Victorian Exploration

Mayan Mysteries

The new novel I am writing has a visit to a ruined Mayan city in its early chapters, and so I have been looking again at my research into that long-lost Central American culture. Incidents of Travel in Yucatan by John L. Stephens (New York, 1963, first published 1843) is a particularly useful and fascinating account of a journey the author made to Mayan lands in the early 1840s in company with the artist Frederick Catherwood, who furnished it with 120 finely detailed engravings of what they saw there. Good illustrations are so  helpful to a novelist, as a spur to the visual imagination.

Aside from the high quality of the writing and drawings throughout, the great joy of this book is that its creators were setting eyes on the Mayan cities they describe when these were still in what one may term a state of pristine dereliction. The many ruins they visited in the Yucatan had been largely untouched by human hand since their abandonment some long time ago, before even the Spanish conquerors came to America. The sites were heavily weathered and overgrown (as appears from Catherwood’s Plate XX, below, which depicts a ceremonial building at Kabah, after some clearing of foreground vegetation). KabahCasa3

Seeing photos of such places as they are in the present, restored to a condition of rather sterile neatness and order for touristic consumption, I think I would have preferred to encounter them as Stephens and Catherwood did. The sense of mystery concerning what led their inhabitants to abandon such sophisticated constructions would, I think, have been much more vital then. It still seems a matter of keen speculation amoungst modern scholars as to whether the Mayan collapse came about through warfare, civil unrest, disease, environmental degradation or some other cause.

There must also have been quite a sense of excitement for the adventurers to see, for the first time, the alien nature of Mayan buildings and statues, and of the friezes carved upon them. The detail from Catherwood’s Plate XVI (below) shows part of the upper story of another structure at Kabah, with trees growing from its roof. The serried ranks of frightening faces with their bird-like eyes and beaks were apparently made to represent the Mayan rain god. RainGods

Stephens took great pains to document and record all that he saw for posterity. But, at the same time, he was not averse to removing anything that caught his eye and shipping it home. In some cases this entailed a degree of actual damage to a site, as arose when he had the wooden lintel (Plate XXI, below, depicting a human figure standing on a serpent) hacked out of position at Kabah for transportation. Though he had some scruples about them, the moral doubtfulness of performing such acts was compounded when the Mayan artefacts he had collected were then destroyed by a fire in Washington. KabahLintel

There was a recent BBC programme about Ladybird books. I think that a book about Mayan culture and the exploration of its remains would have made a great addition to the Ladybird history series. I would  loved to have read such a thing when I was a child (and now!)

Happy New Year.

 

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