Monday, December 30, 2013

Alfred Maudslay -- An English Maya Preservationist of Note

Alfred Maudslay is a man of worthy mention when it comes to the preservation of the ancient Maya civilization. Born to well-off parents, he made many trips into Mesoamerica to help record various sculptures and architecture -- and the inscriptions found on both. What Maudslay had published from his preservation efforts gave people the first good resource for studying the writing system of the ancient Maya.

Birth, Education and First Trip to the Americas
Alfred Percival Maudslay was born March 18, 1850 to Anna Maria Maudslay and her husband Joseph, one of the couple's many children. First attending a boarding school in Tunbridge Wells, then another boarding school four years later called Harrow, Alfred began studying at Cambridge University in 1868. His career included being secretary for the Governor of Queensland (one of Australia's states), after which he took the position of British Consul in Samoa, before becoming Consul General in Tonga.

When Maudslay took his first trip to the Americas, however, it was not in the interest of a government career, although it was connected to making money. A business trip, Maudslay checked up on two things: a Californian property being used to produce fruit as well as a gold mine in Mexico. This trip is also significant because he met the woman who became his first wife, Cary Ann Morris, an American (they married in Rome, May 31st, 1892). Cary Ann later died in September 1926, was cremated then buried in Hereford Cathedral's crypt (Alfred later remarried).

Trips to Mesoamerica
Having read the writings of John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood, Maudslay decided to get involved in preserving the ancient Maya civilization. From 1881 until 1894 he made eight trips to the Maya area (his wife accompanying him) to make a record of the ruins (sometimes taking pieces of the ruins away). On these trips various media were used to make records including photography (via a wet-plate camera) as well as paper and plaster casts. Written records were also made. Of the different sites he visited, certain ones received greater attention than others, including Yaxchilán (during which he met explorer Desirée Charnay), Palenque, Quiriguá, Copán and Chichén Itzá. Looking at the ruins, Maudslay began to notice recurring subjects in the art, and also noticed images that are now called full-figure glyphs (anthropomorphized versions of regular glyphs.)

Contributing to Posterity
Maudslay didn't keep his casts to himself. Instead he decided to contribute to posterity and offered them to the Victoria and Albert Museum. However, he had some terms attached to his proposed donation: he wanted the museum to produce a second set of casts from the original casts, and he wanted the museum to pay for their production. Not only that, he wanted his assistant Guitini hired to actually make the casts. The museum agreed to these conditions, and between 1886 and 1891 the casts were made.

From 1889 to 1902, Maudslay had his work published in parts as an appendix of Biologi Centrali-Americana, a work that included a number of volumes. Published items include site plans, site descriptions and lithographic plates by Annie Hunter (who made use of the photographs and casts). The inscriptions located within this published work still help people study the ancient Maya writing system today.

Maudslay's publishings were later published on their own (one volume that just had writing and four consisting of photographic plates). These volumes were collectively titled Archaeology.

Memoir and Death
In his old age, Maudslay wrote a memoir, Life in the Pacific 50 Years Ago,(published 1930), a book whose recollections only go up to when he was thirty. Then, in 1931, Maudslay died.

Items from Maudslay's trips -- known as the Maudslay Collection -- can still be seen in the British Museum's Department of Ethnology. This collection has casts, paper and plaster casts, journals and photonegatives. There are also a number of things Maudslay took away from the Maya area: eight lintels from the site of Yaxchilán as well as nine sculptures (made of stone) from the site of Copán.

The British Museum: Alfred P. Maudslay (1850 - 1931)
"Breaking the Maya Code"; Michael D. Coe; 1992
"Maya Art and Architecture"; Mary Ellen Miller 1999

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Turquoise and the Ancient Maya

Turquoise is more commonly associated with cultures in the American Southwest, such as the Hopi and the Navajo, and in northern Mexico. However, in the Maya world, turquoise -- though not cherished as long as jade -- did eventually become valuable.

Toltec traders are credited with introducing turquoise to the ancient Maya during the Classic Period. From around the 900s AD onwards through the Postclassic Period (around 1200 AD to 1524 AD), turquoise was a precious item to the Maya. Found at a diversity of sites, turquoise has been uncovered in places such as northern Belize's Santa Rita Corozal and Yucatan state's Chichén Itzá.

