Maudslay: The Maya Man: Ian Graham Celebrates the Efforts of the Archaeologist and Photographer in Opening Up for Study the Mayan Civilisation of Central America

By Graham, Ian | History Today, January 2003 | Go to article overview

Maudslay: The Maya Man: Ian Graham Celebrates the Efforts of the Archaeologist and Photographer in Opening Up for Study the Mayan Civilisation of Central America


Graham, Ian, History Today


Not often is the work of a nineteenth-century field archaeologist valued as highly by modern scholars as it was by their predecessors a century ago. Yet this is true of the documentation of Maya sculpture and inscriptions that a British archaeologist compiled between the years 1881 and 1894. This pioneer was Alfred Percival Maudslay (1850-1931), whose photographs and plaster casts have proved of enduring worth and beauty, and remain an object lesson in the recording of archaeological remains. In particular, his work has contributed greatly to the decipherment of Maya script, thereby increasing enormously our understanding of the longest-lasting, and also one of the most remarkable, of all preconquest civilisations of the Americas.

There was little in Alfred Maudslay's background and early career to suggest his later scholarly interests. He was the grandson of Henry Maudslay, a mechanical engineer who was regarded as the father of precision in mechanical engineering for the improvements he made in machine tools and measuring instruments. The company he founded came to be engaged chiefly in the manufacture of large marine engines, and since it prospered until the close of the nineteenth century, Alfred was sufficiently well-off to mount expeditions to Central America and Mexico with a fairly free hand. The influence of his family background may also be seen in the meticulous care he later took over photography, surveying, the making of plaster casts, drawing, and other practical activities.

At Cambridge (1868-72) where he studied Natural Sciences, Alfred Maudslay became friendly with a don, J.W. Clark, who was Secretary of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society, and later a candidate for the Disney Chair in Archaeology. Clark is the person most likely to have sowed in Maudslay the first seeds of interest in archaeology. Maudslay was shown tempting photographs of the ruins of Copan and Quirigua which another friend of his, Osbert Salvin, had taken in 1860; nevertheless, it was ornithological rather than antiquarian interest that drew him first to Central America for a summer vacation following graduation from Cambridge, for he longed to see tropical birds in their native habitat.

After graduating, Maudslay enrolled in medical school, but he withdrew when he realised that the bronchitis which plagued him each winter would interfere with this profession. Having looked about for a career in a warmer part of the world, he settled upon growing tobacco in Jamaica, where he sailed in January 1874, only to learn at a port of call that quarantine for yellow fever had been imposed there. He sailed on to Trinidad, and while there was offered, and accepted, the position of private secretary to the Governor of that island, William Cairns.

Not long afterwards, Cairns was appointed to Queensland, and invited Maudslay to accompany him. There, Maudslay was to find himself unhappy with his chief whom he found increasingly difficult to work for. He was rescued by Sir Arthur Gordon, the newly appointed first Governor to Fiji, who, passing through Brisbane on his way to those islands, suggested that Alfred transfer to his service. Maudslay gladly accepted.

Shortly before, in October 1874, Britain had taken over Fiji as a colony following negotiations with tribal leaders. The problems that had beset the islands leading to this outcome included warring chiefdoms, raids by a savage tribe in the highlands (Maudslay himself was to take part in one campaign against them), unscrupulous white traders, and white settlers who were kidnapping natives from other islands beyond Fiji to work on sugar plantations and keeping them practically as slaves. In the absence of jurisdiction, the boarding of slave-trading vessels was fruitless, so the primary aim of the new Governor was to persuade the Colonial Office to establish a High Commission for the Western Pacific that would provide jurisdiction. Frustrated by delays in establishing this, the Governor dispatched the young Maudslay to London in 1877 to conclude the final negotiations, and return with the Great Seal of the Commission. …

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