Home » Alfred P. Maudslay » Photography Comes to Palenque

Photography Comes to Palenque

Temple of the Inscriptions in 1985 Maudslay photo from Meosweb

Temple of the Inscriptions in 1895
Maudslay photo from Meosweb

Excerpts from the archeological field journal of Francesca Nokom Gutierrez, fictional archeologist in the Mists of Palenque series. Early photography in Palenque by Desire de Charnay, Teobert Maler, and Alfred Maudslay is described by Francesca in The Controversial Mayan Queen: Sak K’uk of Palenque, Book 2 in the Mayan queens’ series.




Photography initiated a new era in documentation of Maya ruins.

Before the camera, on-site drawings or white paper cast molds were the best techniques available.  Drawings depended on the skill and perseverance of the artist, and molds were subject to melting in the extremely wet and humid tropical climate.  In 1839 Daguerre invented the first camera using a complicated “wet” chemical process.  The enterprising French explorer Desiré de Charnay used this camera on his expedition to Palenque in 1860.  He spent nine days there, using the cumbersome process to take the first photos of the ruins.

Desire De Charnay on expedition to Maya ruins

Desire De Charnay on expedition to Maya ruins

One important image shows the central tablet from the Temple of the Cross.  Charnay found it where John L. Stephens and Frederick Catherwood saw it earlier, described in their popular book Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan (1841).  It was abjectly lying by a stream and covered with muddy debris.  Charnay cleaned it and lifted it sideways for better light, taking the first photo of this famous piece.  The missing right tablet had found its way to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.  Partly due to Charnay’s work, all three tablets have now been united in Mexico’s Museo Nacional de Antropología.

A folio of Charnay’s photographs of Palenque and other Maya sites was issued in 1863.  This prompted Australian Teobert Maler to launch his field career in photographic documentation of Maya sites.  In the summer of 1877, he went to Palenque and took a series of excellent photos of the Palace and Cross Group, using the cumbersome wet process with a large format camera.  His photos are the clearest early images of tablets, stelae, and lintels from Palenque and a wide range of undiscovered sites.  What lay behind these discoveries was chicle, the basic ingredient of chewing gum, increasingly popular with North Americans.  Chicle trees grew abundantly in Central American tropical forests, and opportunistic chicleros cut hundreds of trails through the Peten that uncovered dozens of unknown Maya cities.

De Charnay photo of mask in Izamal

De Charnay photo of mask in Izamal




Maler photo of stela at Seibal

Maler photo of stela at Seibal






Maler received funding from Harvard’s Peabody Museum to explore and survey these newly found sites, and from 1901 to 1911 he took numerous excellent photographic plates of sites now called Yaxchilan, Piedras Negras, Seibal, and Tikal.  The accuracy of his work provided a foundation for later decipherment of Maya glyphs.

English explorer Alfred P. Maudslay took invaluable photos at Palenque in 1891, producing exceptionally clear images of sculptures and glyphs.  Technical progress in cameras made his work possible.  Factory-made, ready-to-use photographic dry plates became available three years before his expedition.  Images taken by new cameras on dry plates were far superior to the old wet plate process.  Maudslay also made paper molds of stone and stucco reliefs, facing the same issues as Charnay.  In one disastrous rainstorm, three weeks of molds were transformed into a sodden blob, so the tedious procedure had to be done over.

The trip that Maudslay made to Palenque interests me since it reveals much about the region and its people, my people.  From Progreso at the northern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula, he took a boat bound for Frontera at the mouth of the Grijalva River.  A bad storm forced them into port at Laguna de Terminos (now Ciudad del Carmen), the lagoon outlet of the other navigable river leading to the Usumacinta, the major artery of river travel.  After two weeks clearing customs despite ample official permissions from the Mexican government, he secured a small steamer to take his equipment up-river to the village of Montecristo (now Emiliano Zapata).  Finding pack-mules and carriers was difficult and he faced the same problems that plagued most expeditions of his time.

Maudslay commented:  “As the Indians had all been hopelessly drunk the night before, we did not get off very early, although our efforts to start commenced before dawn, and what with bad mules, sulky muleteers, and half-drunken Indians we had a hard day of it.”

The ruins of Palenque were 40 miles from Montecristo, so they went first to Santo Domingo de Palenque (my village).  Maudslay described it as a sleepy little village of twenty houses with one grassy street

Maudslay photo standing in Palenque Palace Tower

Maudslay photo standing in Palenque Palace Tower

leading to a thatched church.  A few white stucco houses lined the grassy square, with Indian huts (palapas) scattered around.  When Chiapas was part of Guatemala, the town was on the main trade route but this commerce had been diverted.  The village was struck by cholera that wiped out half the population.  Many of the homes were abandoned and falling into ruin.  Palenque village was “so far out of the world” that he was surprised to find the two most important inhabitants were sons of a Frenchman and a Swiss doctor.

Trouble with workers seemed endemic.  Maudslay asked for 30 laborers, and the jefe políticos (leaders) of local towns promised them, but only 15 showed up and that quickly dwindled to three.  Finally, he got 20 men from the nearby Chol Maya village of Tumbala (my grandmother’s family is from there).  His team included an engineer, a young Frenchman planning to write books about his travels, and some cooks.  At the Palenque ruins, they set up beds and camp furniture in the Palace corridor by the eastern court, supposedly the driest area.  “Driest” was a relative term, however.

Maudslay wrote:  “The great forest around us hung heavy with wet, the roof above us was dripping water like a slow and heavy rainfall, and the walls were glistening and running with moisture . . .”

Palace at Palenque in 1980, Maudslay photo

Palace at Palenque in 1890, Maudslay photo

Despite unpredictable laborers, Maudslay’s team managed to cut down many trees around the structures, clear out the Palace eastern court, and remove all but one of the trees growing from the Palace Tower.  The top story of the Tower was half destroyed and the whole in danger of falling over in heavy winds.  To prepare Palace piers for photography, they had to remove limestone incrustations that formed small stalactites on the pier faces.  The limestone coating varied from a thin film to 5 or 6 inches thick, and it took six weeks to remove it carefully with hammer taps and scraping.  Underneath they found colors of the stucco paintings still fresh and bright in some places.

Next was photography, requiring platforms supported by scaffolding.  The piers sat on narrow terracesabove stairways, and Maudslay needed to get enough distance to frame good pictures.  His engineer made plane-table surveys of the site center, producing detailed floor plans of the Palace and other structures that are still among the most accurate ever done.

Maudslay suffered from malaria contracted in Nicaragua, but his health was good during the four months at Palenque.  Despite many difficulties and “hot and mosquito-plagued nights” he recalled pleasures such as finding a cool breezy spot, where they escaped mosquito attacks and enjoyed “the beauty of the moonlit nights when we sat smoking and chatting on the western terrace looking onto the illumined face of the ruin (Temple of the Inscriptions) and the dark forest behind it . . . ”

Teobert Maudslay sketching in Casa de Monjas, Chichen Itza

Maudslay sketching in Casa de Monjas, Chichen Itza

Maudslay photo of Temple I at Tikal

Maudslay photo of Temple I at Tikal

Maudslay photo of stela at Copan

Maudslay photo of stela at Copan



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