Where was Mesoamerica's turquoise mined? This depends on the authority with which one confers. Most tend to agree that it was north of the Maya world. According to Sylvanus G. Morely and Robert J. Sharer in their book The Ancient Maya (fifth edition), the source of the turquoise was Central Mexico. Lynn V. Foster's  2005 Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World states that turquoise was obtained from what is now New Mexico. The book Maya Art and Architecture (by Mary Ellen Miller, published 1999) agrees in part with Foster, giving the location of the turquoise source as what is now New Mexico and Arizona. A 2004 book The Ancient Maya: New Perspectives (by Heather Irene MacKillop) agrees in part with the last two sources, stating the source may have come from Lower Central America or from what is now New Mexico.

Turquoise was used to make mosaics, which would be used in different ways -- jewelry and masks, for example. It is possible that the ancient Maya worked turquoise but it is thought that the mosaic items were crafted together before being traded to the Maya.

And what are some examples of turquoise use in the Maya world? A number of examples come from the site of Chichén Itzá. One is a wood scepter depicting the maize god in a dive -- dredged from the Sacred Cenote -- that utilizes turquoise mosaic overlay on the god's face. Also found at the site are four turquoise mosaic disks (found in ceremonial caches), one of which was found in the Temple of the Chacmool -- a temple discovered underneath the site's Temple of Warriors.

"Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World"; Lynn V. Foster; 2005

"Maya Art and Architecture"; Mary Ellen Miller; 1999

Friday, December 20, 2013

Eduard Seler

Eduard Seler was a deep scholar of Mesoamerica who was born in the mid-1800s and lived into the early 1920s. Seler is known for his research and writings on the native cultures of the Americas. His most noted connection to the ancient Maya world is his decipherment of five glyphs.

Birth and Education
Eduard Georg Seler came into this world December 5, 1849, in a place known as Crossen an der Order, located in what was then Prussia -- the second youngest of four children. He went to Joachimsthalsche Gymnasium (in Berlin) from 1863 until 1869, on a scholarship given to teachers' children (Seler's father, Gottlieb Robert Seler, was a teacher). He then went to the university of Breslau, but only for a year as he was in the Franco-Prussian War from 1870 until 1871 (these were the years of the Franco-Prussian War).

Still in 1871, Seler went to the University of Berlin, and in 1875 he passed an exam called the Oberlehrer. In 1876 he took a position at Berlin's Dorothen-stadtischen Realgymnasium where he taught both math and natural science. He had to stop about four years later because of illness.

Seler moved to Trieste, where he took up learning linguistics, and during this time also seems to have started to learn about pre-Columbian archaeology and ethnography. He got a doctorate in 1887 from the University of Leipzig.

From 1904 until the year he died, Seler was the director of the Königlichen Museum Für Völkerkunde's American Division, located in Berlin.

One Mesoamerica in General
In terms of identifying the continuum of Mesoamerican ideology, Seler pointed out how "Mexican" cultures (like the Aztec) shared some ideas with the Maya. His essays on Mesoamerica, when put together make up five volumes.

Seler learned different Mesoamerican languages, including Nahuatl. He found a patron in a man named Duc de Loubat, who gave him money to visit Mesoamerica, and also published Seler's work with color photos.

On the Maya Specifically
Although Seler had much knowledge on Mesoamerica, he did not greatly contribute to the decipherment of the Maya writing system. Seler did not believe that the ancient Maya writing system actually was a writing system. In fact, he and another man, Cyrus Thomas, published papers back and forth at each other in Science (a magazine) from 1892 until 1893, arguing their positions.

Although he was wrong about the Maya writing system, Seler did discover one thing: the glyphs for the world colors. These are the colors connected to the world directions -- with one color being connected to one direction.

Seler died in November 1922 in his home in Berlin. His body was cremated and placed inside an urn in the Aztec style. This urn was then put in a mausoleum in Steglitz that belonged to his wife's family. Later, his wife died and her remains were also placed in the mausoleum.

"Breaking the Maya Code"; Michael D. Coe; 1992