Quiriguá, Guatemala 

    While exploring Copán, John Lloyd Stephens was told about another ancient city not far to the north. The sites are 47KM apart, but with no connecting roads the explorers had to traverse dense forest and difficult terrain to reach their next destination. (Even today there is no direct road linking the two sites. The nearest road that continues on both sides of the Guatemalan-Honduran border is built between mountains and national parks, stretching the 47km distance to 108km, or a three hour drive.) The men were impressed by Quiriguá. They found ruins that resembled those at Copán in artistic style and in the gylphic writing system, but that had some distinct features as well. The stelae at Quiriguá were taller than those at Copán. The tallest stela in the Maya world is actually Stela E from Quiriguá, stretching 35 feet or 10.7 metres high. Unfortunately, the explorers were short on time, due to several factors such as illness (both men and other travel companions were delayed several times after contracting illnesses including malaria and yellow fever), political unrest, and lengthy travel times between locations as they travelled on foot with mule trains. Catherwood's sketches from Quiriguá reflect their haste as they show less detail and are not as numerous as sketches from sites where they spent more time.

    Possibly most exciting was the connection they drew between the two sites linking the cultures.  They felt the stylistic similarities between art and buildings in the two cities was substantial enough to prove the two cities shared one mother culture. Furthermore, Catherwood insisted that both the artistic styles and motifs used to depict images and people and the glyphs used in association with the images bore no similarity to anything he had seen in his extensive travels of the Old World. What they were seeing had to be indigenous to the area. Stephens and Catherwood began to reject the common theories that ancient civilizations in the Americas could be attributed somehow to the Lost Tribe of Israel, or the Atlantians, or some long lost Egyptian or European colony. They asserted instead that the ancestors of the local Maya people built these sites. This assertion was significant because it worked toward dispelling the European notion that the Indigenous population was less advanced and incapable of building these astounding civilizations. 

Left: Archive photograph 2006.016.924 of Stela E, taken by Dr. Brian Hayden in the 1960s-1970s compared with Right: Catherwood's lithograph of Stela E from Stephens 1841: Plate 37 "Idol at Quirigua."

© 2018 SFU Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology, created by Jackie La Mouri. Photograph courtesy of Dr. Brian Hayden.