Temple, Tikal, Guatemala

AP Maudslay, 1891


Few architectu­ral marvels inspire more romantic mystery than those built by the Mayan civilisati­on, which collapsed more than 1,000 years ago in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula and adjacent parts of Central America. Here, one of the many temples of the ancient city of Tikal in Petén, northern Guatemala, stands clear, the jungle that once obscured it mostly stripped away. The photograph­er, Alfred Percival Maudslay, was a British colonial diplomat, explorer and archaeolog­ist who was one of the first modern archaeolog­ists to study the Mayan civilisati­on. Maudslay travelled to Tikal with fellow archaeolog­ist Frank Sarg, taking photograph­s to record his findings and making use of the new ‘dry plate’ photograph­y process, which involved fewer chemicals. He also took ‘squeezes‘ of carved surfaces – a process similar to papier-mâché that formed a negative mould of the surface, from which a positive copy in plaster of paris could be made. His work laid the foundation­s for later scholars’ attempts to decipher the Mayan written language.

The Maya, although advanced, were ultimately unable to overcome a series of shocks. It’s generally believed that the Mayan civilisati­on collapsed due to a mixture of rampant deforestat­ion, a succession of seasonal droughts, a proclivity for political warfare and a reliance on a small number of nutritiona­lly poor crops. Less commonly known is that the Maya lavishly applied plaster to their buildings and cultural sites, which was a major driver of deforestat­ion (wood was needed to fuel the fires that cooked the lime plaster), which in turn diminished soil health and perturbed the rainfall patterns on which their crops depended.

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