Secret World of the Maya

The earliest explorers to uncover the ancient Maya civilisation in Central America could not believe that it owed its creation to the indigenous population, whom they saw as incapable savages. Nigel Richardson explains how this view changed.

The Europeans and North Americans who ‘discovered’ the ruined Maya cities of Central America from the late 18th century onwards were not the first white men to wonder at these old stones. The soldiers and priests of the Spanish Conquest had stumbled on many sites before them. Pre-eminent was Bishop Diego de Landa (1524-79), who travelled extensively in the Yucatán peninsula in the mid-16th century, compiling an exhaustive record of Maya religion and culture (published in 1566 as Relación de las Cosas de Yucatán, translated as Yucatan Before and After the Conquest), even as he was persecuting and converting the adherents of the old beliefs and destroying their codices and sacred images. Antonio de Ciudad Real, a Franciscan friar, wrote the earliest known description of Uxmal, in Yucatán – a site abandoned by 1200 – following his visit in 1588. But their accounts were not published until the 19th century, after a new wave of explorers had begun earnest archaeological studies and excavations.

In the intervening years all sorts of rumours, myths and speculation flourished as to the existence and provenance of these cities and the nature of the people who built them. Typical of the conflation of guesswork and prejudice that characterised much of the writing on America’s ancient civilisations was the text of Edward King, Viscount Kingsborough in The Antiquities of Mexico (published between 1830 and 1848 in nine elephant folios, with ‘Fac-similes’ of ‘Ancient Mexican paintings and hieroglyphics’). In this lavish magnum opus, the exorbitant costs of which landed him in debtor’s prison, Kingsborough expressed the then commonly held belief that the monument builders must have been descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel.

Other theories, based on the assumption that the indigenous peoples of the Americas, being savages, could not possibly have been responsible, held variously that the mysterious pyramids and temples of Central America were the work of Egyptians, Phoenicians, Canaanites, Carthaginians, Greeks, Scythians, Swedes, Welsh and many other groups. Such licence to speculate can be traced back to Thomas More’s Utopia, published in 1516 – just before the Spanish Conquest of the Aztec Empire from 1519 to 1521 – in which More described a fabulous fictional land in the New World. It extended forward too, for, according to wilfully partial interpretations, the Maya calendar predicted that the end of the world would fall on December 21st, 2012. In fact the Maya system of counting time states only that a cycle of time will conclude on that date. But the arcane nature of the calculations and the apocalyptic implications of time itself coming to an end have fed the conspiracy theorists – as well as delighting the tourist authorities of Central America.

The extraordinary Maya and their monuments, then, have excited attention and speculation since the time of the Conquest. But from the mid-19th century explorer-adventurers from Europe and North America began to discover the reality. One site in particular became the focus of this intrepid exploration: Palenque, in the modern state of Chiapas in south-eastern Mexico. Located on the edge of the Chiapas Highlands and surrounded by hills covered in tropical rainforest, Palenque is a Maya city of the Classic Period (AD 300-900), which reached the height of its wealth and power between 500 and 700. Its principal features are two pyramid tombs and a complex of structures known as the Palacio, surmounted by a watchtower (a unique feature in Maya architecture).

Some time in the 18th century its jungle-shrouded ruins were rediscovered by local indigenous people, and travellers through Chiapas were regaled with fabulous tales of this ruined city. The first systematic exploration of the site was carried out in 1787 by Captain Antonio del Rio for the Spanish crown. His report remained unpublished until 1822, when it was translated and published in London with a commentary by Dr Paul Felix Cabrera. Del Rio concluded:

In their [i.e. the original inhabitants’] fabulous superstitions, we seem to view the idolatry of the Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Romans and other primitive nations ... it may reasonably be conjectured, that some one of these nations pursued their conquests even to this country, where it is probable they only remained long enough to enable the Indian tribes to imitate their ideas and adopt, in a rude and awkward manner, such arts as their invaders thought fit to inculcate.

Cabrera, having ‘analized and compared’ the ruins found by Captain del Rio ‘with those of the Egyptians and other Nations’, claimed proof of a connection.

