The British Museum Reckons With Troubled Past, Re-creating an Ancient Maya Staircase

Palenque in the 19th century, with the Hieroglyphic Stairway at center.

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Why you should care

Experts used 3D printing to re-create these detailed historic inscriptions.

An ancient Maya monument damaged by erosion has been brought back to life at a temple site in Mexico after a new version was re-created with 3D printing technology using Victorian-era copies preserved in the British Museum.

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 monuments that have subsequently become illegible due to their exposure to the elements.

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The reconstructed Palanque stairway.

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The British Museum and Google Arts & Culture, a not-for-profit arm of the tech 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.

There’s a lot of interest in dead Maya and not living Maya.

Pedro Uc, a teacher and farmer

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 some 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 photochemicals into the jungle interior on mules, as well as tons of plaster mix.

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Alfred Maudslay at work at Chichen Itza, Mexico.

The project has won the support of the Mexican government, but some indigenous descendants of the Maya, now spread across Mexico, Honduras, 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,” says Pedro Uc, a teacher and farmer in Buctzotz, northeast of the city of Mérida, and a 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 says.

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.

Last Tuesday, Maudslay’s entire archive of photographs, diaries, drawings and casts was made available on the Google Arts & Culture site as part of the project, with the help of Mexico’s 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 says, including stucco decoration on the facades of buildings as well as the dress, tools and even the facial expressions of his colleagues.

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By James Pickford and Jude Webber

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