P MaudslayBritish Museum

Maudslay produced photographs of now world-famous Maya sites such as Tikal, Palenque and Chichén Itzá, to name but a few.

Maudslay cast storage (with casts uncovered).British Museum

Perhaps even more valuable than his photographs are the hundreds of casts produced from moulds he took of Maya monuments and inscriptions, now in the British Museum's collection.

Maya epigrapher Christophe Helmke studying one of Maudslay's castsBritish Museum

They remain a vital resource to scholars studying Maya inscriptions and iconography, particularly where the originals have suffered damage from weathering.

Packing crate for Maudslay piece mouldsBritish Museum

Maudslay’s casts were created from moulds at the Victoria and Albert Museum, but were eventually transferred to the British Museum in the 1920s. There they joined some original monuments and architectural pieces collected by Maudslay, primarily from Yaxchilán in Mexico, and Copán in Honduras.

Lintel 25 from Yaxchilán, Mexico; Am1923,Maud.5 by BM ImagingBritish Museum

These original sculptures are among the most well-known objects in the British Museum’s entire collection.

They include the Yaxchilán lintels…

Altar R from Copán, HondurasBritish Museum

...Altar R from Copán...

The young Maize God, from Copán, HondurasBritish Museum

...and the bust of the young Maize God, also from Copán.

Preclassic Maya vessel, Am1930,F.2British Museum

Charles Fenton

Charles Fenton was born Charles Ludwig Fleischmann in Germany in 1867. He and his brother Hugo bought three coffee plantations in Guatemala in 1893. During his time there, he met and became friends with Alfred Maudslay. Though not an archaeologist or antiquarian himself, he developed an interest in Ancient Maya antiquities and began to form a collection of his own. During the First World War, he changed his name from Fleischmann to Fenton, and it is by the latter name that his collection, which came into the British Museum in 1930, is known.

The Fenton Vase (600/800)British Museum

This vessel, known as the 'Fenton Vase', is a very fine example of polychrome pottery from the Nebaj region of Guatemala.

Rollout photograph of the Fenton Vase, Late Classic Maya, 600-800ADBritish Museum

This rollout photograph of the Fenton vase shows the scene in its entirety.

In the centre, a Maya ruler wearing an extravagant headdress sits cross-legged on a raised platform.

The ruler is receiving tribute from a subservient lord, who is kneeling before him.

The most notable character in the scene is this one. This figure is making a record of the tribute received. That he is so richly clothed and is sharing the ruler's raised platform hints at the perceived importance of this activity, and of the person charged with undertaking it.

Stucco figure from Tulum, Mexico; Am1991,Q.3British Museum

Thomas Gann

Dr Thomas Gann was the district medical officer for British Honduras, now Belize, from 1894-1923. He became passionate about the region’s archaeology. With the help of local guides, he was the first to publish reports of and conduct excavations on a number of Ancient Maya sites. He wrote several popular books recounting his adventures, which leave one to wonder how much time he could possibly have spared to carry out his official medical duties. 

Jade plaque of a Maya king (400/800)British Museum

Gann's collection of carved jades is particularly noteworthy. This plaque, which is said to have been discovered at the site of Teotihuacán in central Mexico, is one of the finest examples of Maya jade carvings in existence.

It depicts a Maya ruler with a speech scroll issuing from his mouth...

...he sits upon a throne...

...and wears heavy ear-spools and an elaborate headdress in the shape of a bird.

He carries a shield depicting the Jaguar God of the Underworld...

...and is attended by a dwarf, just one member of a large entourage that would have included lords and ladies, scribes, musicians, artisans and other courtly attendants.

It remains unclear how this plaque came to be in the possession of Thomas Gann, but it was likely acquired by him through purchase rather than excavation.

Jadeite figurine from Copán, Honduras, Am1938,1021.11British Museum

This cross-legged jadeite figurine from Copán is one of the finest Maya carvings in the British Museum.

Jadeite miniature of a stela from Quiriguá, Am1938,0708.1British Museum

This miniature version of a Classic Maya stela made of jadeite is from the site of Quiriguá, in Guatemala.

Stela E at Quiriguá by A.P MaudslayBritish Museum

The jade miniature strongly resembles Quiriguá's full-size stelae, the tallest of which, Stela E, stands at a towering 10m.

Stucco portrait head with traces of red pigment, from Belize; Am1899,-.207British Museum

Primarily though, Gann's collections came from sites that he visited and excavated himself.

Stucco portrait head figure wearing a headdress, from Louisville, Belize; Am1938,1021.398British Museum

This fine stucco head was discovered by Gann at Louisville, a little-known site in Belize.

Maya eccentric flint; Am1938,1021.64British Museum

Gann also coined the term 'eccentric flint' and was the first to report on these ostentatious implements with no practical value. The British Museum holds a very fine collection of these curious artefacts.

T A Joyce holding a snake at PusilhaBritish Museum

Thomas Athol Joyce

Thomas Athol Joyce's British Museum career began in 1902. In 1910 he put together the museum's first Handbook to the Ethnographical Collections. His scholarly interests were at first broad, but through his friendships with such eminent Americanists as Alfred Percival Maudslay, his focus narrowed to Central and South America, and he published some of the first accessible volumes on the archaeology of Central America, South America and Mexico. In 1921 Joyce became Head (known as 'Keeper') of Ethnography at the museum. 

Maudslay cast in British Museum Maya gallery, early 20th centuryBritish Museum

In this role, he was instrumental in transferring Alfred Maudslay's casts from the V&A Museum to a new Maya gallery at the British Museum.

British Museum Expedition boat on the rapids near PusilhaBritish Museum

One of the highlights of Joyce's career must have been in directing the British Museum Expeditions to British Honduras in 1926, 1927, 1930 and 1931. British Honduras, now Belize, was then a British Crown colony.

Photograph of Pusilha Stela K in situBritish Museum

In 1929, the expedition team, which included other notable characters such as Thomas Gann, became the first to devote scientific attention to the remote Classic Maya site of Pusilhá. There they encountered numerous monumental stone stelae, a number of which were transported to the British Museum, like Stela K, shown here.

Pusilha Stela K, Am1928,Q.82British Museum

Today, Stela K is in storage at the British Museum, but receives a steady stream of scholars, keen to establish an authoritative translation of its inscription.

Photograph of fieldwork personnel at Lubaantun, Belize. JES Thompson is seated front left. Am,B51.3British Museum

Sir John Eric Sidney Thompson

J.E.S Thompson joined Thomas Athol Joyce on the British Museum Expedition to British Honduras in 1927 at the site of Lubaantun, Belize, while he was a curator at the Field Museum in Chicago. A few years later he led the Marshall Field Archaeological Expeditions to British Honduras and Guatemala. Some excavated materials from these expeditions are now held at the British Museum.

JES Thompson beside a ruinBritish Museum

Thompson became one of the world's foremost Maya archaeologists and epigraphers, work for which he was knighted in 1975.

British Museum staff Jago Cooper and Kate Jarvis with Iximche site architect Josué Secay OvalleBritish Museum

The British Museum and the Maya today

Today, the British Museum continues to work in the Maya area alongside colleagues from Guatemala, Belize, Mexico and Honduras on projects such as the British Museum Google Maya Project. Priorities  have long shifted away from excavating sites and collecting material for the museum. Instead, the focus is on increasing accessibility to the museum's collections and the Maya more broadly through digitisation and outreach.

Credits: Story

All images © Trustees of the British Museum
Text and image selection: Kate Jarvis, British Museum
Thanks to: Jago Cooper, Claudia Zehrt 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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