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Monday, August 8, 2011

Drawing of a ruined temple in Yucatan

A trip to the ancient Mayan cities of Mexico, Belize and Guatamala in the 21st century generally involves bus rides along mostly paved road and swarms of foreign tourists on manicured lawns climbing smooth cleaned stones. The experience of visitors to these cities today would be unimaginable to the Western explorers who re-"discovered" and documented them nearly two centuries ago.

Artist, draftsman and architect Frederick Catherwood accompanied diplomat turned explorer John Lloyd Stephens on a trip to Chiapas and the Yucatan in 1839. As the two explored the dense rainforests, they came across ancient ruins in Copán, Palenque, Uxmal and several other Mayan cities. Catherwood produced detailed drawings and maps of the sites, including this drawing of the "House of the Magician" or "House of the Dwarf" in Uxmal, Yucatan held at the National Anthropological Archives at the Smithsonian.

Some of Catherwood's drawings and maps were first published in Stephens’ Incidents of travel in Yucatan in 1842. Catherwood later published the drawings, often recreated as lithographs, in a larger format work - Views of Ancient Monuments in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan in 1844. The slightly modified and cropped color lithograph corresponding with this drawing is held at the Casa Frederick Catherwood in Merida, Mexico - Plate 11.

Although largely unknown by the modern tourists wandering the grounds of the cities, Catherwood and Stephens contribution to Mayan archaeology was unquestioned a century ago. In 1889, the Narrative and Critical History of America edited by Justin Winsor stated of the pair “It is to John L. Stephens and his accompanying draughtsman, Frederic Catherwood, that we owe by far the most essential part of our knowledge of the Yucatan remains” (p. 186). Without the early contribution of romantic drawings such as Catherwood's held here at the NAA, ancient Mayan cities might not hold the allure for researchers and global tourists that they do today.

- Eliot Scott, Reference Intern
National Anthropological Archives

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