Acanceh, 1907

Full of vivid colour, this detail of a watercolour on thin tracing cloth depicts part of the stucco frieze that adorned an ancient Maya building at Acanceh as it appeared shortly after discovery.

In 1906, local inhabitants were dismantling a structure at the site in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula for building materials when they uncovered a 13m- long wall emblazoned with brightly painted reliefs, thought to date to around AD 600-700. As we can see in this part of the frieze, there are two rows of figures set within a stepped frame. The precise identification of these figures differs, but they include a bat demon or a bat (perhaps a human dressed as a bat) associated with the underworld; the god of the underworld or a howler monkey; and another bat demon or a bird. In between the frames are objects often interpreted as burning incense pots.

The frieze’s good state of preservation on its discovery was unusual: few decorations in stucco survive in the northern Maya lowlands, where Acanceh is located. But today the once-bright reliefs are faded and damaged from exposure to the elements and vandalism.

It is to Adela Breton (1849-1923) we owe this important visual record of the frieze, a series of watercolours created over five weeks in 1907. Her accurate scale-drawings allow scholars to study the deteriorated stucco reliefs. The traces of paint that do survive line up with what Breton – an artist with a keen eye for colour – has depicted.

Breton grew up in the English city of Bath and received an education typical of well-to-do Victorian women, including painting. Her father left her with an interest in history, and, after his death in 1887, an inheritance that gave her the financial freedom to travel. She was drawn to Mexico, visiting for the first time in 1892 and returning many times over the years. Breton became acquainted with the archaeologists working in the country and made full-size and full-colour copies of the wall-paintings at a number of Mesoamerican sites, including the Upper Temple of the Jaguars at Chichén Itzá.

From 1899 onwards, Breton lent her work to the new Bristol Art Gallery & Museum of Antiquities, before bequeathing her collection in 1923. In recent years, the museum has conserved and digitised this remarkable collection, so these intricate and fragile works – normally kept in storage to protect them from deterioration – can be seen as part of the museum’s digital collection.

To see more of Adela Breton’s work, search the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery collection at http://museums.bristol.gov.uk.