Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Stephens-Catherwood Connection

Since so much of the Stephens book Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan, and Catherwood’s drawings are used to try and point out that this convinced Joseph Smith that the Land of Promise was in Guatemala, Mesoamerica, perhaps some background on this might be of help. 
    First, John Lloyd Stephens was born in 1805, the same year as Joseph Smith, in Sherewsbury, New Jersey. He graduated in 1822 at the top of his class at Columbia College after his family moved to New York. He then went to law school and practiced law in New York City for eight years until he was diagnosed with a throat infection. Stephens a self-proclaimed adventurer, explorer, and amateur archaeologist, took his doctor’s advice and left New York for a change in climate and traveled extensively through Europe, the Mediterranean, Asia Minor Palestine, and Egypt, resulting in his first two books, Incidents of Travel in Egypt, Arabia Petraea and the Holy Land (1837), and Incidents of Travel in Greece, Turkey, Russia and Poland (1838). Both books were immediately popular and earned Strepens the nickname “the American Traveler.”
    Second, Frederick Catherwood was six years older than Stephens, being born 27 February 1799 in north London and, by his twenties, was already well known as an architect, artist and traveler. He had already published his drawings of structures in Egypt, Palestine, Asia Minor, and Greece and, in 1833, was the first westerner to survey and draw the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. Catherwood and Stephens met in London in 1836 where Catherwood's panorama “The Ruins of Jerusalem” was on display. Both men were interested in exploring the region so vividly depicted in the published accounts of Mesoamerica by earlier explorers like Antonio del Rio and Juan Galindo and the drawings of Mayan sites by Jean-Frederic Maximilien Comte de Waldek, whose journal, in the form of a diary, was published (Journal du Mexique) describing Waldeck’s travels and life in Mexico, especially his visit to the ruins at Palenque in 1832-1833. Though his drawings have been considered “fanciful in the extreme” by Michael E. Coe, they excited the two travelers and both Stephens and Catherwood agreed to travel together to the region at the first opportunity.
    As an interesting side note, Waldeck’s depiction of panels of Maya script in the Temple of Inscriptions at Palenque (a Mayan city-state in southern Mexico) included clear depictions of heads of elephants (now considered by archaeologists to be erroneous embellishments). This fueled speculation about contact between the ancient Maya and Asia and the role of the mythical lost continent of Atlantis as a common link between ancient civilizations of the Old and New Worlds. It is now also considered that Waldeck’s depictions of Uxmal (a Yucatec Mayan city in the Yucatan) looked similar to Egyptian pyramids.
At the time, Stephens was famous enough as a world traveler and writer to have President Martin Van Buren (left) appoint him Ambassador to Central America from the United States for the purpose of working out a treaty with that country. Thus Stephens and Catherwood left New York for British Honduras (modern day Belize) on 3 October 1839. Though conscious of his diplomatic duties, Stephens was primarily interested in exploring the ancient ruin of Copan and then moving on to Palenque. At this time, many of the now-famous Maya sites were unknown even to the indigenous people of the region. 
    The centuries had slowly covered the great temples and pyramids and turned them into mounds of green hills. Only a few cities of the Maya were known to exist at this time, among them Copan, Palenque, Topoxte/Tayasal (called `Islapag' by Galindo) and the mysterious unnamed city deep in the jungle (which came to be known as Tikal). There were no accurate maps of the region and the two men often discovered sites through word of mouth in conversation, such as Catherwood's discovery of Quirigua, a site named after a nearby village of that name (vassal state in southeastern Guatemala). 
    They traveled without any of the extensive entourage which usually accompanied 19th century explorations. They had only a guide, some men to carry equipment, and a crudely drawn map, which they had already been told was inaccurate. Even so, this did not stop them from exploring the jungles of Mesoamerica in search of the ancient sites which they had heard of and read about. In his Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan, Stephens writes of his first impressions of Copan: “The sight of this unexpected monument put at rest at once and forever, in our minds, all uncertainty in regard to the character of American antiquities, and gave us the assurance  that the objects we were in search of were interesting, not only as the remains of an  unknown people, but as works of art, proving, like newly discovered historical records,  that the people who once occupied the Continent of America were not savages.”
Stephens and Catherwood explored each site together and then set themselves to their respective tasks of writing and drawing the area. Catherwood used a device called the camera lucida which would project the image from the lens onto paper so that the artist could draw it more accurately, which allowed him to draw such precise images right down to the intricate scroll work and inscriptions on the buildings. Although some have criticized his work as `overly romantic', his lithographs have been used by Mayanists in the modern day in helping to restore the buildings and temples depicted in his work. Catherwood does sometimes seem to take license in placing items, objects, or figures in a composition for artistic purposes but the depictions of the buildings themselves are regarded as completely accurate.
 At Palenque, Catherwood contracted malaria but continued to work in spite of his illness. Stephens describes him as refusing to rest and continuing to draw wearing gloves and netting to keep the mosquitoes away. Stephens' narrative is very descriptive in detailing the problems encountered with ticks, mosquitoes, stinging flies, bats, and mice not to mention having to hack through thick jungle and clearing the sites enough to see what lay beneath the overgrowth.
    Before leaving New York, Stephens had met a man named Simon Peon who owned a large tract of land in the northern Yucatan called Hacienda Uxmal, and had provided Stephens with a rough map to find the ruins he said were there. Leaving Palenque, and stopping at any site they came across or heard about, they made their way up to Uxmal. Among the sites they discovered or documented on this trip were Copan, Kabah, Merida, Palenque, Quirigua, Q'umarkaj (Utatlan), Sayil, Tonina, Topoxte, and Uxmal. Although they did not visit Tikal, Stephens mentions the white towers of the city and notes their approximate location. They remained at Uxmal, documenting that site extensively, until 31 July 1840.
    By this time, Stephens had also contracted Malaria and they left the Yucatan for the United States. The book which was published from these travels fascinated the world and prompted another trip to the Yucatan (this time along with Dr. Samuel Cabot) in 1841-1842 which resulted in the publication of Incidents of Travel in the Yucatan and, later, Catherwood's book of lithographs, Views of Ancient Monuments in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan. On this second trip they documented sites such as Ake, Chichen Itza, Dzibilnocac, Itzamal, Labna, Mayapan, Tulum, and re-visited Uxmal. They mapped, surveyed, drew and wrote about 44 distinct Maya sites all of which have become national treasures and, some, world famous attractions.
    The work they did lay the foundation for all future study of the Maya civilization. They meticulously documented the sites they visited, carefully charted the courses they took, and logged the time in travel between one site and the next. In reading Stephen's narrative, and following the maps drawn by Catherwood, other explorers were able to expand upon their work to bring the Maya Civilization to light. 
    Once again, we should keep in mind that in 1842, when Joseph Smith received"Incidents in Travel," many of the now-famous Maya sites were unknown even to the indigenous people of the region, let alone to people in the U.S. in the area Joseph Smith grew up in and lived.
It is easy living in our world today, where so much is known of the world and by so many people, that there was a time when all of this in Mesoamerica and Central Americas was unknown in the United States, especially on the so-called frontier where Joseph Smith spent much of his life and the early Church got its start.

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