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Peter Mathews

Pilot Study of the Maudslay Casts in the British Museum, 1998
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Maudslay's 1885 Copán field journal.

Research Year:  1998
Culture:  Maya
Chronology:  Modern
Location:  Guatemala, México, Honduras
Sites:  Yaxchilán, Copán, Palenque

Table of Contents

History of the casts
General evaluation of the casts
Inventory of the casts
Catalogue of the casts
The paper squeeze-moulds
The plaster piece-moulds
"Mapping" the casts
Using the casts to correct drawings
Other Maudslay items in the collections of the British Museum
Maudslay’s photographsv Maudslay’s field journals
Other Maya objects in the British Museum
Work still to do on the casts
Work done at other institutions in 1998
Proposed publications on the Maudslay castsv Sources Cited
List of Figures
List of Tables
List of Appendices


In 1881, in the rather unlikely jungle setting at a site that he called Menche, an English explorer named Alfred Maudslay (Figure 1-1) learned a skill that was to be of immense value to future scholars. Maudslay had reached the site (now known as Yaxchilán; Maudslay named it Menche) by travelling downstream along the Usumacinta River from Guatemala. He arrived at the site on the 18th of March, 1881, and immediately began exploring the ruins. Two days later he sent one of his assistants with a small party upstream for more provisions. On their way upstream they encountered a French expedition that was looking for Yaxchilán, having travelled overland from Tabasco, México. This expedition was led by a French explorer, Désiré Charnay. He and his expedition were taken downstream to Yaxchilán on the 22nd of March by Maudslay’s men, and Charnay and Maudslay explored the ruins together. Their famous encounter has been recounted in various publications (BCA II:42; GG:239-240; Charnay 1887:432-436; Graham:139-141). (See Notes for key to abbreviations.)

While at Yaxchilán, Charnay made perhaps his greatest contribution to Mesoamerican archaeology: he taught Maudslay how to make paper squeeze-moulds of Maya stone relief sculptures, and from these moulds replicas of the stones in plaster of Paris could be made. Charnay himself had learned the technique from another Frenchman, one M. Lotin de Laval (Davis 1981:25). By the late nineteenth century the use of plaster casts to produce replicas of ancient sculptures from the Old World had become quite popular. Perhaps the most famous example was the making of paper squeezes of the inscription of Behistun (in modern Iran). This inscription is 400 feet up an almost sheer cliff face, and it is famous for having a trilingual text of Darius the Great in Persian cuneiform and two other scripts. This inscription enabled Henry Rawlinson, who made the squeezes with the aid of a "wild Kurdish boy," to make a brilliant decipherment of the Persian cuneiform alphabet in the 1850’s. The paper squeezes were later donated to the British Museum.

Maudslay immediately realized the value of moulds and casts for the study of ancient Mexican and Central American monuments, and over the following decade he made several more expeditions to Maya sites in which one of his major aims was to obtain plaster casts.

In 1883 he spent three months at Quiriguá, where he worked on the making of moulds and casts. He took with him on this expedition a plastermaker named Giuntini, who later spent many years working at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Giuntini oversaw the mould-making process (Figure 1-2), in particular of Zoomorph P, Maudslay’s "Great Turtle," which was accomplished with over 600 individual plaster piece-moulds. Giuntini also made plaster moulds of part of two other monuments, while Maudslay made paper squeeze-moulds of "one entire monument, and of every table of hieroglyphics and picture-writing which could be found" (Maudslay, quoted in GG:151).

In 1885 Maudslay, again accompanied by Giuntini, spent a season at Copán, and together they made moulds of a huge number of monuments from the site. In 1889 he spent a season at Chichén Itzá, and in 1891 a season at Palenque. In both these expeditions Maudslay was unaccompanied by Giuntini, but by then he and his trusty assistant Gorgonio Lopez had learned the moulding process very well, and making the moulds presented few difficulties. Moulds, and subsequently casts, were also made of the large Ixkun Stela 1, which Maudslay discovered in 1887, and also of several of the Yaxchilán monuments. Back in England, Giuntini made all the plaster casts from the numerous moulds (BCA I:v).

Alfred Maudslay donated all these casts, as well as the original moulds and his photographs and journals, to the Victoria and Albert Museum. Some time later–around 1920–his collection was transferred to the British Museum, where they remain today, in the care of the museum’s Department of Ethnography. Today the casts and moulds are housed in the British Museum’s storage facilities at Blythe House in Hammersmith, west London.

I first saw the Maudslay Collection while in London to attend a conference sponsored by the British Museum in 1996. I immediately realized the great value of the casts for checking drawings of Maya monuments, and Linda Schele and I spent almost a week making corrections to our various drawings. We found that a very high percentage of hieroglyphs required emendations. While many of these changes were admittedly minor, in some cases the revisions necessitated changes in reading and in interpretation of texts.

I therefore resolved to do further work with the casts, and in 1998 the opportunity arose. With the generous support of the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc. (FAMSI), and the kind permission granted by the British Museum and in particular by the Assistant Keeper for Central and South America, Dr. Colin McEwan, I got to work in July and August of 1998. To both institutions I had proposed a "pilot study" of the casts: to do as much work as we could on the casts and to determine if further work was warranted. I was accompanied in this work by my Calgary colleague Dr. Gerald Newlands, who took charge of the photography, and we were very ably assisted in London by Ms. Clara Bezanilla, Museum Assistant for Central and South America.

This report presents the results of our work in the summer of 1998.

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Pilot Study of the Maudslay Casts in the British Museum, 1998  (2.74 MB)

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Submitted 10/01/1998 by:

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