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Maya Monument Casts from Quirigua, Guatemala

Smithsonian anthropologist Neil M. Judd, a contemporary of our own Dr. Edgar L. Hewett, has written an intriguing history of the herculean task of creating our monumental casts deep in the jungles of Guatemala, ninety years ago. A chapter relating the trials and misadventures undergone at Quirigua may be found in Judd’s brief but fascinating book, Men Met Along the Trail, which mostly tells of his myriad adventures in our own Southwest.

Dr. Hewett, then busily engaged in preparing our Museum for its grand opening on January 1, 1915, asked Judd to go to Guatemala to supervise the reproduction of certain Mayan monuments which Hewett planned to install in the Main Rotunda of what was to be the showpiece of the 1915 Exposition, the Hall of Man (later the Museum of Man). Dr. Hewett did go down on brief supervisory trips, but Judd suggests that critical supervision, not dirty, sweaty field work, was Hewett’s forte. Judd, a thorough and meticulous anthropologist, researched probable problems in advance and believed he was fairly well prepared when he set off – the materials he deemed necessary had been shipped in advance and these included barrels of plaster-of-Paris and of plasticine. To Judd’s subsequent dismay, Guatemalan customs agents in 1914 knew nothing of plasticine and refused to release it to Judd and his crew. It may still be languishing in some ancient warehouse on the Guatemalan coast.

Judd found himself forced to improvise on the spot and ended up using a material to be found in profusion all around them – the jungle mud. Working with Wesley Bradfield, later a director here at the Museum, and Ralph Linton, a great anthropologist of that era, Judd found that the rich mud, cleansed of most of its coarse vegetal fibers, was a highly satisfactory substitute for the impounded plasticine. They used banana fibers for rope and banana ribs in place of wood. After being thoroughly scrubbed of litter, lichens, and the dirt of centuries, the monuments were coated with a thick mud plaster covered by a layer of reinforced plaster. Fibers from dead banana stalks replaced rope for strengthening this plaster shell, which was applied in sections conveniently sized for later handling. These had to be very closely fitted and securely braced. Once each day this coating was carefully removed and the face of the monument scrubbed once again. The mud was saved in large galvanized tubs, since it was to be used over and over again. Each day the plaster forms were fitted together and filled with a preparation of melted glue which replaced the original mud and provided a precise, negative imprint of the monument’s surface. The glue was left to harden overnight and had to removed in the cool hours before dawn; once the tropical sun came up it could have melted the glue, thus ruining all the previous day’s labor. Next, a plaster positive was made in the still-hard glue form. This was the riskiest phase of all because setting plaster-of-Paris generates considerable heat and, in 1914, there was no ice available in the jungles of Central America.

The ruins of Quirigua were discovered on a vast tract of land that was then being turned into banana plantations by the United Fruit Company, which, upon the discovery of the ruins, set aside 75 acres as a national preserve. Most of the laborers on the casting project were Jamaicans who were there in the employ of United Fruit. Judd declares them to have been very satisfactory workers, intelligent and resourceful – although they rather resented having to do all that scrubbing of huge rocks!

Thrilled with finding themselves surrounded by thousands of trees laden with bananas free for the taking, the anthropologists kept several stalks ripening in their al fresco kitchen. This, Judd says, gave rise to a local saying, “Only natives and archaeologists eat bananas” – a saying he declares to be a fiction.

In spite of heat, humidity, lack of supplies, untrained workmen, uncooperative government officials, bites of at least 51 species of local insects – some of which put the men into the hospital – and a host of other difficulties, the casting was a resounding success. The monuments were shipped to San Diego and installed in time for the midnight opening of the Pacific-California Exposition. And these very casts have been on our main floor ever since!