Exploring the Mayan Ruins (In Books)

After going through William Frej’s exciting photobook, Maya Ruins Revisited (see my review here), that excitement carried on and I wanted to dig deeper.

Do you want more, too?

The first place to start is the most obvious: One essay in Frej’s book offers a good summary of what is known of the Mayan civilization and another essay tells almost all that is known about Teobert Maler, the German photographer who came to Central America to fight but then stayed to live there and explore. At some point he changed his name to Teoberto, which was easier for the locals to pronounce and probably signals his affinity for the land and its people.

If you need more on Maler your choices are very slim. I picked up a copy of Pursuit of the Ancient Maya: Some Archeologists of Yesterday, edited by Robert L. Brunhouse. It’s a series of profiles of people from a now-lost world working to discover another lost world. The first chapter is on Maler.

For a bigger background on the Maya themselves, you can probably do no better than The Maya and Breaking the Maya Code, both by Michael Coe. Get the most recent version of Breaking the Maya Code as each edition offers significant revisions.

Far and away the most enjoyable book that I came across is William Carlsen’s Jungle of Stone: The Extraordinary Journey of John L. Stephens and Frederick Catherwood, and the Discovery of the Lost Civilization of the Maya. Carlsen is a former journalist and he knows how to tell a story and the story here is that of Stephens, a travel writer, and Catherwood, an artist, who explored and uncovered the Mayan ruins before Maler–indeed, the books that resulted from the Stephens-Catherwood trip inspired many who came after.

Those particular books, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan and Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan are fun to read, highly regarded, and still in print through solid Dover editions.

Catherwood did publish his drawings after he returned and I fantasized for a while about owning a copy. I knew one would be expensive and I had convinced myself that I would make an effort to obtain the book–then I discovered that the price for such a copy is around one hundred thousand dollars. But I can still dream:

On the used market you can find the bilingual Following the Footsteps of Stephens – Catherwood, by Chuck Ennis, a paperback printed in Mexico, perhaps for tourists. It’s not expensive and worth having and might be great to have next to you as for reference as you read Jungle of Stone.


For context and to hint strongly at what the earlier Mayan society might have been like, at least in a time of an invasion by a powerful, alien force, turn to The History of the Conquest of New Spain, by Bernal Díaz del Castillo, translated by Davíd Carrasco, as readable today as it must have been when Díaz, a solder working for Cortéz, wrote it. You’ll get first-hand accounts of the Aztec people he met and observed, first-hand descriptions of the towns and cities, his assessment of the organization of the Aztec society, and still shocking, his depiction of human sacrifices that he witnessed.

The ruins throughout the Americas have long fascinated photographers, even art photographers. The New World’s Old World: Photographic Views of Ancient America, edited by May Castleberry is a little-known survey of their work. Maler is there but so is Edward Weston. Surprisingly inexpensive on the used market, it’s a book worth having if you are interested in the ruins or you are interested in photography. If you are interested in both, buy two and give one to a friend.


We’ve been especially lucky recently, in this time of such bad luck, to have curators and scholars growing increasingly interested in the work of early photographers. Teobert Maler still remains unknown in art circles but San Francisco MOMA’s curator Corey Keller has brought some of this early work to public attention with Signs and Wonders: The Photographs of John Beasley Greene. I saw this exhibit of images made in 1850s Egypt and nearby areas at SFMOMA and it was a show worth seeing. Who knew that in a few weeks we’d be in lockdown? The show did travel to its next destination, the Art Institute of Chicago, and it did appear to open, but the number of attendees was no doubt greatly reduced and the attention due to Keller’s exhibit no doubt not fully realized. Buy the book before it sells out.

Another photographer exploring Egypt at that time–one of the first photographers to do so–was Girault de Prangey and the Metropolitan Museum of Art put on a highly praised show (which I missed) and a lovely catalog of the show (which I own). Monumental Journey: The Daguerrotypes of Girault de Prangey, by Stephen C. Pinson, is a book of daguerreotypes beautifully printed with the darker ink often having a higher gloss than the lighter tones, giving the printed images a small sense of a daguerreotype’s shimmer. There’s color there, too, if you are thinking these are all black and white reproductions.

Finally, much further afield both in geography and in time, have a look at I am Ashurbanipal, King of the World, King of Assyria, edited by Gareth Brereton. I’m halfway through and, in the before times, I used to take this big book to coffee shops to read for pleasure. My one-word review of this one is simply “badass,” a word of high praise in my vocabulary.


Note that, in a change in policy, I’ll be linking book titles to Amazon. I don’t run ads here, and the links are not affiliate links, and Jeff Bezos certainly doesn’t need more money but readers–and authors–may benefit from direct links instead of having to copy and paste titles.

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