Header overlay

Lost Cities

Share this

I’m no archaeologist. Not even an amateur, except maybe in the sense of being a devoted fan. Still, ever since reading C. W. Ceram’s classic potboiler Gods, Graves and Scholars back in the 1950s I’ve been fascinated by the physical detritus of history. I’ve even had the good luck to play archaeologist on several occasions, though I’ve never found anything of importance.

Of course archaeology is not so much about finding things as it is of understanding them, of being thrilled and engaged by the past. So I treasure the recollection of a month spent on a sandy beach at the southern tip of Sardinia excavating, with a small trowel and a couple of brushes, what was either a Phoenician altar or (more likely) a 3,000-year-old kebab grill. Nor would I for the world wish to have missed taking part in the exploration of a seventeenth-century Spanish wreck off the coast of Bermuda in a couple of fathoms of beautifully clear water; nothing much there except a pile of ballast rock and a few boxes of indigo that exploded into a great cloud of blue dye if you were careless enough to touch one. For a pretend archaeologist they were great adventures.

These days I have to admit I find it more appealing to read about other people’s exploits, and fortunately there are wonderful examples to choose from ‒ Sir Aurel Stein exploring the Silk Road in Chinese Turkestan or the one-time circus strong man Giovanni Belzoni on the trail of Egyptian antiquities. Such characters might be accused of being more interested in treasure-hunting than archaeology, but the two always did go together. I’m a sucker for treasure-hunting, anyway.

In this class of writers there is one who, to me, is a standout, partly because I’ve had the good fortune to poke through some of the ruins he brought to the world’s attention, and partly because he is a terrific writer ‒ direct, cool, funny, even romantic when necessary. Between 1839 and 1841 John Lloyd Stephens m

Subscribe or sign in to read the full article

The full version of this article is only available to subscribers to Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly. To continue reading, please sign in or take out a subscription to the quarterly magazine for yourself or as a gift for a fellow booklover. Both gift givers and gift recipients receive access to the full online archive of articles along with many other benefits, such as preferential prices for all books and goods in our online shop and offers from a number of like-minded organizations. Find out more on our subscriptions page.

Subscribe now or

I’m no archaeologist. Not even an amateur, except maybe in the sense of being a devoted fan. Still, ever since reading C. W. Ceram’s classic potboiler Gods, Graves and Scholars back in the 1950s I’ve been fascinated by the physical detritus of history. I’ve even had the good luck to play archaeologist on several occasions, though I’ve never found anything of importance.

Of course archaeology is not so much about finding things as it is of understanding them, of being thrilled and engaged by the past. So I treasure the recollection of a month spent on a sandy beach at the southern tip of Sardinia excavating, with a small trowel and a couple of brushes, what was either a Phoenician altar or (more likely) a 3,000-year-old kebab grill. Nor would I for the world wish to have missed taking part in the exploration of a seventeenth-century Spanish wreck off the coast of Bermuda in a couple of fathoms of beautifully clear water; nothing much there except a pile of ballast rock and a few boxes of indigo that exploded into a great cloud of blue dye if you were careless enough to touch one. For a pretend archaeologist they were great adventures. These days I have to admit I find it more appealing to read about other people’s exploits, and fortunately there are wonderful examples to choose from ‒ Sir Aurel Stein exploring the Silk Road in Chinese Turkestan or the one-time circus strong man Giovanni Belzoni on the trail of Egyptian antiquities. Such characters might be accused of being more interested in treasure-hunting than archaeology, but the two always did go together. I’m a sucker for treasure-hunting, anyway. In this class of writers there is one who, to me, is a standout, partly because I’ve had the good fortune to poke through some of the ruins he brought to the world’s attention, and partly because he is a terrific writer ‒ direct, cool, funny, even romantic when necessary. Between 1839 and 1841 John Lloyd Stephens made two long and arduous trips through Central America in search of lost Mayan cities. What followed were two huge books (respectively 900 and 700 pages long), both best-sellers in their day. Even now Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan and Incidents of Travel in Yucatan are a splendid introduction to the Mayan world, since except for a few of the most famous sites, the ruins they describe remain as remote and untouched as they were 150 years ago. I have never been to Chinese Turkestan or to Egypt, worse luck, but from my own experience (far less extensive than his) I can testify that Stephens has got Central America and its lost cities dead right, in all their complexity, discomfort and absolute fascination. He claims to have explored no less than forty-four sites, many for the first time. Stephens was 34, a New York lawyer who had lost interest in the law, when he first headed for Central America with Frederick Catherwood, an English artist. Their plan was for Catherwood to make detailed drawings of the buildings and sculptures, while Stephens supervised clearance, took measurements and made travel arrangements (i.e. haggled for mules and porters). Officially, Stephens had a commission from Washington to locate and open negotiations with the government of the eighteen-year-old federation of Central American states (Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and El Salvador), but by the time he got there the federation was falling apart, beset by revolution and renegade armies. In spite of travelling hundreds of miles back and forth across the country, often through areas alive with bandits, he never did manage to locate a functioning government. The papers he carried nevertheless proved useful for intimidating reluctant local dignitaries. He and Catherwood also had an excuse for getting to places that might otherwise have been inaccessible. I enjoy reading Stephens with a good map at hand, preferably one showing topography, although he is clear and colourful about the nature of the roads they travelled ‒ uniformly terrible. There is something affecting and immediate about watching the pair of them struggle from one site to the next, following up rumours (practically none of the native inhabitants knew or cared anything about ruins), bargaining for transport and fighting off mosquitoes, fever and tropical rain. Illness was always a problem: the first journey had to be terminated after a terrible month at Palenque when Catherwood collapsed from malaria and overwork, while Stephens himself almost died from the effects of a chigger-infested foot. You can read Incidents purely as travel writing. The books are full of vivid observations on Indian folklore and history, on volcanoes (Stephens rarely missed a chance to climb one), on wildlife and the startling beauty of the landscape. They can evoke the terror of stumbling along a narrow crumbling track above a thousand-foot barranca as well as the occasional pleasure of early morning in the wilderness:

