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Catherwood, Frederick (1799–1854)

Catherwood, Frederick (1799–1854)

Frederick Catherwood (February 27, 1799–September 27, 1854) was an English architect, artist, explorer, and illustrator who worked with American diplomat and journalist John Lloyd Stephens to carry out the first formal surveys of several Maya archaeological sites in present-day Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras between 1839 and 1842. Catherwood produced more than two hundred detailed drawings of Maya architecture, sculpture, monuments, and other material culture, as well as plan maps that were turned into steel lithograph engravings. These were published in two double-volume travelogues authored by Stephens, entitled Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan (1841) and Incidents of Travel in Yucatan (1843). He later published on his own a two-volume folio set of hand colored plates entitled Views of Ancient Monuments in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan (1844).

Catherwood used a camera lucida technique to project outlines of his subjects directly onto graph paper. This was the first time this technique was used outside of Europe. In the history of Mesoamerican studies, Stephens and Catherwood's publications are revolutionary contributions in several ways. Catherwood did not depict Maya architecture and monuments through an Old World lens or filter, but rather focused on detailed representations of the styles and relief of the sculpture itself, thereby emphasizing the elements that were unique to Maya art and architecture, including hieroglyphic inscriptions that clearly depicted a language unknown anywhere else in the world.

Stephens and Catherwood championed the idea of indigenous development of complex society in the Americas rather than a migration of civilized peoples from the Near East, Mediterranean, or Classical Greek or Roman world sometime in the remote past. Their ideas were based on comparing the details of Maya monuments and architecture with Old World forms, in which Catherwood's illustrations provided key visual evidence. Stephens and Catherwood argued that Maya cities were probably built between the fifth and thirteenth centuries ce, dates much later than most scholars of the time thought and within the range supported by modern archaeological investigations. They also suggested that the ancient Maya civilization was ancestral to the contemporary indigenous population living in southern Mexico and Central America.

Frederick Catherwood died in 1854 when the steamship S.S. Arctic, upon which he was a passenger returning to New York from Liverpool, England, was rammed by another ship and sank in the North Atlantic.

See alsoArchaeology; Maya, The.


Bartlett, William Henry. Walks about the City and Environs of Jerusalem. London: G. Virtue, 1884.

Bourbon, Fabio. The Lost Cities of the Mayas: The Life, Art, and Discoveries of Frederick Catherwood. New York: Abbeville, 2000.

Briggs, Peter. The Maya Image in the Western World: A Catalogue to an Exhibition at the University of New Mexico. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1986.

Catherwood, Frederick. Explanation of the Large Map of Jerusalem: From Actual Survey in the Year 1835. New York: Israel Sacket, 1838.

Catherwood, Frederick. Views of Ancient Monuments in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan. New York: Bartlett & Welford, 1844.

Evans, R. Tripp. Romancing the Maya: Mexican Antiquity in the American Imagination, 1820–1915. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004.

                                          Dylan J. Clark

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