The significance of Description of the Ruins of an Ancient City Discovered near Palenque lies not in the accuracy of its scholarship but in its influence on a New York lawyer named John Lloyd Stephens (1805-52). In 1835 and 1836 Stephens had fed a growing interest in ancient peoples and cities by travelling through Egypt and Arabia to Jerusalem, a journey he described in his first published book, Incidents of Travel in Egypt, Arabia Petraea, and the Holy Land (1837). The book was an unexpected success and provided the financial stability that enabled Stephens to turn his attention to mysteries closer to home: the ruined cities of Central America. Among the reading matter that excited his interest on the subject was Del Rio’s account of Palenque.

Stelae and monuments at Copan by Frederick Catherwood, reproduced in 'Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan'. AKG Images
Stelae and monuments at Copan by Frederick Catherwood, reproduced in 'Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan'. AKG Images

Returning to New York from Egypt in 1836 Stephens stopped off in London and there he met the English architect, draughtsman and illustrator, Frederick Catherwood (1799-1854). In the 1820s and early 1830s, in advance of Stephens, Catherwood had travelled extensively in Egypt and the Holy Land, making accurate sketches, plans and panoramas of the antiquities on expeditions sponsored by the Scottish Egyptologist, Robert Hay (1799-1863). The panoramas – forms of visual entertainment that prefigured cinema – were hugely popular in the mid-19th century. Stephens first met Catherwood when he went to see the latter’s Description of a View of the City of Jerusalem, as painted by Robert Burford, at Burford’s Panorama in Leicester Square. In 1837 Catherwood moved to New York and the following year his Jerusalem panorama was exhibited there, an enterprise from which he profited.

The business of recording remote and fabulous places in words or pictures proved more lucrative than either Catherwood or Stephens had imagined. The two decided on an expedition to record the ancient sites of Central America that Stephens had been reading about with a growing sense of excitement. Catherwood signed a contract to provide ‘drawings of the ruins of Palenque, Uxmal and Copán and such other ruined cities’ for publication in the book of the journey that Stephens planned to write (Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, & Yucatán was  published, in two volumes, in 1841).

On October 3rd, 1839 the two men set sail from New York for Belize in present-day Honduras, the most convenient point of access for Copán, and Palenque, the principal destinations of their first expedition. It was a seminal moment in the study of Mesoamerica. As Michael D. Coe, one of the world’s leading Maya scholars, observed in 1966:

Modern Maya archaeology ... stems from the epic journeys undertaken between 1839 and 1842 by the American diplomat and lawyer, John Lloyd Stephens, and his companion, the English topographical artist Frederick Catherwood, which revealed the full splendour of a vanished tropical civilisation to the world.

From Belize the pair sailed south along the coast, into the Bay of Honduras and up the Rio Dulce to Lago Izabal, from where they proceeded on mules over a treacherous mountain pass and into the heart of the old Maya civilisation. ‘For five long hours we were dragged through mudholes, squeezed in gulleys, knocked against trees, and tumbled over roots; every step required care and great physical exertion’, wrote Stephens of the experience. Their reward, in the first instance, was to reach Copán – ‘Certainly one of the loveliest of all Classic Maya ruins’, according to Coe. It features large temples, carved stelae, an outstanding example of a ball court embellished with sculptures of macaw heads and the Hieroglyphic Stairway, composed of 63 steps carved with more than 2,000 glyphs. For Stephens the stone fragments he first set eyes on, amid the undergrowth of jungle, were ‘works of art, proving, like newly-discovered historical records, that the people who once occupied the Continent of America were not savages’. Copán, indeed, was ‘a valley of romance and wonder, where ... the genii who attended on King Solomon seem to have been the artists’.

Stephens considered these monuments the equal in beauty and sophistication of those of Ancient Egypt. But no one knew where they came from. ‘We asked the Indians who made them’, he wrote, ‘and their dull answer was “Quien sabe?” “Who knows?” ’ His conclusion: ‘All was mystery, dark, impenetrable mystery’. On November 17th, 1839 that mystery would begin to lift when, having ‘bought’ Copán from the owner of the site for $50, Stephens and Catherwood began to survey it.

Their work at Copán represents the beginning of the modern study of Maya civilisation. ‘It is impossible to describe the interest with which I explored these ruins. The ground was entirely new; there were no guide-books or guides; the whole was a virgin soil’, Stephens wrote. Meanwhile Catherwood set to work with his camera lucida, a mirrored device that enabled him to draw objects with perfect accuracy.

