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Drawing From the Past
Maya Antiquity Through the Eyes of Frederick Catherwood

Plate 23, Castle, at Tuloom

Plate 23, Castle, at Tuloom

Plate 23, Castle, at Tuloom
(on stone, by A. Picken)

This lithograph features the Castillo at Tuloom (today Tulum), a temple on the eastern coast of the Yucatán peninsula, well known for its splendid frescoes. Rising dramatically from the vines and trees, the Castillo’s steps lead up to the sky, inviting the viewer to sit, like the figure in the foreground, and admire the amazing view. Catherwood skillfully uses the placement of figures to draw the viewer's eye back into the scene, up the stone steps, past the pillars, to the structures beyond. The figures almost seem to intrude onto this natural setting, hacking away at the vegetation that had kept the site isolated for hundreds of years. While giving us all of this visual information, Catherwood fails to note how truly spectacular the site of Tulum is. He mentions that it is, “situated on a ledge of rocks on the eastern shore of Yucatán.” In reality, the site is placed precariously on a forty-foot limestone cliff, majestically towering over the waves. One of the conquistadors who discovered the site, probably led by Juan de Grijalva, said at first sight of Tulum, “... the city of Seville could not appear greater or better.”

Tulum flourished between 1200 and 1520 CE, but was abandoned soon after the Spanish conquest. It became overgrown with trees and plants, a peaceful, hidden testament to a glorious culture. As is evident in this print, the Stephens and Catherwood expedition took it upon themselves to oversee the clearing of the site. But would the ancient Maya have ever wanted the site uncovered? Stephens and Catherwood paved the way for a lucrative tourist trade in Tulum, which has made the site a place for displays of acrobatics and boat tours, with thousands of people flocking to the site each year. The temple now stands as a testament to the power of capitalism, laid bare to all prying eyes. Perhaps the Maya would have preferred their history had remained “undiscovered?” [Spanish version].

ALYSSA RANKER

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