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Jungle of Stone: The True Story of Two Men, Their Extraordinary Journey, and the Discovery of the Lost Civilization of the Maya (2016)

by William Carlsen

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2647100,724 (4.01)11
Documents the true story of the nineteenth-century rediscovery of the Mayan civilization by American ambassador John Lloyd Stephens and British architect Frederick Catherwood, illuminating how their findings profoundly changed Western understandings about human history.
  1. 00
    Time Among the Maya: Travels in Belize, Guatemala, and Mexico by Ronald Wright (rakerman)
    rakerman: Jungle of Stone tells the tale of the rediscovery of the Maya cities, and Time Among the Maya tells the tale of the Maya civilisation itself, with a focus on its perception of time, so the books offer different sides of the Maya story.
  2. 00
    The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey by Candice Millard (rakerman)
    rakerman: River of Doubt tells the tale of a difficult exploration of an Amazonian river. Jungle of Stone tells the store of challenging explorations of Mayan sites.
  3. 00
    The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story by Douglas Preston (rakerman)
    rakerman: Jungle of Stone tells the story of challenging explorations of Mayan sites. The Lost City of the Monkey God tells the tale of a challenging exploration of a city from an unknown but potentially Maya-related civilization.

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One of the few books I have read twice, 'Jungle of Stone' is a brilliant exposition of the archaeologists who finally unearthed the full historicity of the Mayan civilization from its jungle slumber and opened the Mesoamerican past to future generations of intellectuals. ( )
  Amarj33t_5ingh | Jul 8, 2022 |
A fascinating read focused on the exploits of 19th century writer John L. Stephens and his British artist friend Frederick Catherwood and their exploration of the Yucatán peninsula.

They endured disease, storms, insects, numerous revolutions, inhospitable terrain, and seemingly impenetrable jungle to uncover and document the staggering remains of over 40 previously unknown Maya cities.

They literally brought a long lost civilization back into the light and in doing so challenged the established Euro-centric view of human history.

I must admit to being totally unaware of either gentleman and their achievements before reading this volume. It also made me aware of my equal ignorance of South American history in general - a situation I need to rectify.

The story is compelling enough but Catherwood’s intricate detailed drawings done on site add another level of awe to their achievements. ( )
  gothamajp | Mar 31, 2022 |
The more you approach this book as life and times of John Stephens & Frederick Catherwood the more that you'll like it. Where the problem comes is that damn little is known in particular about Catherwood, the man who produced the marvelous drawings of the Mayan ruins Stephens used to illustrate his book; possibly the result of an imploding marriage resulting in the loss of a lot of documentary material. As for what I would have liked to have seen is perhaps a little more of a compare and contrast of what Stephens & Catherwood thought they were seeing with what we actually know now about the Maya. What you get is quite a lot about the colonial dueling in the region; probably not a shock since Carlsen spent much of his career in Central America as a journalist. ( )
  Shrike58 | Jul 26, 2020 |
Stephens and Catherwood explored 44 ruined sites in Central America, publishing best-selling books about them. I expected this story to be much more interesting than it was. Carlsen's problem, I think, is that he doesn't have enough to go on. Very little is known about Stephens and Catherwood personally, or about their relationship with each other. Most of their letters are lost, and for long stretches Carlsen can't even say what country they are in. It's hard to write compelling nonfiction when there is so little known. Still, there are some gems to be found, and I found interesting the denouement explaining their involvement in building a Panama railroad during the California Gold Rush. I also liked Carlsen's capsule summary of Mayan history, based on what is known today; maybe it is filler material but some of it was new to me.

> Stephens and Catherwood's historic journey radically altered our understanding of human evolution. In their wake, it became possible to comprehend civilization as an inherent trait of human cultural progress, perhaps coded into our genes; a characteristic that allows advanced societies to grow out of primitive ones, organically, separately, and without contact, as occurred in Central America and the Western Hemisphere, which were isolated from the rest of the world for more than fifteen thousand years. And, just as with the Old World's ancient civilizations, they can collapse, too, leaving behind only remnants of their previous splendor. … Native Americans had built the cities, created the art, raised the towers, temples, and pyramids, and fashioned their own unique system of writing. This conclusion would forever alter the understanding of human history on the American continents and provide new insight into human cultural evolution.

> "The Indians who inhabit that country now are not more changed than their Spanish masters. We know that at the time of the conquest they were at least proud, fierce, and warlike, and poured out their blood like water to save their inheritance from the grasp of strangers. Crushed, humbled, and bowed down as they are now by generations of bitter servitude, even yet they are not more changed than the descendants of those terrible Spaniards who invaded and conquered their country. In both, all traces of the daring and warlike character of their ancestors are entirely gone." ( )
  breic | Dec 17, 2019 |
Relying a great deal on John L. Stephens's own account of his travels to Central America, Jungle of Stone praises Stephens's writing as conservative, successfully resisting romanticizing and needless embellishment, sticking to the facts, and, importantly, giving credit to explorers who came before him, while capable at the same time of capturing the reader's interest with the fluidity of the prose. The same could be said of Carlsen's book: while offering a concise retelling of J.L. Stephens's and Frederick Catherwood's Mayan quest and its aftermath, the author contextualizes the narrative with the help of meticulous archival and field research. Carlsen draws on sources ranging from civil records, newspaper articles, extant correspondence, histories of conquest and exploration, diplomatic records, biographies of other contemporary players, published and unpublished accounts by other explorers, ship passenger lists, publishers' account books.... etc. to find small nuggets of information which are deftly woven into the story, often in support of new biographic discoveries.

