Dr Joanne Harwood writes about the casts
Last week we put the (almost) final finishing touches to our new Teaching and Research Space by installing two Maya objects on the remaining empty wall. The objects, on loan from the British Museum, are resin copies of casts made by Alfred Percival Maudslay (1850-1931) at Palenque and Yaxchilán, Maya sites in the present-day state of Chiapas, southern Mexico. Maudslay pioneered the use of paper-squeeze for making casts (made by Gorgonio López), as well as using plaster casts (made by Lorenzo Giuntini). The casts were drawn by Annie Hunter before they were sent to the US and to the UK. Maudslay also documented Maya sites using photography and his work culminated in the book Biologia Centrali-Americana; or Contributions to the knowledge of the Fauna and Flora of Mexico and Central America, published in London in 1889-1902.
Copy of Maudslay cast 187, Palenque
The cast from Palenque is of the right-hand section of a wall panel from the Temple of the Foliated Cross, part of the Temple of the Cross complex built by Chan-Bahlum, who reigned from AD684 to AD702. This bas-relief is thought to depict Pacal, Chan-Bahlum’s father, handing a bloodletter to his son who, in the full panel, stands on the other side of a world tree. By letting blood the king would enter a trance that opened the portal to Xibalba, the underworld, and its gods. The inscription on this section, in Maya hieroglyphs, ‘record the ceremonies performed to dedicate these beautiful temples, over a period of four days during July, 690 (beginning on 220.127.116.11.1). The final inscriptions refer to rites Chan Bahlum himself conducted in 692 (18.104.22.168.12), the eighth anniversary of his inauguration as Palenque's ruler.’ Robert Sharer, The Ancient Maya, p. 28 (http://mayaruins.com/palenque/maudsley_foliated_cross.html)
Copy of 1886.316 (lintel 25), resin copy of Maudslay cast 256, Yaxchilán
The original high relief of lintel 25 from Yaxchilán is in the Mexico Gallery at the British Museum. Before it was removed by Maudslay it was located over the central doorway to Structure 23, a palace building in Yaxchilán’s central acropolis. Like the Palenque panel, lintel 25 also features bloodletting, in this case by Lady Xoc, wife of Shield Jaguar II, who reigned from AD681 to AD741 and whose ascension to the throne in October AD681 is commemorated in the hieroglyphic text in the upper left. Lady Xoc kneels before a vision serpent, conjured through hallucinations brought on by the letting of blood onto paper contained in the bowl to be burned as a means to honour and connect to the gods. She and the unidentified figure within the serpent are dressed very elaborately and the splendour of their clothing and adornments would have been highlighted by the paint that once covered the lintel, the traces of which are replicated in this copy (with traces of blue pigment).
Until last week these copies of casts were located in the University’s Albert Sloman Library where they had been on loan since 1987. Sir Albert Sloman was a Hispanist who established the study of Latin America at the University when it was founded. By 1987 the University was one of the foremost institutions in the UK for the study of indigenous American writing under the guiding light of Professor Gordon Brotherston and later, Dr Tim Laughton, who taught on Maya archaeology and epigraphy. We don’t know but we imagine that Professor Brotherston approached Elizabeth Carmichael, Curator of Latin American Collections at the British Museum, to borrow these cast copies for the instruction of students. This is how we intend to use them in the ESCALA Teaching and Research Space, where they have already started to dialogue with the modern and contemporary indigenous artworks we have in ESCALA, including our recent acquisition by Sandra Moneterroso, and will soon been used in an eye-tracking experiment developed by colleagues in Art History and Psychology. I particularly like the way that the casts solemnly attest to the sophistication of the Maya as a civilization whose writing, like that of the Aztecs, possessed writing that combined text, image and mathematics.
We are grateful to the British Museum for continuing to loan us these outstanding objects and hope that they inspire new generations of students at the University of Essex to continue to broaden their understanding and appreciation of Latin America in a global context.