Black and white photograph of the stairway

The hieroglyphic stairway at Palenque

Room 27

See more objects from this region in the Mexico gallery.

Discover how Victorian explorer Alfred Maudslay's collection of photographs and plaster casts became a real-life stairway at an Ancient Maya site.

Cutting edge 21st-century technology and pioneering techniques from the late 1800s have combined to create an impressive hieroglyphic Maya palace stairway at Palenque, in southern Mexico. Is digital innovation the future for bringing historic events and places back to life?

Maya treasure

At first, a repository of hundreds of plaster casts and glass plate negatives doesn't seem like one of the highlights of the British Museum's Mesoamerican collection, which encompasses remarkable objects from Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador.

Yet this collection represents one of the best preserved records of ancient Maya hieroglyphic writing in Europe. It's a treasure trove for epigraphers – experts trying to decipher more of the ancient Maya hieroglyphs – providing a library of texts whose originals are dispersed widely, difficult to access or destroyed.

It's the record of fascinating early explorations of the area, giving insight into the work and ideas of Victorian travellers and museum curators. From Copán to Chichén Itzá to Palenque, these objects contain the incredible stories behind the people who built the ancient Maya cities.

Maudslay's plaster casts

Casts
Maudslay's plaster casts in British Museum stores.

A Victorian explorer

The story behind this incredible collection began with a young Victorian explorer, Alfred Maudslay, who quit his job as a colonial official to dedicate his life to exploring and recording the ancient cities of Central America.

In 1881 he set off in a steam boat from Liverpool to Mesoamerica, for a voyage of exploration and research. Unlike many Victorian explorers, Maudslay wasn't just interested in collecting objects but recording them in situ. What made Maudslay unique was that he used some of the most innovative technologies available in the late 19th century to document what he uncovered during his adventures.

19th century innovation

Maudslay was an avid and gifted photographer, using new dry-plate techniques. Compared to the earlier wet-plate photography, this allowed him a more flexible approach, not needing to prepare the glass plate negatives with a wet chemical solution every time he wanted to take a picture. He set up a dark room during his fieldwork, developing the negatives to check lighting and exposure.

To create detailed copies of the Maya hieroglyphic texts that so fascinated him, he took around four tons (the equivalent in weight to roughly two cars) of plaster of Paris (a quick-setting plaster) to Quiriguá and Copán in 1883 and 1885, together with a master modeler, or formatore, called Lorenzo Giuntini. Hundreds of plaster moulds of monuments and inscriptions were created and sent back to England, where Giuntini made the plaster casts that are in the British Museum stores today.

In 1882, Maudslay learned about papier-mâché, a much cheaper and lighter way to create paper moulds of low-relief carvings. His Guatemalan companion Gorgonio López became an expert in making these at the ancient sites and, luckily, the Museum retains a few of them. The plaster casts of the Palenque hieroglyphic stairway, for example, were made from these paper moulds.

Paper squeeze of part of Palenque stairway

Paper squeeze of part of the Palenque stairway
Paper squeeze of part of the Palenque stairway.

Maudslay's legacy

Maudslay visited and explored 13 ancient Maya sites in Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras between 1881 and 1894, often living at the sites for several months. On his death he left more than 800 glass plate negatives to the British Museum, as well as some of his field notebooks and publication drafts.

Through the work of Maudslay and his collaborators, nearly 500 plaster casts of ancient Maya monuments and inscriptions were made – originally at the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A) and then transferred to the British Museum in the early 20th century.

Since being first recorded by Maudslay in the 1880s and 1890s, the monuments at many of these ancient Maya sites have eroded and partially disappeared. Maudslay had the foresight that this might happen and now we're benefiting from his legacy.

The hieroglyphic stairway

One of the more intricate monuments Maudslay documented was the hieroglyphic stairway of House C in the Palace of Palenque, Mexico. Maudslay photographed the inscription and had plaster casts made from paper moulds he created at the site. He also published a meticulous drawing of the inscription, made by Annie Hunter. These combined records represent the most detailed version of the text on the hieroglyphic stairway there is. It's just one of the examples of the importance of the Maudslay collection for Maya research and conservation.

Through collaboration with the Conservation Department (CNCPC) of the Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), the British Museum embarked on a fascinating path using new technology to create a replica of Palenque's hieroglyphic stairway. The aim was to help to protect the eroding original, as well as to give site visitors a better impression of its former detail.

3D technology

The 13 Maudslay casts of the hieroglyphic stairway were scanned in the British Museum stores. The Maudslay photograph, together with the Hunter drawing, were also used to enhance details, faithfully recreating the stairway digitally into a 3D model as it would have been in 1891, before significant erosion.

This digital version of the stairway was then used with a milling machine to sculpt the stone stairway. Computerised controls and robotic cutting tools perfectly rendered the stairway at a 1:1 scale in Lincolnshire limestone through subtractive engineering.

The stairway was flown to Mexico City and transported to the south, arriving at the site of Palenque in November 2019. The Mexican team from INAH is currently preparing the installation of the stairway, on top of the existing original in the Palace.

Conservation

Using the Maudslay data, together with information collected at the site itself, the epigraphers of the INAH conservation project at Palenque were able to create a new drawing and reinterpretation of the text.

In this new stairway more of the details of the original Maya glyphs and the story they tell of the birth, accession and military success of seventh century ruler of Palenque K'ihnich Janaahb Pakal can be told again, a long time after the original glyphs have eroded significantly.

 

Exploring the Maya world

The British Museum and Google Arts & Culture have collaborated on a large scale project to digitise the entirety of the Maudslay collection and create a freely accessible repository of Maya culture, past and present. Exploring the Maya World: from ancient art to digital heritage is an attempt to bring a rarely seen collection out of the British Museum stores to the world using new technology.

It includes online exhibits, StreetView tours of modern archaeological sites, a Google Earth Voyager trip following in the footsteps of Alfred Maudslay, a Google Expedition from the British Museum to the site of Quiriguá, Guatemala, some behind-the-scenes videos, and scanned glass plate negatives, field notebooks and most of the 3D models of the Maudslay casts.

This project has allowed the British Museum curators to work with indigenous communities in Mexico, along with scholars and technology specialists across Mexico, Guatemala, the UK, Denmark, France and the US, using the internet to transcend boundaries of access to knowledge.

The future

The British Museum already hosts more than six million visitors to the galleries every year. But online there's scope to reach millions more by proactively using new digital technologies as they're invented. This project has done just that and demonstrates how we can begin to bring the Museum to the world through the virtual realm, combining ancient objects and photographs with digital technology.

Only a few years ago it would have seemed unrealistic to create a catalogue of 3D objects viewable from anywhere in the world, let alone walk around ancient Maya cities while sitting in your living room. It's these journeys of discovery that are so important for engaging all communities with the value and wonder of cultural heritage.

Further reading