Early accounts of a Mayan city

The first official exploration of Palenque (a Maya site in the region of Chiapas, southern Mexico) took place in 1784. The site’s discovery in 1730 by Antonio Solís, who came across it quite by chance, was followed up by his nephew Ramón Ordoñez de Aguiar, who reported the discovery 40 years later. The news sparked several informal expeditions to the site until José de Estacherria, president of the Audiencia de Guatemala, commissioned José Antonio de Calderón, a local official of Santo Domingo de Palenque, to explore the site and report back.

[1]Drawing by J.A. de Calderón 899.a.1773(1)

Drawing by J.A. de Calderón 899.a.1773(1)

Cambridge University Library holds a facsimile reprint of Calderón’s report on Palenque, little known until recent years, perhaps obscured by more substantial expeditions in the centuries to come. Calderón’s first expedition was reportedly difficult, due to the exuberant wilderness that covered the site. He travelled to the site guided by the native Maya and worked there under torrential rain for three days. Despite his obvious lack of artistic ability, his drawings are the earliest known graphic representation of the site.

Realising the importance of the site, Estacherria commissioned a second expedition in 1785. José de Calderón was accompanied by Antonio Bernasconi, an architect, who conducted a detailed study of the site and drew the first maps of the site, building plans, bas-relief figures and sculptures.

A copy of the original reports and drawings by Calderón and Bernasconi can be found at 899. A.1773(1)

[2]Drawing by R. Armendariz for Antonio del Rio's report 899.a.1773(2)

Drawing by R. Armendariz for Antonio del Rio’s report 899.a.1773(2)

News of these early explorations soon reached Charles III, King of Spain, who ordered new expeditions to the site. In 1787, Estacherria commissioned Don Antonio del Río and the artist Ricardo Armendariz to explore the city’s ruins in an expedition that lasted 38 days. Cambridge University Library holds the first English translation of Del Rio’s report, Description of the ruins of an ancient city, published in 1822 (available at S460.b.82.1). The volume is illustrated with seventeen lithographic plates by Jean-Frédérick Waldeck, a 19th century French artist and explorer. Armendariz’s beautiful sketches of the city appear in the companion volume to Calderón’s and Bernasconi’s reports, Estampas de Palenque [available at 899.a.1773(2)].

At the end of the 18th century, the King of Spain, Charles IV, commissioned Guillermo Dupaix and the artist Luciano Castañeda to continue explorations in New Spain. Their report and drawings were lost for some years due to the outbreak of the Mexican Independence. They were finally published in 1834 in Antiquités mexicaines : Relation des trois expéditions du capitaine Dupaix, ordonnées en 1805, 1806, et 1807. The UL holds a copy at KB.6.6-7.

[3]Drawing  by L. Castañeda of 3rd expedition of G. Dupaix KB.6.7

Drawing by L. Castañeda of 3rd expedition of G. Dupaix KB.6.7

Towards the end of the 19th century, many travellers visited the ruins of Palenque. This provided a more accurate and realistic image of the site, but excavations weren’t properly monitored and many items were lost. These travellers include John Lloyd Stephens (1805-1852), Frederick Catherwood (1799-1854), Frans Blom (1893-1963) and the photographers Alfred Percival Maudslay (1850-1931) and Desiré Charnay (1828-1915).

J.L. Stephens and F. Catherwood visited the site in 1840 and published their report and drawings in 1841. The Library holds a reprint of the original 1841 edition at 671:1.c.95.7-8. Frans Blom, a Danish explorer and archaeologist, published his findings in Tribes and temples: a record to the expedition to Middle America, available at 9670.b.87-88.

[4]Photograph of The Palace by D. Charnay Tab.b.102

Photograph of The Palace by D. Charnay

Désiré Charnay travelled to Palenque twice. Some of his best images were taken on his second trip, between 1881 and 1882. His work Cités et ruins americaines features photographs taken during his first visit, in 1858. It is available at LE.4.43 (plates at Tab.b.102).

Maudslay visited Palenque between 1890 and 1891. He took extensive photographs of the site and made paper and plaster moulds of many of the inscriptions. His report and images of Palenque were published in the fourth volume of Archaeology (London, 1899-1902). Plates for this work can be found at Lib.1.88.281-296).

Sonia Morcillo

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