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.