Casts that recapture a civilisation

Alfred Maudslay and the Maya
March 7, 2003

Simon Martin marvels at the life of a groundbreaking gentleman scholar

Biographies tend to fall into one of two camps, either contributing a greater or lesser footnote to the life of some familiar notable, or else plucking a neglected hero or heroine from relative obscurity and giving them their long-denied place in the public consciousness. This elegantly penned and timely biography of Alfred Maudslay belongs to the latter. The current renaissance in the study of ancient Maya civilisation stands squarely on the shoulders of its early pioneers - characters who swapped their comfortable lives in 19th-century Europe or the US for a harsher one trekking through the tropical wilderness of Central America. They brought their physical dynamism to a region filled with very real dangers - venomous snakes and insect-borne pestilence, not to mention banditry and political turmoil - and returned with the first scientific descriptions of an enigmatic but unusually gifted culture. Maudslay was the most important of these groundbreakers and the first true archaeologist of the region.

Maya civilisation flourished in what is now Guatemala, Belize, southeastern Mexico, western Honduras and El Salvador, reaching its apogee in the "Classic" period that lasted from c. AD250 to 900. At this time, the landscape was crowded with populous city-states, their sophisticated royal courts commissioning high achievements in art, architecture, astronomy and writing. When the Spanish conquistadors, fresh from their triumph over the Aztecs, seized the Maya realm in campaigns spanning the years 1524 to 1546, the great metropoli of the classic period had been abandoned for 600 years and were concealed within an immense forest that had grown up in the heart of the region. Here, temples and palaces lay choked by root and vine. Among them were scattered moss-covered monuments, multi-ton images of Maya kings and queens, almost every one inscribed with lengthy hieroglyphic texts.

With the Spanish firmly in control of the Maya populations concentrated to the north and south, the sparsely inhabited forest between them served as a refuge for still independent Maya - its last kingdom surviving until 1697.

Little interest was shown in the ruins until the start of the 19th century, when some of the more accessible were visited by adventurers of varying ability. Their descriptions range from the fanciful - familiar discoveries of Atlantis, the lost tribes of Israel and the like - to the wonderfully perceptive, as in the accounts of John Lloyd Stephens. His journals, bestsellers in the 1840s, recognised the indigenous origins of the remains and prophesied that the unintelligible hieroglyphs held a key to understanding this fallen civilisation. It was here that Maudslay's most important contribution would one day lie.

Maudslay was born in 1850 into a wealthy family. He was not a product of the landed classes but of that breed of industrial entrepreneurs whose genius for practical engineering made Britain a powerhouse during the Victorian age. The young Maudslay was a modest achiever who suffered frequent bouts of ill health. He eventually abandoned his medical studies at Cambridge in search of foreign climes that might aid his recovery. He took up an administrative post in the south Pacific, where the final acts of colonial appropriation were being played out and where island groups, such as those of Tonga, Fiji and Samoa, were still negotiating their entry into the modern world. Experience gained here, especially in the speedy judgement of character and the ability to keep a cool head in dangerous situations, would be invaluable in his future life in Central America.

Perceiving a much greater challenge, Maudslay took himself into the Maya interior in search of ruined cities in 1881. His sickly youth behind him, his series of long and often arduous expeditions continued until 1894. He realised that meticulous recording was a prerequisite to understanding. His most important work was done at the great sites of Yaxchilan, Tikal, Palenque, Copan, Quirigua and Chichen Itza, where he produced maps and conducted excavations, but chiefly dedicated himself to photography. His huge glass plates were technically superb and contained a degree of detail unrivalled in modern times. In search of ever-fuller records of the inscriptions, he brought a plaster worker from Italy to produce moulds of the monuments (some required hundreds of separate blocks). The sheer logistics of importing tons of plaster and keeping it dry in the middle of rainforest, before transporting the fragile blocks by mule and steamer, eventually all the way back to Britain, can only be marvelled at. The resulting casts - some of carvings since destroyed or eroded beyond recognition - allowed accurate drawings to be made, laying important groundwork for the future decipherment of Maya writing.

This is one of those occasions on which discussion of the biography cannot escape some mention of the biographer. The career - and no small measure of the character - of Ian Graham mirrors that of Maudslay in ways plain to all his Mayanist colleagues. What Graham brings to his topic, apart from a personal passion, is the empathy of someone who has shared many of the same challenges, frustrations and successes in recording Maya monuments in the field, often in conditions that match the hardships of Maudslay's day.

Decades of research make this volume a notable addition to the literature of Victorian discovery, and testament to an age of gentlemen scholars to whom we still owe a debt of gratitude.

Simon Martin is honorary research fellow in archaeology, University College London.

Alfred Maudslay and the Maya

Author - Ian Graham
ISBN - 0 7141 2561 X
Publisher - British Museum Press
Price - £29.99
Pages - 323

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