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Archaeological Discovery

John Lloyd Stephens’s two publications—Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan (1841) and Incidents of Travel in Yucatan (1843)—brought Maya civilization to the attention of tens of thousands of readers in the U.S. and Europe. Essential to the success of his enjoyable and informative text were the complementary illustrations of architect Frederick Catherwood. The latter’s artistic skill and use of the camera lucida, an optical device, produced more accurate depictions than earlier ones (see Early Representations).

The development of photography from its original invention in 1839 had enormous impact for Maya studies. Beginning in 1873, Augustus and Alice Le Plongeon took thousands of photographs of Maya sites.

However, it was Alfred Maudslay who systematically photographed them to produce the first comprehensive corpus of Maya inscriptions in his publication Archaeology. Maudslay also recognized the advantage of delineation for clarity and included drawings based on the photographs. Indeed, drawings continue to be critical for the study of hieroglyphic writing.

In the twentieth century, U.S. institutions assumed a central role in Maya archaeological research. Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania, and particularly the Carnegie Institution of Washington dominated projects in Maya studies. The latter sponsored the excavation of Chichén Itzá, the most visited Maya site.