How the world was awakened to the lost cities in the jungle
By William Steibing Original Print Publication: September, 2008
Today the remains of Mayan ceremonial centers in Mexico and Central America are major tourist attractions, but until the mid-nineteenth century the very existence of the great Maya civilization was largely unknown. The accounts of early Spanish conquistadors and monks had been filed away in Spanish archives and forgotten. Vegetation covered the abandoned sites.
In the late eighteenth century, when Spanish officials in Guatemala heard stories of strange ruins in the jungle, they dispatched Army Captain Antonio del Rio to investigate the reports. Del Rio and an artist named Ricardo Almendáriz spent months hacking their way through dense jungle before they came upon several structures near the village of Santo Domingo de Palenque. Two other explorers, Guillermo Dupaix and Juan Galindo, located the ruins of Palenque and Copán in the early nineteenth century, but the accounts these men published in limited and expensive editions attracted little attention.
Credit for making educated Americans and Europeans aware of the remarkable Mayan remains belongs to a New York lawyer, John Lloyd Stephens, and his British friend, artist Frederick Catherwood. Stephens was fascinated by ancient civilizations and in 1834-1836 had undertaken a journey through Europe, Turkey, Palestine, Sinai, and Egypt. When he stopped in London on his way home, he met Catherwood, who had also recently returned from a trip to Egypt and the Holy Land. Catherwood had seen a copy of del Rio's account of Palenque, and during their discussion of antiquities he asked Stephens his opinion about these ruins. Stephens was shocked: he had traveled halfway around the world to visit ancient ruins and yet he had been completely unaware of comparable remains in the American tropics.
Stephens returned to New York and for the next two years busied himself with politics and his legal practice, but his thoughts frequently wandered to Catherwood´s tales of ruins in Central America. One day, the owner of a bookstore called Stephens' attention to a recently published volume by an artist named Jean Fréderic Waldeck, who had visited Copán, Palenque, Uxmal, and Chichén Itzá. Stephens immediately sought more information; he secured copies of the works of del Rio, Dupaix, and Galindo that confirmed the truth of Waldeck's accounts.
In 1839, Stephens arranged to have himself appointed US ambassador to the Federal Republic of Central America, which was undergoing rapid disintegration. He invited Catherwood to travel with him.
The two men decided to search for the least accessible site, Copán, first. Starting in Belize, they traveled down the coast to Livingston, and paddled rivers, cut their way along overgrown jungle trails, endured heavy rains that made the paths nearly impassible, and once had to escape "arrest" by a group of freedom-fighters Copán and were awed by the vegetation- covered stone terraces, stelae, and pyramids. Stephens later described his thoughts at that moment:
"America, say historians, was peopled by savages; but savages never reared these structures, savages never carved these stones. We asked the Indians who made them, and their dull answer was ‘Quien sabe?' ‘Who knows?'"1
Stephens cleared some structures while Catherwood sketched the remains. Then, after Stephens made a brief trip to Guatemala City to fulfill his diplomatic obligations, the two friends traveled on to Palenque in southern Mexico and Uxmal in Yucatán. In 1840 at Uxmal, Catherwood collapsed and became delirious from malaria. As soon as he could travel, the two explorers returned to New York where the artist could recuperate. Undaunted, Stephens and Catherwood resumed their explorations in 1841-42, visiting the ruins of Uxmal, Chichén Itzá, and Tulum.
Stephens's vivid accounts of their adventures, illustrated by Catherwood's wonderful engravings, were published as Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan (two volumes, 1841) and Incidents of Travel in Yucatan (1843), both of which became bestsellers. These books made the abandoned cities of Mesoamerica common topics of conversation in the United States and Europe and soon prompted others to visit, study, and excavate Maya sites. They also prompted scholars to scour Spanish archives for the early records of the conquest of Mexico.
It is fair to say that Stephens and Catherwood initiated the development of what was to become the discipline of Maya archaeology.
1 J. L. Stephens, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chipas and Yucatan, 12th edition, Vol.1 (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1856), p. 104.
William Stiebing is a former professor of Ancient History and Archaeology at the University of New Orleans.
WHEN GOING TO MÉRIDA
Casa Frederick Catherwood houses a gallery of the artist’s work, along with a café and gift shop, where reproductions of Catherwood’s lithographs are available for sale. You may also buy them through the website: www.casa-catherwood.com.
Calle 59 No. 572, between Calles 72 and 74 (A few steps west of the Catedral de Santiago) Mérida
US Telephone: (917) 880 8587
México telephone: (999) 925 0358
Entrance fee: $43 pesos