In May 1840, on the same expedition, Stephens and Catherwood reached Palenque after a journey through country that was often ‘as wild as before the Spanish conquest’. Stephens’ first reaction to the site that, by repute, had inspired such excitement and speculation in the drawing rooms of London and New York: ‘unique, extraordinary, and mournfully beautiful’. They set up camp in the Palacio, ‘the palace of unknown kings’, which they shared with bats, mosquitoes and fireflies, and over the following weeks mapped, sketched and recorded the old stones of Palenque, as they had done at Copán.

By now Stephens was forming the beginnings of an answer to the question he had asked at Copán:

Here [at Palenque] were the remains of a cultivated, polished and peculiar people, who had passed through all the stages incident of the rise and fall of nations, had reached their golden age, and had perished, entirely unknown.

By the end of Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, & Yucatán he is partly contradicting himself. The ruins were not the work of people who had passed away and become unknown:

Opposed as is my idea to all previous speculations, I am inclined to think that they were constructed by the races who occupied the country at the time of the invasion by the Spaniards, or of some not very distant progenitors.

Leaving aside this confusion, Stephens and his companion had made an important leap of thought, as Michael D. Coe acknowledges in The Maya:

Stephens and Catherwood were the first since Bishop Landa to assign the ruined ‘cities’ which they encountered to the actual inhabitants of the country – to the Maya Indians rather than to the peripatetic Israelites, Welshmen, Tartars, and so forth favoured by other ‘authorities’.

John Lloyd Stephens later masterminded the building of the railroad across the isthmus of Panama and died in New York in 1852 of liver disease. Catherwood, who worked with him in Panama, died two years later when the ship on which he was sailing from Liverpool to New York collided with another and sank in the Atlantic. Their influence lived on. Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, & Yucatán and a follow-up, Incidents of Travel in Yucatán (1843), did not trigger an immediate wave of expeditions to the lands of the Maya – these territories were in a state of more or less permanent political turmoil and civil unrest from the 1850s to the 1870s and few outsiders thought them a safe place in which to travel, notwithstanding the still basic infrastructure. But some explorers took the risk, in advance of more organised expeditions that started from the early 1880s. As crucial to them as maps – not to mention the new-fangled photographic camera that rendered the camera lucida obsolete – were the pioneering works of Stephens and Catherwood.

Of varying degrees of seriousness and credibility, this succeeding generation of adventurer-archaeologists included Augustus Le Plongeon, born in 1825 in the Channel Island of Jersey, and his wife Alice, who excavated and took photographs of the most famous of all Maya sites, Chichen Itzá in Yucatán, in the 1870s and propounded a connection between the Maya and the lost city of Atlantis; the Austrian, Teobert Maler (1842-1917), who settled and died in Yucatán; and Désiré Charnay (1828-1915), a French photographer – and something of a glory-seeker – who travelled in Chiapas and Yucatán in the 1860s and again in the 1880s.

On March 22nd, 1882 Charnay reached the remote Maya site now known as Yaxchilán, on the Rio Usumacinta, the river that forms the present-day border between Mexico and Guatemala. Charnay had assumed this was a hitherto unreported city that he could take the credit for having discovered. To his surprise and great irritation, however, he found an Englishman had already taken up residence in the ruins. This was 32-year-old Alfred Percival Maudslay (1850-1931), a former diplomat who was on his second expedition to explore the Maya cities of Central America. According to Charnay, Maudslay was supremely emollient and disarming. ‘You need have no fear on my account, for I am only an amateur, travelling for pleasure ... You can name the town, claim to have discovered it ... I shall not interfere with you in any way’, he tells Charnay in the latter’s account of their meeting in Ancient Cities of the New World (1887). Maudslay and Charnay spent four days together at Yaxchilán, in the course of which the Frenchman showed him how to make paper moulds of some of the ancient lintels – a technique Maudslay would develop and use to great effect.

Maudslay was far from being an amateur pleasure-seeker. Between 1881 and 1894 he visited the Maya territories seven times, carrying out detailed work at Copán, Yaxchilán, Quiriguá, Chichen Itzá and Palenque. At Palenque – where, like Stephens and Catherwood, he camped in the ‘palace’ – he carried out running repairs to the watchtower, which was in danger of toppling over. From these expeditions Maudslay sent or brought back 20 sculptures (including lintels from Yaxchilán), tons of plaster casts and hundreds of paper moulds of carvings and inscriptions, as well as photographs, plans, field notes and journals. Much of this material was published between 1889 and 1902 (in four volumes of text and four of plates) as the archaeological section of Biologia Centrali-Americana, a multi-volume work otherwise dedicated to the zoology and botany of Mexico and Central America. Studying Maudslay’s meticulous work on inscriptions, scholars at last began to understand the Maya Long Count or calendrical system, and therefore the chronology of Maya civilisation.

