0757 GMT November 19, 2019
The rebirth of the Hieroglyphic Stairway at Palenque was made possible by the museum’s fortuitous collection of hundreds of plaster casts of Maya inscriptions taken 130 years ago by the British explorer and diplomat Alfred Maudslay.
Maudslay hacked through the jungles of Middle America in the 1880s on a mission to uncover the secrets of the Maya, recording with casts and photographs of monuments that have subsequently been left illegible by their exposure to the elements, according to the Financial Times.
The British Museum and Google Arts & Culture, a not-for-profit arm of the search company, laser-scanned the plaster casts which had lain in storage for more than a century and commissioned a limestone reproduction from Pangolin Editions, a Gloucestershire based foundry better known for creating sculptures for artists such as Damien Hirst.
The stairway has been flown to Mexico and will be put on permanent display at the site, where visitors will be encouraged to touch the glyphs and read a translation of the inscription.
Jago Cooper, curator of the Americas at the British Museum, said the project was “a journey of understanding built on the latest technology of our time”.
“You can now see what the ancient Maya were trying to do with this staircase, which currently you can’t.”
Maudslay’s preference for recording rather than retrieving objects gives the museum welcome relief from a series of disputes over some of the artifacts in its collection, from the Parthenon Marbles taken from Athens by Lord Elgin to the Benin bronzes looted by British troops in the 19th century. Sir Richard Lambert, chairman of the British Museum trustees, described restitution as “an existential question” for the institution at an event in London in July.
With the exception of a handful of artifacts he feared would be looted and so had sent to London, Maudslay used the then-cutting edge techniques of plaster casting and photography to capture the monuments in situ, bringing large glass plates and photo-chemicals into the jungle interior on mules, as well as tons of plaster mix.
The project has won the support of the Mexican government but some indigenous descendants of the Maya, now spread across Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala and elsewhere, raised questions over the focus given to heritage when many communities remain marginalized.
“There’s a lot of interest in dead Maya and not living Maya. They reduce us to folklore … when we are stuck in poverty today,” said Pedro Uc, a teacher and farmer in Buctzotz, northeast of the city of Merida, and member of the Múuch’ Xíinbal assembly of defenders of the Maya territory.
Atanacio Gómez Encino, a custodian of the archaeological zone in Palenque and himself a Maya, applauded the decision to protect the original steps from further deterioration but lamented the fact that conservation projects at the site were foreign initiatives. “The Mexican government should provide enough cash for conservation and protection,” he said.
British Museum curators have spent time with indigenous Maya communities in the state of Yucatán, explaining the significance of the ancient sites as well as the role played by Maudslay’s Maya collaborators, captured in the many photographs he took of them.
On Tuesday Maudslay’s entire archive of photographs, diaries, drawings and casts were made available on the Google Arts & Culture site as part of the project, with the help of the Mexico National Institute of Anthropology and History. Virtual reality and augmented reality tours of the sites are published in English and Spanish, while Maya scholars can examine online the entire cast collection scanned in 3D, altering the position of the light source and point of view to help them decode the highly complex text.
The digitization of Maudslay’s glass plate photographs revealed details not previously observed, the museum said, including stucco decoration on the façades of buildings, as well as dress, tools and even the facial expressions of his colleagues.