Magazine article The Spectator

Generous to a Fault

Magazine article The Spectator

Generous to a Fault

Article excerpt

Generous to a fault Miranda France ALFRED MAUDSLAY AND THE MAYA by Ian Graham The British Museum Press, 29.99, pp. 323, ISBN 071412561X

Latin America's most highly developed pre-Conquest civilisation, the Maya once inhabited an area covering parts of present-day Mexico, Guatemala and Belize. The hieroglyphic inscriptions they left behind on monuments still puzzle decipherers, but it is thought that the race probably originated around 1000 BC and was sophisticated in the arts, sciences and especially in architecture. The Maya made regular human sacrifices and feared an apocalypse, perhaps rightly, because by the eighth century their cities had been mysteriously abandoned. No one knows what happened to them.

They sound fascinating, but this book isn't the place to start if you want to know anything more about the Maya. Alfred Maudslay (1850-1931) was a pioneer not in the deciphering of inscriptions, but in methods of recording them for the benefit of scholars.

That disappointment aside, this well-- written biography has much to offer. Ian Graham shows how the 19th-century technician was at least as daring as the more glamorous 'discoverers' of history books. We see Maudslay riding for days through the jungle, with his unwieldy photographic equipment carried by mule or on men's backs. A day's work, entailing some `severe gymnastic exercise', could be ruined by rain, or a blast of firelight as Maudslay struggled, in a makeshift dark-room, to develop plates.

Sometimes he felt he was living out the kind of adventure that would appeal to a schoolboy `fresh from Robinson Crusoe'. But he was not given to great emotions. After a gruelling journey Maudslay might arrive at some virgin site, hack through the undergrowth to reveal an idol or the foundations of a temple, and calmly set to work cleaning and photographing it. If he ever felt overwhelmed by the wonder of it all, he did not record this. He was a Victorian, after all.

On one occasion, Desire Charnay, an American explorer anxious to be credited with discovering an unknown ruined city arrived at a site called Yaxchilan to find Maudslay already hard at work. Maudslay, as Charnay recalled, reassured him:

You need have no fear on my account, for I am only an amateur, travelling for pleasure. …

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