John Lloyd Stephens: the father of Maya archaeology.

Kids and adults long for adventure. Kids especially. They hunt for pirate treasure along the ocean shore. They explore the woods in hopes of stumbling upon secret forts.

For some people this desire to explore in hopes of finding something marvelous doesn’t fade away with time. It surely didn’t for John Lloyd Stephens. He might not have found gold or silver but he did find the handprints of an unknown civilization.

Maybe you’ll find a connection to Stephens, the explorer, but would you dare to do what he did and go where he dared to go?

One day he discovered the inside chambers of a pyramid mound filled with rubbish and stones. On the back wall remained hints of red, blue, yellow and green paint.  He had to lie down in the dirt to look at it properly. Could he pry the painting off to bring it back to America? He tried, but it was a permanent fixture of the ruins. All of a sudden his body itched.  His clothes crawled with garrapatas! Thousands of insects like grains of sand washed across his body like tiny prickles, finding their way into the seams of his shirt and pants. They sunk into his flesh, like tics, driving him crazy. Only way to get rid of them was to change his clothes, which were not with him.

This is just one example!  Yikes.

When would you have called it quits? 

Stephens was born in 1805 and grew up in a wealthy family in America.  No cars, no electricity, no television. I imagine Stephens sitting at a desk, piles of thick law books in front of him. His calendar filled with formal luncheons and meetings. But a spark, maybe that had been within him since childhood, burned in his heart. As each day passed, the spark grew, until one day he could take it no longer. The desire to travel and explore the big world burst out and would not be ignored.

In 1834 he left all that he knew behind and traveled Egypt, Israel and Greece. He explored the Egyptian temples, walked through the holy land and encountered the Greek ruins. His craving for high adventure did not end there.

Rumors of ancient ruins in Central America circulated society. Could the stories of Spanish soldiers be trusted? Who built these ruins? At that point in time the people of Central America were considered peaceful farmers. Why would farmers build temples?  The popular beliefs were that the Maya had migrated from the Old World of Europe.  They were either a lost tribe of Israel or from the lost city of Atlantis. Stephens had to know.

He had to see for himself and decide who built these ruins.   

In 1839 Stephens set out for Central America. He hired Frederick Catherwood to come along and illustrate the ruins.

Stephens explored, cleared land, working hard to expose the ruins so Catherwood could illustrate them. He hoped to find lost artifacts or great tombs filled with treasures, but none was found. He climbed the crumbling temples spread all over the countryside, contemplating this mysterious people, tracing his fingers across their hieroglyphics, walking where they walked.

He was in a race against time. These ancient temples and buildings were ravaged by the affects of time. Crumbling and overgrown with jungle, some of them were almost destroyed. He feared if he could not leave with proof of their existence that they would completely disappear.

Stephens returned to write and publish a second book about the Mayan ruins and it brought him a small fortune. Modern scientists credit him with being the forefather of Mayan archeology. Several of his keen observations that went against current beliefs turned out to be true. He believed the hieroglyphics to be records of nobles and kings.

He was right.

He believed the temples and the civilization that built them were not influenced by Europe, which at that time was considered the center of the world.

He was right.

The Maya culture was a separate civilization, which had flourished all on its own.

Here’s a link to one of Catherwood’s illustrations. Click here.

It was in my research on the Maya that I stumbled across the story of John Lloyd Stephens, and I found it absolutely fascinating! Part of the reason I decided to write about the ancient Maya was that I knew nothing about them! Why the temples? Why the blood sacrifice? I wanted to know. And yes, I found the answers! Many of them are woven into How To Survive Ancient Spells and Crazy Kings.

Maybe we’re not so different from John Lloyd Stephens.

Where would you dare to go in the name of exploration? Or what neat stories of people or places have you stumbled upon during research?



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10 Responses to John Lloyd Stephens: the father of Maya archaeology.

  1. Louise September 26, 2012 at 12:34 pm #

    Fascinating! I began studying the ancient Maya (for a story, naturally) a couple of years ago. Somehow I missed learning about Stephens. Adding his name to my pile of “things to still study!”

    • Laura September 26, 2012 at 3:45 pm #

      There are so many neat people I came across when studying the Maya. This was only one of them!

  2. Donna K. Weaver September 26, 2012 at 2:39 pm #

    This is so cool. How fun to come across this while researching something else.

  3. Laura September 26, 2012 at 3:46 pm #

    I think one of the best was a story about Cortez in all his domineering glory, chasing the Maya through the jungle on horse and with pigs – disaster!

  4. Alex J. Cavanaugh September 26, 2012 at 5:54 pm #

    Brave thing to do – leave it all and explore the world.
    I’d go back to England and explore the castles.

    • Laura September 26, 2012 at 6:48 pm #

      Castles sounds a bit more appealing to me too!

  5. tracikenworth September 27, 2012 at 9:12 am #

    I love learning about new cultures!!

  6. Kelly Polark September 27, 2012 at 11:21 pm #

    That is very cool. What a find! I’m glad there are adventurous people out there, because I am a bit of a homebody!

  7. Margo Berendsen September 28, 2012 at 12:58 am #

    This post is almost like a mini-story, loved it. Those insects – yikes. I have discovered some fascinating real-life stories in research too – one of the great side-benefits of researching for writing.

  8. Ansha Kotyk September 28, 2012 at 2:06 pm #

    I think my love of adventure and history are what got me to major in anthropology and archaeology in college. I loved the idea of finding long lost treasures from the past.

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