An Adventurer Craftsman

In the second half of 1882 the famous english archaeologist and explorer Alfred Percival Maudslay (1850-1931) was laboriously busy preparing for a future expedition to South America, Guatemala and Honduras with the aim of studying Mayan sculpture. After bringing back a series of photographs, surveys, measurements and papier-mâché molds from previous expeditions to Quirinuá, Copan and Yaxchilan, Maudslay realized that the best and most effective way to acquire faithful copies of Mayan monuments was to make very detailed plaster casts. The more accurate the copies would have been, the more faithful the graffiti would have been useful to scholars. From the experience obtained with papier-mâché moulds, Maudslay realized that it was necessary to create plaster moulds, which were much more faithful and professional.

Naturally the plaster mold represented an extremely difficult work to make in the middle of the forest; where just the transport of materials and equipment, as well as moving the heavy plaster negative made up of hundreds of pieces, involved an enormous waste of energy and money. Furthermore, it was essential to employ the services of a highly experienced mold maker to be recruited in England. He needed a man crazy enough to follow him on such an undertaking.

Under growing interest in plaster casts, Maudslay visited the South Kensington Museum (today the Victoria and Albert) in London. Admiring the magnificent casts of the monumental Cast Court including the Portico de la Gloria of Santiago de Compostela made by Domenico Brucciani in 1866, he met the most famous molding workshop in London, D. Brucciani & Co. at the London Gallery of Arts in Covent Garden with a selection of over 1,200 casts in the catalogue.
Maudslay was further convinced of the choice, the plaster molds would result in extremely accurate casts of the Mayan sculptures of Quiringuá and Copán. In the plaster cast there would have been no limits or loss of all those details and undercuts that they had not been able to obtain with the paper molds. However, Squeezes (as the paper molds were called) would still be used to capture inscriptions and hieroglyphics. Thus, for the new mission the archaeologist hired Lorenzo Giuntini (Andrew Lawrence “Lorenzo” Giuntini, Cheltenham 1843 – London 29 December 1920). Giuntini was an expert mold maker of Italian origin who had learned the trade at a very young age from his father Andrea Giuntini, born in Italy in 1808. Soon achieving considerable fame, Lorenzo also worked at the famous workshop of Domenico Brucciani.
So over 4 tons of Plaster of Paris, stored in metal-linen barrels and the rest of the materials, tools and equipment were sent to Livingston for departure by ship.
In the first days of January 1883 Alfred Maudslay and Lorenzo Giuntini boarded a steamship bound for Berlize in the Caribbean Sea. On February 18 they reached Yzabal in Guatemala, with the precious help of Gorgonio Lopez and his son Carlos, together with twenty Kekchi Mozos from Coban. All the heavy materials, equipment and plaster now packaged in waterproof bags were transported for days on the shoulder and back of a mule to Quiriguá, an ancient Mayan city along the Motagua River. Maudslay and Giuntini traveled on horseback but with various difficulties: in fact the artisan soon felt the fatigue of the hard journey to which he was not accustomed. However, once he arrived he was very happy to see the large stone sculpture which in a few days was ready to be formed. The archaeological site of Quiringuá was rich in monuments, very tall stelae and imposing zoomorphic sculptures. The zoomorphs of Quiriguá were made to provide information about the sovereign, his power and his conquests. Nearly every square inch of these richly decorated monuments is dedicated to the transmission of information. The largest is Zoomorph P or Large Turtle, which weighs 20 tons and offers a totally engraved surface of 40 square meters.

The Quiriguá monuments were built to celebrate the completion of 5 Tuns (or a quarter of K’atun), or a period of 1800 days, approximately 5 years. The four great zoomorphs were carved consecutively, starting in 780 AD, and are almost certainly connected in some way to the Mayan creation myth. There are also two smaller zoomorphs whose function is uncertain.
The heavy monoliths were carved in situ but from huge blocks transported for kilometers.
In the first days of march Lorenzo Giuntini began working on the large monolithic sculpture called Big Turtle (later called Zoomorph P and subsequently Monument 16), an enormous finely sculpted granite rock with the surface completely covered by a relief full of figures and thick inscriptions. Many undercuts had to be cleaned of vegetation and lichen attack which compromised their correct reading. The molding work was very difficult and exhausting due to the size of the monument and the difficulties of working in an excessively hot and humid environment.
Raw materials were quite limited and had to be used very sparingly. The plaster mold he obtained was made up of over 600 pieces. The lateral portions had to be very robust to withstand transport by mule and then by boat and at the same time they had to be as light as possible also to save material. On April 26, after almost two months of work, the mold of the Great Turtle was completed by Giuntini. For its construction, 2 tons of plaster were needed. At the same time Giuntini worked on other sculptures, at the end of April he had also made the cast of a large part of two large monolithic monuments, while Gorgonio had taken the paper casts of numerous inscriptions.

Imagining the hostile conditions of such an inhospitable place, the limited resources of that era, the effort required by such a huge job and last but not least the long journey to a distant land, it is easy to imagine that this would become the feat worth telling for Giuntini. For all life.