Unlike a previous reviewer, I didn't feel at all "bogged down" by the details of Central American warfare: what we get is a necessary context helping us to understand the dangers encountered and the unstable political situation which Stephens, as an appointed U.S. diplomat, had to navigate during his first journey to Guatemala. Without this background, the story would have been incomplete. Stephens and Catherwood first traveled to Central America in 1839, taking advantage of Stephens's official diplomatic mission. Landing in British-governed Belize, they pursued their journey, by water and land, amid mudslides and rebel factions, to Guatemala city, first making a difficult detour via Copan, their first encounter with the Mayan civilization. Stephens was unable to indulge his interest in "antiquities" (as archaeology was referred to in those days), and had to do what was necessary to fulfill his mission: which included attempts at finding the elusive Guatemalan government, meeting with both Francisco Morazán, the president of the Federal Republic of Central America which was in the process of breaking down into separate territories, and the rebel Rafael Carrera who waged a persistent guerrilla war with the support of local population against the colonizer. It is amazing that Stephens managed to get on the good side of the two sworn enemies and come out alive from the encounters. Without getting some understanding of this important chapter in Central American history, I don't think we can really understand what it meant to travel across the territory in 1839/40.

Similar to the South Pole and Arctic expeditions, there was also a bit of a "Mayan race" going on. While Stephens was occupied with his diplomatic duties and Catherwood stayed behind in Copan, an expedition was launched by the British from Belize, intended to "beat" Stephens to one of the known Mayan sites in Mexico -- Palenque. The two men sent on the mission to find and describe the Mayan ruins had, however, unlike Stephens and Catherwood, little personal interest in archaeology. Lt. John Caddy and Patrick Walker barely survived themselves and their descriptions of the ruins, a meager dozen pages or so, would pale in comparison with the detailed account given later by Stephens. The uniqueness of Stephens's and Catherwood's expedition lies, as Carlsen stresses again and again, in the detailed and faithful records of their findings. Catherwood's drawings of the Mayan ruins are unsurpassed even by today's photography, as they oftentimes offer a picture of architectural motifs that have degraded since the 19th century or sometimes are no longer in existence. Many of these drawings are reproduced side by side contemporary photographs credited to the author: the meticulous fidelity of Catherwood's draftsmanship continues to amaze. A classically trained artist, Catherwood had to entirely re-invent himself:

"When he journeyed through Tunisia, Egypt, and the Levant what he saw and what he drew were also intelligible, informed by centuries of cultural exchange. In Copán, [Catherwood] was lost. The monuments he stared at in the midst of the forest were so alien from anything he had ever seen that at first sight they didn't register sensibly in his brain. During his first full day of work, the stone idols defeated him. Even his camera lucida, which helped project on his familiar drawing paper the outlines of the monoliths through its half-silvered mirror, was of no help. ... His skills seemed no match for the indecipherable complexities of the statues' design." [pp. 125-6]

Add to this the technical problems of visibility:

"Although the monoliths were carved in deep relief, the gloomy light filtering through the forest canopy flattened everything, leaving the human forms and their fantastic headdresses and skirts hard to differentiate." [p. 124]

Ever the perfectionist, however, Catherwood persisted:

"As the day wore on, with each new series he seemed to reach another level of perception that allowed him to draw the monolith before him with greater and greater precision. It may have been only a subtle shift in perspective caused by the sharp edge of the shadows cast by the sun, but it seemed he had broken down some cognitive barrier and had begun finally to grasp if not comprehend what he was seeing." [p. 127]

This perseverance characterizes both Catherwood's and Stephens's approach throughout their encounter with the Mayan civilization. They were the first explorers to approach it without any preconceptions and start from scratch, from simple detailed description, before venturing any hypothesis about the meaning or origin of Mayan art. Both seasoned explorers who traveled across Egypt and the Middle East, as well as Greece, and throughout Europe, they quickly discarded the hypothesis that the Mayan civilization was an offshoot of one the early Mediterranean cultures. Once again, Jungle of Stone does a good job placing their research in context and, beyond the rival Caddy and Walker expedition, presents earlier attempts at exploring, describing and theorizing about the Mayan ruins.

Readers interested in exploring this topic further are offered an exhaustive bibliography -- if it has any gaps, it's that it does not mention that the main primary resources are available on archive.org: all four volumes of Stephens's Incidents of Travel... (the first and second expedition), as well as Catherwood's Views of Ancient Monuments... which includes his colored drawings (although only those in brown tones, not the full color hand-painted plates from the limited edition reproduced in the plate section of Jungle of Stone). Also available on archive.org is the very-limited edition of Antiquities of Mexico (9 vols.) compiled by Lord Kingsborough and published in 1831, which include some color drawings of the Mayan architectural motifs.

On a final note, among the interesting facts I learned about the Maya art was that when applying layers of plaster to their figures, they literally "dressed" them "as though they were real humans": "each layer was painted even though it was to be covered with another layer of plaster" [p. 262].

I find this idea of layering to be a good metaphor for contextual research provided by this book: with the narrative of travel at the center, completed by biographical sketch of the two explorers and their fate post-expedition, as well as the more general social, political, historical context. ( )
3 vote aileverte | Sep 2, 2016 |
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Introduction: As a I crossed Guatemala's largest lake and approached the village of Izabal, it was almost impossible to imagine that this loose collection of cinder-block houses and scattered huts was once the chief port of entry to nineteenth-century Central America.
Prologue: John Lloyd Stephens was exhausted.
Chapter 1: South, 1839. Thirteen years earlier, before dawn, Stephens stepped aboard a British brig to embark on the boldest, most extraordinary journey of his life.
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Documents the true story of the nineteenth-century rediscovery of the Mayan civilization by American ambassador John Lloyd Stephens and British architect Frederick Catherwood, illuminating how their findings profoundly changed Western understandings about human history.

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Beautiful drawings / Very little 'bout Mayans / Poor, poor Catherwood. (tfanatic14)

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