Duncan Shields

Alfred Maudslay, photography and archaeology: process, meaning and effect

Supported by

Arts and Humanities Research Council

This project aims to assess the role of photography in archaeology and how photography contributes towards archaeological understanding.

Start Date: January 2013
End Date: January 2016
Theme: Objects, meanings, and knowledge
Research discipline: Archaeology
Locations: Americas
Staff member: Lissant Bolton
Department: Department of Africa, Oceania, and America
University and department: Photographic History Research Centre, De Montfort University
University supervisor: Elizabeth Edwards
Profile: Academia.edu

How were the Maudslay photographs created?

Maudslay’s photographs were made on Dry plates. These are large glass plates coated in a collodion resin and soaked in a silver nitrate solution to make them sensitive to light.

How can photographs contribute to archaeological meaning?

One way is that photographs are exchanged between archaeologists during discussions about a site or object, acting as visual evidence to support or deny different meanings.

What is a ‘photographic material object’?

The photographic material object refers to the physical item of a photograph – the negative, print or slide – as opposed to the image or ‘what the photograph is of’.

About my research

This project places photographic material objects at the centre of its methodology. Through a material analysis of photographs produced by Alfred Maudslay, a prominent 19th century Mesoamerican archaeologist, this project explores how archaeological information is presented, interpreted and often created from photographs of excavations.

Through further research in the written and visual archives that surround the people involved in late 19th Century Mesoamerican archaeology, this project aims to understand the role photographs play in the networks of knowledge exchange, both individually and institutionally, and the important role these networks had in creating archaeological knowledge and interest.

Aims of my research

This research aims to understand the role photography plays in archaeology and the creation of knowledge.

It suggests that, contrary to its perceived role as a secondary and contextual resource, photography is a highly active participant in the creation and interpretation of archaeological meaning. Using Maudslay’s photographs, created in Central America between 1881 and 1894, this research will initially the first complete catalogue of Maudslay’s photographic productions and analyse their method of creation, the manner in which they were used and distributed academically, institutionally and publicly, and the effect they had on the understanding of Mesoamerican archaeology during the late 19th century.

By using a collection such as Maudslay’s as a case study, this research will explore the role, meaning and influence photography has had upon archaeology at large.


RAI/British Museum Archaeology and Photography conference 2014

RAI Visualising Latin America 2014


Multiple Collections, Fluid Meanings in hotographs, Museums, Collections (eds Elizabeth Edwards, Christopher Morton - Forthcoming 2015 Bloomsbury Academic Press)