On display in the East Stairs by the British Museum’s Mexico gallery are a pair of 19th-century plaster casts of impressive Maya stelae from Copán in Honduras. These monumental carvings are just two of the many the adventurous Alfred Maudslay recorded on his travels around Mesoamerican sites in the 1880s and 1890s. Others are kept out of the way in the museum’s archives at Blythe House, where they have been for more than 100 years.
Maudslay had an eye for the exotic (he kept a spider monkey as a pet) and for innovations. Not only did he diligently record the monuments he explored using cheap and lightweight paper moulds, but he was a pioneer in his photography, producing the first glass plates of ancient Maya sites. He was also the first to scientifically document a number of those sites, including Tikal. Maudslay was modern in his methods and now, fittingly, the British Museum has teamed up with Google Arts and Culture to digitise his Guatemalan archive and launch a dedicated online platform that makes the archaeology of inaccessible jungles accessible from your home.
The museum’s Maudslay collection contains over 250 of his glass-plate negatives from Guatemala, as well as more than 1,000 pages of archival documents, including his personal diaries. After a year of work, all of these have now been digitised, preserving important records of Maya sites. Maudslay’s large-format plates capture carvings in high-quality and exceptionally detailed images, which cannot be matched by current digital photography. They have been carefully scanned at ultra-high resolution, enabling people to zoom in to minute details. Online, Maudslay’s 19th-century photos are shown side-by-side with images of the same monument taken last year. These comparisons highlight the erosion that has affected the carvings, which have been exposed to the elements over the years.
Maudslay was aware that his plaster casts would ‘survive the originals’. He produced these from moulds created by applying moist paper to a monument. While the original stelae left in situ in the open air have indeed lost some of the precision of their carvings, the casts have preserved some of the definition, and this record has now in turn been preserved through 3D scans. Deciphering Maya glyphs was a topic of great interest to Maudslay, and it is something very few scholars are able to do. Those that can read the glyphs are scattered across institutions around the world, so it is hoped that detailed, digital versions of inscriptions will aid research in this specialised field. With augmented reality based on photogrammetry, impressive but cumbersome objects like a zoomorph from Quiriguá appear on a phone screen as if they are right in front of you. (This works in a similar way to Pokémon GO: you move around the object, pretending it is really there but visible only if you use your phone as a lens.)
As well as the scans of the casts and glass plates, new content has been developed for the Google Arts and Culture page, in both English and Spanish. Features explore themes relating to the British Museum’s Maya collections, such as masks, glyphs, and the process of scanning the casts. Google Street View tours of sites (using Google Carboard) are also on offer, while Google Expedition transports school classes to Quiriguá through virtual reality. Guatemalan sites have provided the basis for this material, but, following in Maudslay’s footsteps, the project will next roll out to Maya sites in Honduras and then Mexico.
To explore the digital Maya world, visit g.co/BritishMuseumMaya.
TEXT: Lucia Marchini