Vanished Worlds, Enduring People
John Lloyd Stephens (1805-1852), accompanied by artist Frederick Catherwood (1799-1854), blazed the trail for future Mayanists, hacking through thick underbrush in 1839 to uncover ruins in forty or more little-known Maya cities in Guatemala, Belize, Mexico, and Honduras. His two-volume masterpiece, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan (1841), is still in print.
Stephens accurately predicted that the hieroglyphs inscribed on buildings, altars, and monuments were texts that could be read phonetically. He also believed the figures depicted on the monuments were not gods, but historical personages, and the glyphs, when translated, would describe their deeds as rulers of the cities where they lived.
Stephens’s observations proved prescient. In the 1960s and 1970s, linguists, epigraphers, art historians, archaeologists, and ethnologists began a successful collaboration to decipher the Maya writing system. Their scholarship revolutionized our understanding of the Classic Maya (the Classic Maya date from ca. 300 to ca. 900), corroborating many of Stephens’s assertions of 130 years before.
Encouraged by the popularity of John Lloyd Stephens’s Incidents of Travel in Central America, Frederick Catherwood (1799-1854), a well-known artist/architect, subsequently published a portfolio of twenty-five hand-colored lithographs of Maya ruins. He created several depictions of Copan, Honduras, a Classic Maya city.
Frederick Catherwood. “Copan, Hondurus” from Views of Ancient Monuments in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan. London: The author, 1844. [view]
Now able to read the hieroglyphic writing adorning the monuments, scholars know that Stela D, shown here with its altar, depicts 18 Rabbit, a king who ascended the throne on July 19, 695, and who commissioned many of Copan’s monuments. The altar may be a monument to his death at the hands of his enemies, the Quiriguá, in 738.
Frederick Catherwood. “Altar at Copan, Hondurus” from Views of Ancient Monuments in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan. London: The author, 1844. [view]
Frederick Catherwood. “Well and building at Sabachtsche” from Views of Ancient Monuments in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan. London: The author, 1844. [view]