In the following years the skilled mold maker completed two more missions, one to Mesoamerica again with Maudslay and subsequently, in 1892, a new mission to Persepolis in Iran with Herbert Weld-Blundell.
The packaging and transport of all the pieces that made up the heavy molds and all the material proved to be rather difficult. There were thousands of dowels and delicate plaster elements belonging to different shapes as well as large paper molds. During the long transport march in the forest the convoy was hit by a violent storm which soon turned into a hurricane, the group was overwhelmed and some paper molds were seriously damaged by the humidity.
At the end of the mission, 20 original sculptures were brought to London, dozens of large molds divided into tons of plaster (from which to obtain the casts), 400 paper casts of bas-reliefs and inscriptions, as well as a multitude of photographs, films, drawings, Mesoamerican measurements, maps, notebooks and textiles.
What to do with all this material?
While waiting to fully understand which strategy to implement, whether to postpone the systematic study until the end of the explorations or start the analysis of the finds immediately, the execution of the plaster casts had to begin immediately. Giuntini promptly got to work and in 1884 Maudslay was able to present a good number of casts to the Archaeological Museum of the University of Cambridge, which had allowed him to carry out the expedition. Unfortunately, the casts were bulky and unwieldy and the university declined the offer to accept them in its buildings.

In early August 1885 Maudslay attempted to secure an agreement with London’s South Kensington to organize an exhibition of casts, photographs and maps of the archaeological sites of the Mayan areas explored. He proposed the donation of the entire collection of casts of the original works on the condition that they be kept on display for the students and that the museum could take care of the services offered by Giuntini by paying his salary for his work and all the expenses incurred by himself.
So in January 1886 all the plaster casts and molds were sent to the museum where Giuntini was temporarily employed. However, in the following years the projects continued with great difficulties, new crates full of molds continued to arrive at the museum every year and in 1891 the administration of South Kensington informed Maudslay that they were forced to interrupt the collaboration with Lorenzo Giuntini. Maudslay managed to secure only an extension. In 1893 the museum announced that the entire collection would be transferred to the British Museum with which an agreement was reached to keep the originals on display while the casts would be stored in the basement of the British Museum leaving them accessible to scholars.
In 1914, other expeditions were made to the same areas on behalf of the School of American Archaeology. The aim was to continue the excavations after past experiences, including those of Maudslay, and to bring back the plaster casts of some monuments in the belief of obtaining more faithful reproductions of those of Giuntini.
As described in the expedition reports, the new campaign would be conducted by making gelatine molds, i.e. animal glue. In this way the rendering of the surfaces would have been more faithful and precise and the execution would have been faster. The report relating to the new cast of the Great Turtle compared the 600 pieces of Giuntini’s plaster mold made in 3 months (wrong date because the cast was made according to Maudslay in two months) against the 11 parts of the gelatin mold made in just 15 days. However, it was omitted that the duration of the plaster mold had no limits while the gelatin mold could last a few years and allow the making of a few copies.
However, from the detailed description of the execution technique transcribed in the expedition bulletin, we can deduce that it was not a convenient choice.

The gelatin mold had certainly not improved in terms of weight and size. The making involved a series of major complications that made the work very difficult. Animal glue deteriorated rapidly due to high temperatures and humidity. The working procedure was very uncomfortable as we had to create and articulate a plaster bulkhead to contain the liquid glue during the application phase.

Therefore a layer of clay (corresponding to the thickness of the glue) was created over the entire sculpture. Subsequently, large plaster caps were made, equipped with bamboo connections and reinforcements.
In the next phase the plaster caps were dismantled, the clay removed from the sculpture, the caps reassembled in their place and hot liquid glue was poured into the empty space (previously occupied by the clay state) in an operation that was anything but simple. , having to maintain a constant temperature even if it tended to cool quickly and therefore solidify without reaching the entire surface of the sculpture inside. Often the cooled glue had to be replaced by another ready-made glue heated inside metal tubes over indirect heat or in boiling water, continuously slowing down the work process. Holes were made in the plaster to expel the air, and as the glue filled the cavity the holes were closed with clay.

Finally the mold was left to cool overnight and then demoulded, including the layers of rubber jelly and finally the cleaned statue.
The plaster casts were made on site, not from the entire recomposed mold, but from each individual part of the mold in order to obtain portions of the sculpture that were better transportable. It was necessary to carry out the work in the early hours of the morning, as the sun’s rays softened the surfaces of the gelatin. Plaster powder was sprinkled on the gelatin to remove the adhesive strength of the glue. Then alum was used as a release agent, only at this point was the plaster poured in several layers to obtain the cast. The temperature and humidity made making the casts very difficult. The plaster was strongly affected by the use of these agents and the setting was too accelerated. It was necessary to use a much larger quantity of plaster than was necessary under normal conditions. Once the work was completed, the various portions of the plaster cast were packed in wooden crates covered with banana leaves used as absorbent material. All portions of the cast would be reassembled after arriving at their destination.
On this information it is easy to deduce that there has been no improvement compared to the casts made by Giuntini. It is known that the gelatin mold does not offer a better surface than the plaster mold, especially if made in difficult conditions and not in a workmanlike manner. The quantity of useful material to be transported was greater than that used during Maudslay’s mission, a greater quantity of Plaster of Paris was necessary for both the molds and the casts. They also had to carry large amounts of clay and gelatin that were not needed during the previous mission. The only apparent advantage was the saving of time during the making of the moulds, but additional time was necessary to allow the castings to be made on site and for packaging and transport.
Furthermore, the creation of large casts as independent elements to be assembled subsequently compromised the dimensional precision of the cast compared to the original, which cannot be found in Giuntini’s casts which were instead made to perfection.

The plaster casts obtained from the gelatine molds were exhibited in San Diego, California, during the Panama-California Exposition and then in the rooms of the School of American Archeology of Santa Fe in New Mexico; but the doubt remains about the real need to spend so much energy and money when it would have been sufficient to request the same molds from the existing molds already made by the skilled trainer Lorenzo Giuntini.