John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood's first journey together was in 1839-1840. Departing New York on 3 October 1839, the men reached Belize on 30 October 1939. Stephens had planned to fulfull his his diplomatic mission in Guatemala City before departing with Catherwood to find the rumoured lost cities of the Americas. They were waylaid several times en route before being warned that they must turn back because foreigners were being killed by angry freedom fighters. The two decided that they might as well embark on their personal mission, and started talking with locals and guides about where they might encounter the ancient ruins.
They found a guide in Belize who was familiar with the location of some ruins and could take them through the jungle safely. When they arrived at Copán, they found a site that was dark from the tree cover, dense with vegetation, and uneven with hills and mounds. When they found some monolithic statues and set to clearning the hills they found evidence of a large complex. The monoliths were carved with likenesses of gods or people and a glyphic writing system. The hills and mounds were temples and buildings that had been reclaimed by nature over hundreds of years.
Excited by their discovery, for they were among the first European travellers to ever see Copán, they set to work recording in words and images everything that they could uncover. Stephens and Catherwood named the sculptures idols and altars, assuming they were carvings of gods with sacrificial stones. Now we call them “stelae” and altars, and understand that these limestone reliefs are commemorative monuments commissioned by Maya rulers detailing their accomplishments during the Classic Period (250-900 AD). The altars may have been used for sacrifice, to hold offerings, or as a throne for ceremonies.
Catherwood struggled to copy the stelae and glyphs he uncovered at Copán because the form and style of Maya art was completely new to him. There was little light through the canopy to draw by. Compare Catherwood’s illustrations from 1843 to our photographs taken in 2013. Do you see any differences? Are these errors by Catherwood or changes due to erosion?
Due to movement, vandalism, and erosion, many of these artifacts have changed since Catherwood’s time. Luckily, he was so serious about copying details perfectly that epigraphers can translate glyphs from his artwork without needing to see the original piece! Notice that more glyphs have been lost from the back of Stela F since Catherwood’s lithograph. Some glyphs today are only known because Catherwood recorded them.
Copán became one of their favourite sites in Central America. The site was so vast, they mourned not having the time to clear more of it. Stephens ended up buying the land from the local landlord so that he could return at leisure and excavate more of the hidden buildings and idols. Their did indeed return to uncover more during their second journey to Central America and Mexico a couple years later.
- Camera Lucida, Lithographs, and Site Documentation in the 1840s
- Political Climate and Reception in Central America
- Copán, Honduras (1839-1840)
- Quiriguá, Guatemala (1839-1840)
- Palenque, México (1839-1840)
- Uxmal, México (1839-1840 and 1841-1842)
- Labná, México (1841-1842)
- Chichén Itzá, México (1841-1842)
- Tulum, México (1841-1842)
- Colouring Book
© 2018 SFU Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology, created by Jackie La Mouri. Photographs courtesy of Barbara Winter.