Photographs by Peter Harris

after engravings of

Frederick Catherwood

El Castillo, Chichen Itza

from an expedition led by

John Lloyd Stephens


In 1839 a young American lawyer, fresh from his astonishingly successful publication of two books of travel, secured an appointment as charge d'affaires to the Republic of Central America. His official task was to locate the seat of government of that civil-war-torn country (then a confederation of states that are today the independent countries of Central America) and conclude a trade agreement with it. His real reason for this journey, however, was to explore the jungles of Central America and the Yucatan Peninsula for the remnants of a once-great civilization whose existence was only hinted at in the literature of the period.

In 1841 John Lloyd Stephens published Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan, bringing to the world for the first time a reliable account of the Xculoc, Palace of the Figurespre-Columbian ruins of the Yucatan Peninsula and northern Central America, ruins of a civilization we know today as the Maya. The existence of the fabulous cities of Palenque, Copan, and Uxmal was finally, unequivocally confirmed. The romantic image of ancient stone cities mouldering beneath the thick tropical rain-forest captivated the public's imagination, and the two volumes, illustrated with Frederick Catherwood's phenomenally accurate engravings, caused a sensation on both sides of the Atlantic. Scarcely three months after the publication of Central America Stephens and Catherwood organized a second trip to Yucatan to continue their explorations, which had been cut short at Uxmal by Catherwood's illness. The results of this expedition were published in 1843 as Incidents of Travel in Yucatan.

These books were the first accurate and reliable descriptions of the Maya ruins of southern Mexico and northern Central America to be published. Stephens' straightforward, unexaggerated prose found its perfect match in Catherwood's photographically precise engravings, and both books were instant best-sellers. Central America was published at the end of May, 1841, and by Christmas had sold over 20,000 copies. Incidents of Travel in Yucatan appeared in 1843 to a similarly enthusiastic reception and remained in the Harper Brothers' catalogue until the 1870's. The work of these two pioneers in Maya archaeology remains in print to this day, and is still consulted by scholars and travelers alike.

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