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

Plate 9, Ornament over the Principal Doorway, Casa del Gobernador, Uxmal

Plate 9, Ornament over the Principal Doorway, Casa del Gobernador, Uxmal

Plate 9, Ornament over the Principal Doorway,
Casa del Gobernador, Uxmal
(on stone, by W. Parrott)

Masks of rain god, snakes, and intricate geometric shapes loom over the entrance to this Maya building, today called the House of the Governor. The city of Uxmal, and the Puuc people who lived there flourished between 800-1000 CE, but abandoned the city after the Spanish invasion. Their descendants, who led Stephens and Catherwood on their explorations, told of a legend that ‘immense treasure is hidden’ within the ruins. The doorway seems to be a gaping mouth, luring the casual observer inside to explore its depths. When Stephens did so, he discovered a wooden lintel covered with Maya writing. Hoping to save it from “the wanton machete of an Indian,” he had part of the lintel shipped to America. This is only one example of how Stephens and Catherwood claimed Maya artifacts for their studies and removed them from their original context. There is another group of people who remove Maya artifacts from sites, but they do not bother to write accounts of where they found their pieces—and we call them looters.

Looting has become a serious problem within the realm of archeology and the study of pre-Columbian cultures. Looters destroy archeological context that could help with decoding glyphs and further scholars’ understanding of the Maya. It is estimated that for every archeologist there may be as many as two hundred looters. Collectors who purchase for profit can also inflate the market. The black market in Maya artifacts is now worth thousands of dollars a year and growing; it is steadily obliterating precious information about Maya civilization. Since the 1970s UNESCO laws that address cultural patrimony have been adopted by some countries. Yet even with these laws looters are able to excavate sites and sell to collectors or dealers. Archeologists today want stricter law enforcement from all countries; museums also prefer that collectors purchase only items with documentation of provenance. This issue will continue to haunt scholars and collectors for years to come, and we can look back at some of the first stirrings of the debate through Catherwood’s prints. [Spanish version].

MELANIE BOVE and ALYSSA RANKER

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