Marking the Walls

The historical graffiti at ancient Maya sites

British Museum

Structure 21, Yaxchilán.British Museum

When we think about the Maya, our minds fill with stunning images of ancient buildings decorated with beautiful art that was created alongside the structures...


...such as this exquisite decorated archway in the Palace of Palenque:

Loading
, The British Museum, 2017-2019, From the collection of: British Museum
Show lessRead more

Photograph of Chichén Itzá taken by A.P. Maudslay (1881/1894) by Alfred Percival MaudslayBritish Museum

However, these buildings are witnesses of a very long informal history that has been recorded on their walls.

If we take a closer look, this history is unveiled...

Photograph of Chichén Itzá taken by A.P. Maudslay (1881/1894) by Alfred Percival MaudslayBritish Museum

Precolumbian Graffiti

Cohabiting with official art, the ancient Maya used their buildings to express other forms of art, more intimate and spontaneous, in the form of graffiti.

Photograph of a Comalcalco brick. (2019) by GMP teamBritish Museum

Most of the times, this was achieved by scribbling with a pointed object over the stucco of the walls, or over softer materials, like the adobe bricks that were used for construction in Comalcalco, Mexico.

Graffiti. House A of the Palace, Palenque.British Museum

Visit the ruins

After these cities were abandoned, their buildings continued recording history, this time with the visitors that came to admire them over the years.

The Palace, Palenque. (2019) by GMP teamBritish Museum

This is the case in Palenque, a site that attracted explorers from the very beginning and which still receives thousands of tourists every year.

Graffiti. House A of the Palace, Palenque.British Museum

Some of these visits were made a long time ago, even going back to the early 19th century.

Graffiti. House E of the Palace, PalenqueBritish Museum

Some of these names are very difficult to read…

Graffiti. House A of the Palace, Palenque. by Plácido GómezBritish Museum

…and others belong to anonymous people, like Placido Gómez, whose life stills waits to be told.

Photograph of Palenque taken by A.P. Maudslay (1881/1894) by Alfred Percival MaudslayBritish Museum

Other names, are less anonymous and are closely connected to the famous explorers of the 19th Century.

John L. Stephens

The renowned explorer John L. Stephens found in his dwellings in the Palace the name of some of his acquaintances: Captain Caddy and Mr. Walker, William Beanham, and Noah O. Platt.

Les Anciennes Villes du Nouveau Monde. Désiré Charnay. (2019) by GMP teamBritish Museum

Claude-Joseph le Désiré Charnay

Claude-Joseph le Désiré Charnay was one of the most renowned visitors of Palenque. He was a French explorer and photographer who visited Mexico three times (1857-1860, 1880-1882, 1886), recording his travels through its archaeological sites.

He is known for being one of the first visitors of Yaxchilán, along with A. Maudslay.

Graffiti. House A of the Palace, Palenque. (1857-1886 A.D.) by Désiré CharnayBritish Museum

He left his name on House A of the Palace, not far from Plácido Gómez's signature.

Description of the Ruins of an Ancient City Discovered Near Palenque. (2019) by GMP teamBritish Museum

Captain Antonio del Río

Captain Antonio del Río conducted one of the first scientific expeditions to Palenque in 1787, commanded by the Spanish king Carlos III.

Graffiti. Temple of the Inscriptions, Palenque by GMP teamBritish Museum

His name can be seen inside the Temple of the Inscriptions.

Photograph of Chichén Itzá taken by A.P. Maudslay (1881/1894) by Alfred Percival MaudslayBritish Museum

Alfred Maudslay

Alfred Maudslay, British explorer of the Victorian age, was already surprised by the habit of visitors scratching their name on the sites.

Stela A, Copán. (731 A.D.) by Classic MayaBritish Museum

He recalls, for instance, having seen the name J. Higgins on Stela A of Copan, and how a general who was with him had mistaken the letters for hieroglyphs.

Higgins’ name can still be seen in the monument.

Maudslay's photographic archive in the British Museum (2019) by GMP TeamBritish Museum

As a matter of fact, Maudslay’s collection in the British Museum can be of value in the study of these graffiti.

Photograph of Palenque taken by A.P. Maudslay (1881/1894) by Alfred Percival MaudslayBritish Museum

Some of his casts and photographs show graffiti that have disappeared after he witnessed them...

...such as this sketch of a jaguar in House C of the Palace at Palenque.

Stela A, Copán. Detail (731 A.D.) by Classic MayaBritish Museum

On the other hand, graffiti that can be spotted in the original monuments…

Cast of Stela A from Copán. Detail (1880-1930 A.D.) by Alfred Percival MaudslayBritish Museum

…which were not reproduced in his casts. We can deduce, then, that they were made after he visited the Maya sites in the late 19th Century.

Photograph of Palenque taken by A.P. Maudslay (1881/1894) by Alfred Percival MaudslayBritish Museum

Hence, looking carefully to the scribbles in the buildings and monuments of the ancient Maya sites, we can still learn a lot about their past.

Credits: Story

All images ©Trustees of the British Museum unless otherwise marked
Text and image selection: Ana Somohano Eres, Project Curator: Americas
Thanks to: Claudia Zehrt, Eva Jobbova and other British Museum 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.
Explore more
Related theme
Exploring the Maya World
A journey into the past with ancient art and digital technology
View theme
Google apps