Digitising the Legacy of a Victorian Explorer

The British Museum Google Maya Project

Plaster bust of A.P. Maudslay (c. 1890-1908) by Lorenzo GiuntiniBritish Museum

A. P. Maudslay

A pioneer of Maya research

Northern side of the Great Plaza at Quiriguá (c. 1881-1894)British Museum

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.

View of Maudslay cast storage.British Museum

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.

Maudslay cast storage (with casts uncovered).British Museum

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

Protective wrapping of one of Maudslay's journals (c. 1881-1900) by A.P MaudslayBritish Museum

The written record

Logbooks and diaries

Cover of one of Maudslay's field notebooks by A.P. MaudslayBritish Museum

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 page of Maudslay Journal 3 (1886-1887)British Museum

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.

Two men taking a moment to rest on the wayside by A.P MaudslayBritish Museum

Travel photography

Pioneer of the captured image

Wooden boxes containing glass plate negatives. Wooden boxes containing glass plate negatives.British Museum

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.

An open wooden box purpose-made for the storage of the glass-plate negatives it contains.British Museum

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.

Digitising a glass plate negative.British Museum

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.

Maudslay glass plate negative on lightbox during digitisation.British Museum

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

3D scanning 19th century plaster casts in storage (2017-06-20)British Museum

3D scanning 

Preserving the captured images of A.P. Maudslay

3D scanning a 19th century plaster cast (2017-07-25)British Museum

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.

Blythe scanningBritish Museum

3D scanning a 19th century plaster cast (2017-07-25)British Museum

Back of a Maudslay cast with signature of the plaster modeller who created the cast.British Museum

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.

Cast of part of Stela E, Quiriguá; Am,MaudCast,GN.313British Museum

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.

Stela E at Quiriguá by A.P MaudslayBritish Museum

3D scanned model of a Maudslay cast, From the collection of: British Museum
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By 3D scanning all of the casts separately (here a screenshot of the ruler's face)...

Screenshot of 3D scans of casts joined together to form one side of Stela E, Quiriguá, From the collection of: British Museum
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...the casts can then be joined together again for a full model of the monument.

Photo of mould-making at Quiriguá, Guatemala. (c. 1881-1884) by A.P. MaudslayBritish Museum

Capturing images in plaster

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

Maudslay paper squeeze, Am,MaudSQ.35 Maudslay paper squeeze, Am,MaudSQ.35British Museum

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).

Opening a crate of plaster piece mouldsBritish Museum

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.

Open storage crate with packaged plaster piece mouldBritish Museum

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

Unpacking a plaster piece mouldBritish Museum

So now they all have to be individually unwrapped again.

Cleaning an unpacked plaster piece mouldBritish Museum

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

Laying out of cleaned plaster piece mouldsBritish Museum

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

Plaster piece moulds layed out in their sequenceBritish Museum

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

Joined up plaster piece moulds of part of a Maya monument (1883)British Museum

Nevertheless it takes a while to complete the puzzle.

Maudslay plaster piece mould (MaudPM.QPE.30)British Museum

Each individual piece mould is also digitised by using photogrammetry.

Maudslay plaster piece mould (MaudPM.QPE.36)British Museum

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

Joined up plaster piece moulds of part of a Maya monument (1883)British Museum

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.

Detail of Zoomorph P at Quiriguá (c. 1883)British Museum

Zoomorph P at Quiriguá with man standing next to it (1880s) by A.P MaudslayBritish Museum

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

3D scanned model of a Maudslay castBritish Museum

Image Innovation

Using the preserved images with new technology

Screenshot of 3D scan of Maudslay cast GN.46British Museum

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.

British Museum staff on a Google Expedition to Quiriguá, Guatemala., 2017, From the collection of: British Museum
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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.

Epigrapher Christophe Helmke working with the Maudslay casts (2017) by GMP teamBritish Museum

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.

Plaster bust of A.P. Maudslay (c. 1890-1908) by Lorenzo GiuntiniBritish Museum

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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