Documents the true story of the nineteenth-century rediscovery of the Mayan civilization by American ambassador John Lloyd Stephens and British architect Frederick Catherwood, illuminating how their findings profoundly changed Western understandings about human history.
Unlike a previous reviewer, I didn't feel at all "bogged down" by the details of Central American warfare: what we get is a necessary context helping us to understand the dangers encountered and the unstable political situation which Stephens, as an appointed U.S. diplomat, had to navigate during his first journey to Guatemala. Without this background, the story would have been incomplete. Stephens and Catherwood first traveled to Central America in 1839, taking advantage of Stephens's official diplomatic mission. Landing in British-governed Belize, they pursued their journey, by water and land, amid mudslides and rebel factions, to Guatemala city, first making a difficult detour via Copan, their first encounter with the Mayan civilization. Stephens was unable to indulge his interest in "antiquities" (as archaeology was referred to in those days), and had to do what was necessary to fulfill his mission: which included attempts at finding the elusive Guatemalan government, meeting with both Francisco Morazán, the president of the Federal Republic of Central America which was in the process of breaking down into separate territories, and the rebel Rafael Carrera who waged a persistent guerrilla war with the support of local population against the colonizer. It is amazing that Stephens managed to get on the good side of the two sworn enemies and come out alive from the encounters. Without getting some understanding of this important chapter in Central American history, I don't think we can really understand what it meant to travel across the territory in 1839/40.
Similar to the South Pole and Arctic expeditions, there was also a bit of a "Mayan race" going on. While Stephens was occupied with his diplomatic duties and Catherwood stayed behind in Copan, an expedition was launched by the British from Belize, intended to "beat" Stephens to one of the known Mayan sites in Mexico -- Palenque. The two men sent on the mission to find and describe the Mayan ruins had, however, unlike Stephens and Catherwood, little personal interest in archaeology. Lt. John Caddy and Patrick Walker barely survived themselves and their descriptions of the ruins, a meager dozen pages or so, would pale in comparison with the detailed account given later by Stephens. The uniqueness of Stephens's and Catherwood's expedition lies, as Carlsen stresses again and again, in the detailed and faithful records of their findings. Catherwood's drawings of the Mayan ruins are unsurpassed even by today's photography, as they oftentimes offer a picture of architectural motifs that have degraded since the 19th century or sometimes are no longer in existence. Many of these drawings are reproduced side by side contemporary photographs credited to the author: the meticulous fidelity of Catherwood's draftsmanship continues to amaze. A classically trained artist, Catherwood had to entirely re-invent himself:
"When he journeyed through Tunisia, Egypt, and the Levant what he saw and what he drew were also intelligible, informed by centuries of cultural exchange. In Copán, [Catherwood] was lost. The monuments he stared at in the midst of the forest were so alien from anything he had ever seen that at first sight they didn't register sensibly in his brain. During his first full day of work, the stone idols defeated him. Even his camera lucida, which helped project on his familiar drawing paper the outlines of the monoliths through its half-silvered mirror, was of no help. ... His skills seemed no match for the indecipherable complexities of the statues' design." [pp. 125-6]
Add to this the technical problems of visibility:
"Although the monoliths were carved in deep relief, the gloomy light filtering through the forest canopy flattened everything, leaving the human forms and their fantastic headdresses and skirts hard to differentiate." [p. 124]
Ever the perfectionist, however, Catherwood persisted:
"As the day wore on, with each new series he seemed to reach another level of perception that allowed him to draw the monolith before him with greater and greater precision. It may have been only a subtle shift in perspective caused by the sharp edge of the shadows cast by the sun, but it seemed he had broken down some cognitive barrier and had begun finally to grasp if not comprehend what he was seeing." [p. 127]
This perseverance characterizes both Catherwood's and Stephens's approach throughout their encounter with the Mayan civilization. They were the first explorers to approach it without any preconceptions and start from scratch, from simple detailed description, before venturing any hypothesis about the meaning or origin of Mayan art. Both seasoned explorers who traveled across Egypt and the Middle East, as well as Greece, and throughout Europe, they quickly discarded the hypothesis that the Mayan civilization was an offshoot of one the early Mediterranean cultures. Once again, Jungle of Stone does a good job placing their research in context and, beyond the rival Caddy and Walker expedition, presents earlier attempts at exploring, describing and theorizing about the Mayan ruins.
Readers interested in exploring this topic further are offered an exhaustive bibliography -- if it has any gaps, it's that it does not mention that the main primary resources are available on archive.org: all four volumes of Stephens's Incidents of Travel... (the first and second expedition), as well as Catherwood's Views of Ancient Monuments... which includes his colored drawings (although only those in brown tones, not the full color hand-painted plates from the limited edition reproduced in the plate section of Jungle of Stone). Also available on archive.org is the very-limited edition of Antiquities of Mexico (9 vols.) compiled by Lord Kingsborough and published in 1831, which include some color drawings of the Mayan architectural motifs.
On a final note, among the interesting facts I learned about the Maya art was that when applying layers of plaster to their figures, they literally "dressed" them "as though they were real humans": "each layer was painted even though it was to be covered with another layer of plaster" [p. 262].
I find this idea of layering to be a good metaphor for contextual research provided by this book: with the narrative of travel at the center, completed by biographical sketch of the two explorers and their fate post-expedition, as well as the more general social, political, historical context.
The book itself is a biography so it ranges to include Stephens and Catherwood's trips to the Middle East, Panama, Russia, South America etc.. the trips to Guatemala and Mexico form the core but its bracketed with other journeys. William Carlsen is a long-time reporter who lived for many years in Guatemala. He has done a great job restoring the memory of once famous explorers, reviving a sense of first discovery of a lost civilization.
This is the first book I have read about the Maya and it's a perfect introduction. It's just a whole lot of fun to follow Stephens and Catherwood using Google Maps, to see almost first hand where they went. Most of the places remain unchanged to this day, still surround by jungle and with the ruins clearly visible from satellite. That plus reading the book gives a heightened sense of being there in person.