Labná – In The Footsteps Of Stephens & Catherwood

Just another 8 or so kilometres down the Ruta Puuc from Sayil and you come across yet another wonder of the ancient Maya world, Labná, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This temple complex was built in the late and terminal classic era and has a date of 862 AD (but using the Mayan calendar) inscribed in stone on a temple wall.

It was abandoned around 1200 AD and then lost to the jungle for 642 years until, you guessed it, along came our intrepid explorers, Stephens and Catherwood, who re-discovered Labńa in 1842, becoming the first explorers not only to see but document the site.

Whilst the American Stephens’ written accounts were informative, it was Catherwood’s incredibly detailed sketches and watercolours that would capture the world’s imagination. Amazingly, Catherwood used a Camera Lucida, the precursor to the modern-day camera, to capture the image and sketch out his drawings, which were so accurate that well into the 20th Century, archaeologists, having broken the Maya code in 1976, were able to decipher the hieroglyphics he depicted. 

In 1843, John Lloyd Stephens published ‘Incidents of Travel in Yucatan’, an account of his travels and discoveries between 1839 and 1842 of the ‘ruined remains’ of the Maya civilisation of Central America. It was richly illustrated with engravings taken from drawings and watercolour paintings made by his travelling companion, Englishman Frederick Catherwood. 

Stephens recorded that even while he was ill Catherwood persisted in making his drawings: 
“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.”

Oddly, there are no images, illustrative or photographic of Catherwood, but plenty of the more showman-like Stephens, but the description of Catherwood above paints him as quite the Englishman abroad – out in the midday sun. However, I can’t help but think that of the two intrepid men, Catherwood, the one more completely out of his comfort zone, was ultimately the more successful traveller and discoverer of new things.

I’ve included some photographs of Labná from an 1888 expedition so show the site just 47 years after its discovery and, I assume before any restoration or proper excavation had begun. It shows just how much the jungle had consumed Labná. I’ve also included for reference some reconstruction drawings of Labná from 1946 to show just how magnificent it must have looked. 

Labná, meaning ‘old or abandoned house’ in Maya, is relatively compact compared with the other sites along the Ruta Puuc but it does have an impressive Sacbé ceremonial road that joins the two main clusters of buildings, with ‘El Palacio’ at one end (the longest contiguous structure in the region at 120 metres) and the stunning ‘El Arco’ and ‘El Mirador’ at the other. 

‘El Palacio’ is an incredible honey-coloured stone structure that’s covered in carvings, most notably of the rain god Chaac with his hooked nose and bared fangs appearing large and small. The multi-storey galleries are covered in intricate geometric patterns, depictions of serpents, flowers, palm fronds, stars, animals and human figures. One particular corner sculpture is of a large serpent, or perhaps a Crocodile, with its jaws wide open to reveal a human face glaring out from inside. 

The ceremonial Sacbé leads you away from ‘El Palacio’ to the other half of the site, revealing one of the most iconic structures built by the Maya, ‘El Arco’, a magnificent arch that would have separated two quadrangular ceremonial courtyards. Its richly carved façade features representations of serpents and palm fronds with intricate geometric patterns. Referencing Catherwood’s detailed illustration of ‘El Arco’ there’s little difference between the scene depicted in 1841 and the now of 2023, 182 years later. Perhaps some renovation and cleaning over the years, but the arch largely remains intact. Incredible!

When you’re looking at these impressive structures and wondering how on earth they managed to build them so sturdily and so massively, you’d think that they had to have had the wheel, right? But surprisingly no, the ancient Maya, and all Mesoamerican cultures for that matter, did not invent the wheel – apparently, they had no use for it. Perhaps it was the lack of suitable draft animals combined with exceedingly rough terrain that made its use impractical. But the really surprising thing is that the wheel as an aid to movement was known to them. They made toys, mostly clay animals, with holes in the legs for an axle, and wheels. These toys were abundant among the Toltecs (900-1100), so the Maya must have understood but chosen to ignore the possibilities. Fascinating. 

Adjacent to ‘El Arco’ is the toweringly impressive ‘El Mirador’, a pyramid-like structure of rough stones, with sculptural remains of a temple with carvings including one of a human figure impressively occupying one of the corners. 

Once again, we were practically alone wandering around this beautiful site – there was one other foreign couple who carefully kept their distance, as did we, a discreet dance allowing us all to savour the place by ourselves 

The lack of visitors was again surprising, considering just how staggeringly beautiful and important Labná is. Having said that, let’s hope that El Tren Maya doesn’t have too much of an impact here,  but I fear that in just a few years this place could be crawling with tourists and the eerie other-worldly sense of this remote place will have been lost forever. 

3 Comments Add yours

  1. waxixe6397 says:

    What a fascinating post about Labná! It’s amazing to think that the site was lost for so many years and only rediscovered in the mid-19th century. I also found it interesting that the Maya culture did not utilize the wheel, despite understanding its potential use. Do you think there are any other unique features of the Maya civilization that are lesser-known but equally fascinating?

    Mr W

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you. Yes, so many unique aspects to the Mayan culture. Some more known than others, such as the Mayan calendar. But their understanding of astronomy was incredibly advanced for the time, even down to tracking solar eclipses and even comets.


  2. Bevanlee says:

    You two are the modern day Catherwood and Stephens, picturing and describing for your blog. What images and insights the last few posts have been 😍

    Liked by 1 person

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