Daylight broke upon us in a forest of gigantic trees . . . The road was merely a path through the forest, formed by cutting away shrubs and branches. The freshness of the morning was delightful. We were now in the tierras calientes; but at nine o’clock the glare and heat of the sun did not penetrate the thick shade of the woods. In some places the branches of the trees, trimmed by the machete of a passing muleteer, and hung with a drapery of vines and creepers, bearing red and purple flowers, formed for a long distance natural arches more beautiful that any ever fashioned by man; and there were parrots and other birds of beautiful plumage flying among the trees . . .

But the Incidents’ real fascination has to lie in the archaeology, in the amazing array of lost cities scarcely known or even suspected at the time. With only guesswork to go on, Stephens had no way to date the ruins; we now know that the finest of them flourished between AD 250 and 900, when a still-mysterious collapse brought an end to the Mayan civilization. A few lesser sites lingered, apparently still occupied when the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the sixteenth century, which suggested to a hopeful Stephens that somehow in the mountains or the jungles there might be a living Mayan city waiting to be found. One look at that city, he reflected, would be worth ten years of an everyday life. Needless to say, he never found it. Trekking ten days out of their way into a dangerous region on the strength of the testimony of an old priest was tempting but impractical. And in any case what they did find was spectacular enough. Quirigua, Copan, Palenque, Uxmal, Chichen Itza, Tulum ‒ these and many others come into Stephens’s story. Catherwood spends weeks battling heat, rain, insects and recurring fever while making beautifully precise drawings not only of the buildings but also of stone carvings with dozens of hieroglyphic inscriptions, so accurate that the work of deciphering them (only recently successful, a hundred years later) could begin. Hundreds of Catherwood’s illustrations are included in the text. Stephens meanwhile offers detailed descriptions against the time ‒ perhaps not long in the future, given the destructive effects of climate and neglect ‒ when the ruins would be totally effaced. The sense of romance is everywhere palpable. At Palenque:

Nothing ever impressed me more forcibly than the spectacle of this once great and lovely city, overturned, desolate, and lost; discovered by accident, overgrown with trees for miles around, and without even a name to distinguish it.

As a hard-headed Yankee, however, Stephens was not about to be overcome by sentiment. Blocked from exploring Copan by the intransigence of a landowner, he bought the whole place for $50 (‘There was never any difficulty about price. I offered that sum, for which Don Jose Maria thought me only a fool; if I had offered more, he would probably have considered me something worse’). At Quirigua he tried again to buy the ruins, with the idea of shipping them home to New York. At Palenque he probably would have succeeded had not local laws forbidden foreigners from owning land. For a time he considered marrying to get around the problem.

*

Much of the charm that animates Incidents of Travel lies in the excitement Stephens so clearly felt at being the first to come upon these forgotten marvels in a virgin state, before the reconstruction experts flocked in. I know how he must have felt. Fifty years ago I was fortunate enough to visit Tikal, the enormous Mayan city in the depths of Guatemala’s Peten rainforest. Much remained invisible; its stately temples and courts were just then emerging from the trees and undergrowth that had swallowed them over the course of a thousand years. Stephens and Catherwood never reached Tikal; it was still undiscovered in the 1840s and hardly known for another century. But if they had they would no doubt have been as awed as I was. ‘It was one of the circumstances of our journey in this country that every hour and day produced something new,’ Stephens writes. ‘We never had any idea of the character of the place we were approaching until we entered it, and one surprise followed close upon another.’ Tikal would have been another surprise ‒ but we have already been offered plenty in these splendid books.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 49 © Charles Elliott 2016


About the contributor

Charles Elliot is an editor and writer who has been to Tikal three times and is prepared to go again at the drop of a spade. His latest book is Why Every Man Needs a Tractor.

Share this

Comments & Reviews

Leave a comment

Customise this page for easy reading

Sign up to our e-newsletter

Sign up for dispatches about new issues, books and podcast episodes, highlights from the archive, events, special offers and giveaways.