Stephens Begins Uncovering Mayan Antiquities

After John Lloyd Stephens began uncovering Mayan ruins at Copán, Honduras, he and English artist Frederick Catherwood visited forty-four Mayan cities in Mesoamerica and produced two double-volume books that not only inspired the antiquarian studies of professional archaeologists but also advanced the popularity of travel writing.

Summary of Event

In 1839, John Lloyd Stephens sailed to Central America, accompanied by English artist Frederick Catherwood. A lawyer, Stephens contracted with Catherwood for the sole ownership of the drawings Catherwood would make of any ancient ruins found in their travels. By November 13, 1839, they reached the ruins of Copán, Honduras Honduras;Mayan ruins , where they discovered the pre-Columbian ruins of the civilization that would become known as Maya, or Mayan. Stephens’s travels in 1839-1840 led to the two-volume book Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan (1841). Stephens and Catherwood soon set off again, this time to the Yucatán peninsula. Stephens memorialized the 1841-1842 travels in the two-volume Incidents of Travel in Yucatan (1843). Both publications are generously illustrated with Catherwood’s drawings. Stephens, John Lloyd
Catherwood, Frederick
Mayan civilization
Mexico;Mayan civilization
Central America;archaeology
[kw]Stephens Begins Uncovering Mayan Antiquities (Nov., 1839)
[kw]Begins Uncovering Mayan Antiquities, Stephens (Nov., 1839)
[kw]Uncovering Mayan Antiquities, Stephens Begins (Nov., 1839)
[kw]Mayan Antiquities, Stephens Begins Uncovering (Nov., 1839)
[kw]Antiquities, Stephens Begins Uncovering Mayan (Nov., 1839)
Stephens, John Lloyd
Catherwood, Frederick
Mayan civilization
Mexico;Mayan civilization
Central America;archaeology
[g]Mexico;Nov., 1839: Stephens Begins Uncovering Mayan Antiquities[2130]
[g]Honduras;Nov., 1839: Stephens Begins Uncovering Mayan Antiquities[2130]
[g]Central America and the Caribbean;Nov., 1839: Stephens Begins Uncovering Mayan Antiquities[2130]
[c]Archaeology;Nov., 1839: Stephens Begins Uncovering Mayan Antiquities[2130]
[c]Geography;Nov., 1839: Stephens Begins Uncovering Mayan Antiquities[2130]
[c]Exploration and discovery;Nov., 1839: Stephens Begins Uncovering Mayan Antiquities[2130]
Bartlett, John Russell
Leggett, William

Stephens’s interest in the ruins of Central America seems to have been sparked by the bookseller John Russell Bartlett, who first showed him the 1838 publication by Frédéric de Waldeck, Voyage pittoresque et archéologique dans le province d’Yucatan, which included a number of drawings done during Waldeck’s two-year sojourn to the ruins at Palenque. Stephens was not long back from travels among the ruins of Egypt, and Catherwood had traveled a similar trajectory. The two met after Catherwood had lectured in London about a painting. Catherwood relocated to New York in 1836 to practice as an architect. Stephens’s record of his own exotic journey, Incidents of Travel in Egypt, Arabia Petraea, and the Holy Land appeared in 1837 and sold well. When Bartlett showed Stephens the Voyage pittoresque et archéologique dans le province d’Yucatan and suggested explorations in Central America, Stephens contracted Catherwood at $1,500 plus expenses.

When Stephens sailed on October 3, 1839, he did so as the special confidential agent from the United States to the war-torn United Provinces of Central America United Provinces of Central America (UPCA; also known as the Central American Federation) Central American Federation;United Provinces of Central America . William Leggett Leggett, William had been appointed U.S. minister to Central America by President Martin Van Buren and was charged with bringing about a trade agreement with the UPCA, but he died suddenly just before sailing. Stephens, because of his previous campaigning for Van Buren and the Democratic Party, managed to obtain the diplomatic post, which would facilitate his travels. Although his diplomatic mission was unsuccessful indeed, he stated that “no government [was] found” his archaeological mission met with unexpected success. The UPCA had dissolved through civil war around the time of Stephens’s travels.

Stephens and Catherwood landed at Belize, Belize a British colony described by Stephens as “the last place made”; they soon left for Copán, however. They asked about the ruins after arriving, with some travel difficulties, in Copán, but local inhabitants seemed to know nothing of the ruins. Stephens complained bitterly of what he believed was local “ignorance,” “carelessness,” and “indifference” concerning their own ancient history.

Mayan Culture Area

After being directed to one knowledgeable individual, however, the travelers were sent on their way with a guide. Their first glimpse of what would prove to be a profound discovery was a simple stone wall “perhaps a hundred feet high.” They entered the ancient city of Copán, much of it overgrown by jungle vegetation, and discovered immense “idols” or stelae that proved beyond doubt that the ancient inhabitants of the Americas were not savages as first believed, but rather part of a mysterious and unknown civilization.

To make possible the long-term stay and study needed of the site, Stephens tried to purchase the ruins from its “owner” for fifty dollars. (Stephens would later make unsuccessful attempts to purchase the sites of Quiriguá in Guatemala and Palenque and Uxmal in Mexico.) After spending nearly two weeks at Copán, Stephens left Catherwood to the arduous task of accurately surveying and rendering the buildings and figures there, while he set off in search of the seat of government for the UPCA.

