Discovering the Mysterious Maya in Word & Image

“Stephens and Catherwood transformed the study of the Maya, indeed they began it in the modern scientific sense. It is hard to overestimate the scale of their achievement” (Drew)

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626. STEPHENS, John Lloyd. Incidents of Travel in Yucatan. By John L. Stephens, Author of “Incidents of Travel in Egypt, Arabia, Petræa, and the Holy Land,” “Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan,” Etc. Illustrated by 120 Engravings in Two Volumes. New-York: Harper & Brothers, 82 Cliff-Street, 1843. Vol. I: [i-iii] iv-xii, [9] 10-459 [1, blank] pp., 24 lithograph plates (including folded frontispiece), 1 folded lithograph map (see below); Vol. II: [i-iii] iv-xvi, [9] 10-478 pp., 53 lithograph plates (including folding frontispiece). Total: One folding map, 77 lithograph plates, numerous engraved text illustrations (some with more than one text illustration per page) depicting views, archaeology, antiquities, plans, etc. 2 vols., 8vo (23 x 14.5 cm, publisher’s original brown pictorial cloth with gilt decorated spines and upper covers illustrating Maya motifs such as intertwined snakes. Slightly shaken and mild binding wear, inside with usual browning and foxing, but much less than usual. Because of the intense interest created by these outstanding works that opened the mysterious world of the Maya, they were heavily read and now difficult to find in fine collector’s condition. This set is better than usual. Ex-library with ink stamps of Anthropologische Gesellschaft of Berlin on both titles and versos of plates and maps. Contemporary ink ownership inscription of George West and later bookplate of Richard Andree.


Map of Yucatan. Note. The outline of the Coast is Taken from the English and Spanish charts..... [below lower neat line at right] Charles Copley Sc N.Y. Neat line to neat line: 27.5 x 33 cm.

     First edition. Glass, p. 707: “Well-illustrated (engravings from drawings of Frederick Catherwood) account of travels in Yucatan, with emphasis on visits to major Mayan ruins, which was quite influential—along with his earlier (1841; see herein) account of travels in the same area and Guatemala and Chiapas—in bringing ancient Maya civilization to great public attention in the United States and Europe. Includes description of the original of the Katun Wheel of Mani (2:260-262); description and reproduction of a copy of the Map of Mani, and partial publication of the Mani Land Treaty of 1557 (2:263-273), plate facing p. 265; Maya text and Spanish translation of the chronicle in the Book of Chilam Balam of Mani. Numerous other editions.” Hill I, p. 282: “First American edition. This is the extended narrative of the travels of Stephens and Catherwood, describing all forty-four ruined cities.” Hill II:1638. Palau 322314. Sabin 91299.

In 1841 Stephens and Catherwood returned for a more intensive study of Maya archaeology and published these two further volumes in 1843. This epoch-making account of Catherwood and Stephens’ second journey contains a far higher proportion of archaeological material than the first narrative. This work inspired countless further explorations, whilst remaining a cornerstone work on the subject.

     “In addition to the interest of the central theme, the simple pleasant style is congenial; his account is sympathetic, clear and orderly, and he can call upon real skill when describing in a few lines a landscape, a person, an accident, a heavy shower of rain, good lodgings or bad, even meals. So outstanding are the descriptions of the sites, the objects of his labour, the charm of his tale of travel and adventure, enhanced by Catherwood’s splendid drawings, that the volumes were, and go on being, best-sellers among books on American archaeology” (Bernal, Mexican Archaeology).

     Even though Stephens stated in the preface to the tenth edition (1841) of the first expedition that a daguerreotype camera would be used on the second expedition, there is some confusion whether this was actually the case. See Palmquist, Pioneer Photographers of the Far West: Catherwood, pp. 163-166 & Stephens, pp. 523-528:

Before John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood conducted their explorations of Central America and the Yucatán peninsula in 1839-1840 and 1841-1842, Mesoamerican archaeology was in the dark ages. Only a handful of European and Mexican adventurers had ventured to a very few scattered sites. No one knew the origins of the lost civilization that once populated the region, and it was not even known that the civilization had been Mayan. With their methodical and respectful investigations, Stephens and Catherwood provided the first giant leap forward in the scholarship of Central American antiquities. To aid in documenting their research in the Yucatán, they brought and used a daguerreotype camera. Theirs was the first use of photography as an adjunct to archaeological investigations.

     This second account is frequently catalogued as having plates made from daguerreotypes. It may be that Stephens and Catherwood had technical problems due to the intense heat and moisture in Yucatán and reverted to the camera lucida. In any event, Catherwood’s renderings of sculpture and glyphs are remarkable for their accuracy and nothing less than monumental within the field of archaeological illustration. The indecipherable motifs and designs of Maya art, completely foreign to the Catherwood’s Western aesthetic, were captured in his skillful drawings and the camera lucida. So precise were Catherwood’s illustrations that his renderings of Maya heiroglyphic inscriptions, whose meanings were totally unknown to him, can be deciphered by modern scholars.


Sold. Hammer: $300.00; Price Realized: $367.50.

Auction 23 Abstracts

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