John Lloyd Stephens and the Archeology of Middle America

John Lloyd Stephens (1805-1852)

John Lloyd Stephens (1805-1852)

On November 28,  1805, American explorer, writer, and diplomat John Lloyd Stephens was born. Stephens was a pivotal figure in the rediscovery of Maya civilization throughout Middle America and in the planning of the Panama railroad. His exploration of Maya ruins in Central America and Mexico generated the archaeology of Middle America.

John Lloyd Stephens was born in the township of Shrewsbury, New Jersey, as the second son of Benjamin Stephens, a successful New Jersey merchant, and Clemence Lloyd, daughter of an eminent local judge. The family moved to New York City an there Stephens received an education in the Classics at two privately tutored schools. At the early age of 13 he enrolled at Columbia College, graduating at the top of his class in 1822. He joined the Law School at Litchfield, Connecticut and after graduation entered practice in New York. After 8 years, Stephens tired of his legal career and, using health as an excuse, began a two year voyage in 1834 to Europe and the Mediterranean. Beginning in 1837, Stephens published accounts of his travels: first, Incidents of Travel in Egypt, Arabia Petraea, and the Holy Land, then, in 1838, Incidents of Travel in Greece, Turkey, Russia and Poland. Because of the popularity of these travelogues, Stephens gained the title “the American Traveler.”

Stephens read with interest early accounts of ruined cities of Mesoamerica by such writers and explorers as Alexander von Humboldt and the Spanish officer Juan Galindo, who wrote about the cities of Copan and Palenque.
In 1839, U.S. President Martin Van Buren commissioned Stephens as Special Ambassador to Central America for the, purpose of negotiating a treaty. While there, the government of the Federal Republic of Central America fell apart in civil war. 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.[4]

Stela D by Franklin Catherwood

Stela D by Frederick Catherwood

Stephens and his traveling companion, architect and draftsman Frederick Catherwood first came across Maya ruins at Copán, having landed in British Honduras (present-day Belize). They were astonished at their findings and spent a couple weeks mapping the site. They surmised that this must have been built by some long forgotten people as they couldn’t imagine the native Mayans as having lived in the city. Stephens was actually able to buy the city of Copan for a sum of $50 and had dreams of floating it down the river and into museums in the U.S. Catherwood set about drawing the Maya remains and the report of the first expedition, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan, 2 vol. (1841), and the subsequent publication of Catherwood’s superb drawings caused a storm of popular and scholarly interest. [3] Actually, Catherwood’s drawings were made with the aid of a camera lucida, an instrument that reproduced the image of the object on a sheet of paper so that an outline could then be traced.

Stephen’s and Catherwood’s books were greatly superior in both amount and accuracy of depiction to the small amount of information on ancient Mesoamerica previously published and furthered the world-wide interest and lifted the Maya civilization out of obscurity and into world consciousness. Stephens continued his investigations of Maya ruins with a return trip to Yucatán which produced a further book. Actually, Stephen’s books served to inspire Edgar Allan Poe, who also reviewed three of his travel books.

Stephens’ last years were devoted to directing the first American transatlantic steamship company and to developing a railroad across the Isthmus of Panama. However, he suffered from a disease of the liver, and died after four months of illness at the age of forty-six.

At yovisto you can learn more about ancient Middle America in the historic documentary “Rough Road to Panama” about the Sullivan C. Richardson Pan American Highway Expedition:

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