Stephens traveled first to Guatemala City, then through Costa Rica Costa Rica , El Salvador El Salvador , and Nicaragua, Nicaragua, but found that the UPCA was an ideal that did not long survive; apparently no real government had existed. He rejoined Catherwood in Guatemala City, and together they set off for Palenque through the difficult terrain of the Petén jungle. Six weeks later they arrived at Palenque, having covered approximately 250 miles in their journey. Their stay at Palenque was cut short by the onset of the rainy season, and they moved on to Uxmal. However, they were tormented everywhere by mosquitoes, and both Stephens and Catherwood were infected with malaria. Malaria;in Central America[Central America] Catherwood’s illness forced the two to return to New York on July 31, 1840. Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan, which appeared in late June of 1841, was reprinted several times that same year.

Stephens and Catherwood made preparations to return to the Yucatán and sailed on October 9, 1841. They located the ruins of Bolonchen, Xampon, Chichén Itzá, and Tulum, among many others. On his way to Mérida in the summer of 1842, and soon after back in New York, Stephens continued thinking about the ancient peoples of the Americas and the forty-four ancient and desolate cities he and Catherwood unearthed. Stephens ended his journey with a “farewell to ruins”: Incidents of Travel in Yucatan was published with 127 engravings by Catherwood. Volume 1 provides population statistics, lists of average temperatures, a short treatise on how the ancients had made stone roofs for their buildings, and a Mayan almanac with explanatory notes. Volume 2 contains a Mayan manuscript and its translation.

Frederick Catherwood’s illustration of the gateway at Labnah in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.

(Library of Congress)

Stephens’s books not only documented their travels, and the frequent difficulties of travel, but also described indigenous inhabitants by race and class (Indians, mestizos, and Spaniards), indigenous foods (tortillas and beans), and the chaotic political situation. Furthermore, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan and Incidents of Travel in Yucatan were designed as affordable publications and thus more accessible to a larger readership. Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan was the first copiously illustrated work of popular archaeology to reach a general audience, largely because of its relatively low price of five dollars for the set.


John Lloyd Stephens’s discovery of the ruins at Copán, Honduras Honduras;Mayan ruins , and many other ancient cities led to a new understanding of the peoples and places of the Americas. Although some sites had been discussed by Waldeck, or by German explorer Alexander von Humboldt earlier during the nineteenth century, their work was limited in scope, was often inaccurate, and did not exist in English. Stephens essentially brought Mayan ruins to the American imagination.

The very existence of such marvelous ruins refuted theories of the period that the Americas had been settled and inhabited by savages, and the ruins served as evidence of civilizations as advanced as those of Egypt. Furthermore, Catherwood’s exquisite illustrations, made with the assistance of a camera lucida that cast an image on a page that could then be traced, were remarkably precise and accurate.

Stephens’s travel writing, written with a direct and accessible style, combined with Catherwood’s illustrations, opened up a new world for readers and historians. The New World was not so “new” after all, but perhaps just as ancient as the previously privileged, and greatly studied, cultures of Rome and Egypt. Although Stephens was an amateur archaeologist, his work served as the basis for the more scientific investigations of American antiquities that followed, and in that sense his work served also as the foundation for a the field of American archaeology.

Further Reading

  • Bourbon, Fabio. The Lost Cities of the Mayas: The Life, Art, and Discoveries of Frederick Catherwood. Shrewsbury, England: Swan Hill Press, 1999. Exquisite color reproductions from both trips Catherwood made with Stephens to Central America and Mexico.
  • Brunhouse, Robert. In Search of the Maya: The First Archaeologists. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1973. Stephens is one of several “inquisitive amateurs” profiled whose travels and research preceded archaeology as a formal science.
  • Evans, R. Tripp. “Incidents of Transcription: ’American’ Antiquity in the Work of Stephens and Catherwood.” In Romancing the Maya: Mexican Antiquity in the American Imagination, 1820-1915. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004. Excellent essay that investigates the argument that Stephens attempted to claim the Mesoamerican past for the United States.
  • Glassman, Steve. On the Trail of the Maya Explorer: Tracing the Epic Journey of John Lloyd Stephens. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2003. Traces Stephens’s travels, weaving in helpful historical information along the way. Maps, illustrations, notes, and bibliography.
  • Stephens, John Lloyd. Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan. Edited by Karl Ackerman. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993. A reprint of Stephens’s 1841 work. Includes illustrations, maps, and a brief bibliography.
  • Von Hagen, Victor Wolfgang. Maya Explorer: John Lloyd Stephens and the Lost Cities of Central America and Yucatán. 1947. Reprint. San Francisco, Calif.: Chronicle Books, 1990. Excellent biography of Stephens, with a chronology, a bibliography, an index, and many illustrations.
  • Ziff, Larzer. “John Lloyd Stephens.” In Return Passages: Great American Travel Writing, 1780-1910. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000. Overview of Stephens’s travels in Egypt, Central America, and the Yucatán. Includes notes.

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