The Contribution of John Lloyd Stephens to the Rediscovery of Mayan Civilization

John Lloyd Stephens (1805-1852) was an American explorer, government official and amateur archaeologist. His work in Central America is widely credited as being crucial to the rediscovery of Mayan civilization.

According to researcher Joshua J. Mark, Stephens was born in New Jersey in 1805, and initially studied law. However, after a bout of serious illness, he abandoned his practice and took up world travel, ostensibly to improve his health. Initially, Stephens was primarily interested in the Mediterranean and the Middle East, and he eventually made a name for himself by publishing travel books on these regions. While abroad in Europe, Stephens also had what would turn out to be a vitally important meeting with another young world traveller, English artist Frederick Catherwood, who shared many of his interests in ancient history.

Stephens’ contributions to Mayan archaeology, however, were initially unintended. In 1839, says Mark, American President Martin Van Buren appointed the now well-known Stephens as ambassador to Central America. The job turned out to involve relatively little real work, so in his ample spare time, Stephens and Catherwood resumed their explorations. This time, they hoped to find ruins of ancient temples and pyramids, many of which were unknown to Europeans or Americans but still well-known by local indigenous groups. Stephens knew from Spanish records that there must be numerous large Mayan cities in the Yucatan Peninsula, but found that American and European maps contained no trace of them beyond the occasional reference to rumour or hearsay.

Stephens had no formal training in anthropology and archaeology. Over several years, however, he eagerly explored the region, making contact with locals, paying for information and often buying outright the land on which the ruins were located. His plans were often unclear. Usually, says Joshua Mark, Stephens’ main goal was to write books describing his discoveries. At other times, though, his hopes could be truly grandiose. The ruined city of Copan, Stephens thought, might perhaps be dismantled, moved and reassembled at a large museum somewhere in America.

The grander ideas never came to fruition, but over the coming century, later generations of archaeological researchers would confirm that Stephens’ work was still groundbreaking. In just a few short years of explorations, generally just searching for visible ruins rather than conducting full-scale archaeological digs, Stephens had been able to confirm the existence of a Mayan civilization dating from before the Spanish arrival in the Americas. He had also been able to identify many of the cities, temples and pyramids which had bound that civilization together. Thanks to Stephens, says California anthropologist Brian Fagan, the Mayans had been finally restored from centuries of “reports of mysterious temples deep in the rain forest” back into the civilization which early Spanish observers had believed must have existed.

In addition to Stephens’ own writings about the ruined cities he visited, numerous biographies of Stephens and his colleague Catherwood have been published. Readers who want to learn more about John Lloyd Stephens and his contributions to the rediscovery of Mayan civilization can check out Steven Frimmer’s The Man Who Found The Maya, Peter Koch’s John Lloyd Stephens and Frederic Catherwood: Pioneers of Mayan Archaeology and Victor Wolfgang von Hagen’s Maya Explorer.