Can you imagine being among the first to study an ancient site? How you would feel brushing your fingers against those ancient monoliths, untouched for thousands of years, hidden in the thick of the jungle. You would think the days for such an adventure are long gone; that there’s nothing left to discover nowadays– but you’d be wrong. Throughout the region of southern Mesoamerica, the number of un-investigated or unknown ancient Mayan sites are so numerous (one study has documented over 4,400) that no complete archaeological list of ruins has ever been made to this day.
Between 1889-1902, British diplomat, archeologist and explorer, Alfred Percival Maudslay, became one of the first Europeans to study Maya ruins. In his mid-30s, Alfred went in search of the remains of a civilization that spanned more than 2,500 years of Mesoamerican history (c. 2000 BC to 250 AD) in present-day nations such as Guatemala and Belize, Honduras and El Salvador, and the southeastern states of Mexico. You’re looking at his glass plate negatives, photographs of his major archaeological work between 1889-1902.
He’s been credited as “the man who helped introduce the Maya to the world”, whose casts of Mayan monuments (and these glass plates) still sit in the British Museum today.
Accompanied by his wife Annie, his first site was the Mayan ruins of Quirigua in Guatemala and Copan in Honduras, where he hired local labourers to clear the jungle surrounding the identified sites to survey ruins.
He pioneered the archaeological practice of working alongside plasterers, technicians and artists to make casts and impressions of the carvings and statues before their inevitable disturbance that would see them end up on display in museums around the world– or worse, destroyed to make gravel fill for roads. In 2015, an ancient Mayan pyramid in Belize that stood for 2300 years, constructed with hand-made limestone bricks, and once the centre of a settlement of 40,000 people, was torn down and turned into gravel used to repair roads. The company responsible was only fined $24,000.
His detailed and humanist photography, a novel technology for the time too, was also a stunning documentation of the excavations and the people who worked with him.
He made six expeditions in total and finally published his findings in 1902 in a 5 volume compendium, Biologia Centrali-Americana. It wasn’t until the 1980s however, the hieroglyphs in many of his photographs would be translated. It was founds that the Glyphs represented not letters but syllables. Only a handful of people are able to decipher them today.
The Mayans were an extremely advanced civilization comprised of millions of people, but their written history, the Maya Codices, were mostly burned or destroyed during the 16th century, which is why we know so little about the civilization now. Although the Maya were already in decay when the Spanish arrived and therefore did not offer much resistance, the fact that their civilization centers, (the first of which date back prior to 2000BC) were located deep in the jungle made their last city survive until 1697.
The world’s largest pyramid only discovered as recently as 2009, covered by the canopy of the Mayan jungle. The ruin is part of a huge ancient Mayan city the size of downtown Los Angeles, “El Mirador” in Guatemala, and archeologists say still thousands of pyramids yet to be uncovered. You can see what else they found in this CNN report.
In 2011 3-D mapping revealed an ancient Mayan city under a Guatemalan rain forest.
Then in 2013, an ancient Mayan temple was discovered to contain mysterious ‘goldenballs’ hiding in a secret tunnel. Hundreds of mysterious golden-coloured orbs were found buried in a chamber deep beneath the Temple of Feathered Serpent in Mexico by a tiny robot using infrared scanners. Archaeologists have no idea what the spheres are for.
So you see, there are still adventures out there waiting for us.
Discover the British Museum archives of Alfred Percival Maudslay.