By the time of Maudslay’s death, in Hereford in 1931, archaeological exploration in Mexico and Central America was on a highly organised, institutional footing. The Peabody Museum at Harvard University, which had carried out its first field research on the Maya in 1888, and other academic bodies in the US and Mexico discovered and surveyed many new sites in the 1920s and 1930s. But the maverick individual, in the mould of 19th-century adventurer-explorers such as Stephens and Maudslay, still had a part to play in making dramatic discoveries that revolutionised knowledge and understanding of the Maya.

‘Maverick’ is a fitting description of the Yale-educated photographer, film-maker, cartographer, astronomer and archaeologist Giles Healey (1901-80), who made one of the 20th century’s most significant Maya discoveries. In 1945, hearing rumours of the existence of previously unexplored sites, Healey had organised an expedition to the territory of the Lacandon Maya, in the deepest jungles of Chiapas along the border with Guatemala – a region so remote it was not colonised by the Spanish (a century earlier, Stephens had called it ‘the country of unbaptised Indians’).

The following year two members of the original expedition, John Bourne and Carlos Frey, returned to the area and were led by some Lacandon to a jungle-shrouded site of the Late Classic period that was later named Bonampak. This relatively small city, formerly a satellite of Yaxchilán, was apparently unremarkable – but it harboured a secret that Bourne and Frey somehow missed. It was Giles Healey, returning a few months later, who made the crucial discovery. He peered through the doorways of three chambers in a hillside temple – and saw walls and ceilings covered in paintings, of a graphic sophistication so far found nowhere else in the Maya world.

Reproduction in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City of the murals at Bonampak, c. AD 800, which show Mayan bloodthirst. AKG Images/Bildarchive SteffensThese murals – which date from about AD 800 and are now preserved by the archaeological authorities on the original site – depict a battle and its aftermath. Musicians play a variety of instruments, including turtle shells struck with deer antlers. Prisoners plead for their lives as they are tortured by having their fingernails pulled out. A severed head rolls down steps. White-robed women practise auto-sacrifice by piercing their tongues. The dark and bizarre world portrayed here caused scholars to re-evaluate their views of the Maya, who had hitherto not been regarded as particularly bloodthirsty. ‘Perhaps no single artifact from the ancient New World offers as complex a view of Prehispanic society as do the Bonampak paintings’, wrote Mary Miller, the Sterling Professor of History of Art at Yale University, who has studied the murals extensively. According to Michael Coe, ‘Bonampak has thrown an entirely new light on the warlike interests of the Maya leaders, upon social organization and stratification in a Maya centre, and upon the magnificence of Late Classic Maya culture in general, before time destroyed most of its creations.’ 

The Maya continue to slow-release their secrets into the modern world. Six years after Healey revealed the murals at Bonampak, an important discovery was made at Palenque. In the pyramid known as the Temple of the Inscriptions the Mexican archaeologist, Alberto Ruz Lhuillier, uncovered a sealed stairway, at the bottom of which he found the funerary chamber and sarcophagus of the seventh-century ruler, Pakal the Great. In 1994 the adjacent pyramid at Palenque yielded the tomb of an unidentified woman of high rank who has become known as the Red Queen because her skeleton was covered in red cinnabar dust (Pakal’s skeleton and jade death mask and the remains of the Red Queen are on display in the National Museum of Anthropology). 

In 2012, at the site of Xultun in Guatemala, archaeologists uncovered, on the wall of a chamber, astronomical tables from the early ninth century believed to represent the oldest known Maya calendar – a find that generated a particular frisson of excitement given the apocalyptic speculations surrounding the Long Count and the end of the world. But however much information is amassed on the Maya, the essential otherness of who they were and how they thought remains as intact as when John Lloyd Stephens mused on the mystery of Palenque in 1840:

In the midst of desolation and ruin we looked back to the past, cleared away the gloomy forest, and fancied every building perfect ... We called back into life the strange people who gazed at us in sadness from the walls; pictured them, in fanciful costumes and adorned with plumes and feathers ... In the romance of the world’s history nothing ever impressed me more forcibly than the spectacle of this once great and lovely city, overturned, desolate and lost.

Nigel Richardson is a historian of Brighton and Soho.

Secret World of the Maya

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