The Fascinating Adventures of Messrs. Stephens and Catherwood: The Real Indiana Joneses

In previous posts I’ve written of my fascination with the adventures of two early 19th Century intrepid explorers, American John Stephens and Englishman Frederick Catherwood. Together they discovered the lost world of the Maya, buried deep in the overgrown Yucatan jungle and forgotten to time. They were the first to fully explore the magnificent pyramids and temples that had been mysteriously abandoned by the Maya centuries earlier. 

Just around the corner from us in Barrio Santiago is Casa Catherwood, a gorgeous belle epoque building that houses a small museum – actually it’s tiny, one small upstairs room, shuttered up to the light, but thankfully airconditioned! It houses a collection of 25 lithographs, one of the few remaining intact copies left in the world, and possibly the only full set in Mexico. 

It’s fascinating to read how Catherwood went about recording the scenes in front of him, including the use of a ‘Camera Lucida’ to capture the exact details of the structures he discovered – depicting meticulous details of the carvings and even the original colours of the buildings that have since long eroded and disappeared.

Only 300 copies were ever made, of which perhaps 282 copies are known to have survived, with most held in private collections and museums, though I discovered a copy for sale in the US with a price tag of US$52,500, so who knows…

Not only did Catherwood meticulously record what he saw, but Stephens wrote of their arduous adventures through the steaming jungles of the Yucatan, even whilst ill with god knows what. 

“An Indian held an umbrella over Mr. Catherwood’s head to protect him from the sun, and while making the drawing, several times he was obliged by weakness to lie down and rest. I was disheartened by the spectacle. It was so disagreeable to be moving along with this constant liability to fever and ague, that I felt very much disposed to break up the expedition and go home, but Mr. Catherwood persisted.”

In one passage, Stephens describes Catherwood at his easel:

“The platform had no structure of any kind upon it, and was overgrown with trees, under the shade of which Mr. Catherwood set up his camera to make his drawing; and looking down upon him from the door of the Castillo, nothing could be finer than his position, the picturesque effect being greatly heightened by his manner of keeping one hand in his pocket, to save it from the attacks of the mochetoes, and by his expedient of tying his pantaloons around his legs to keep ants and other insects from running up.

Not long after their return from the Yucatan in 1842, Stephens and Catherwood mounted an exhibition, ‘Treasures from Central America’ in a Panorama Rotunda in New York City. Here they packed the exhibition with Mayan artifacts, stone sculptures, ceramics and even carved wooden lintels – all sourced (raided / looted – DISCUSS!), from the various Mayan sites that they’d visited, plus hundreds of sketches and watercolour paintings completed in situ, in what must have been extraordinarily difficult conditions.

What an incredible exhibition that must have been at the time seeing these wonderful objects and images from an unknown world and a lost civilisation. 

But one evening, shortly after closing time, there was a fire at the Rotunda and it quickly burned to the ground with all the contents destroyed. The New York Herald reported on August 1, 1842:

“This fire is likely to prove much more disastrous than we at first anticipated. For we find that when Messrs. Catherwood and Stephens returned to this city from their last trip to Central America they deposited all their valuable collections and curiosities, pieces of the ruins, specimens, drawings, plans and everything that they had collected in their painful and perilous tour. These things are a great loss; no money can replace them.”

But Stephens and Catherwood had already published a book, ‘Views of Ancient Monuments in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan’, with 25 lithographs made from Catherwood’s original watercolours, which sadly remains one of the only surviving records of their incredible adventures and discoveries. 

Edgar Allan Poe called ‘Views of Ancient Monuments in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan’ “perhaps the most interesting book of travel ever published”.

One Comment Add yours

  1. JIM MORGAN says:

    Good read bruv
    So can’t imagine how those two gentlemen thought what the hell they’ve let them selves in for when they came across Mayan pyramids & temples completely covered by undergrowth!
    Shame about the fire!
    Would love too be there
    So exciting to think about the surroundings & who actually lived here.
    luv bruv Jim. X


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