David Ferry reads from Of No Country I Know: New and Selected Poems and Translations, on Wednesday, March 28, at 7 p.m., Barnes & Noble Reading Room

Vol. IV No. 27   ·   23 March 2001 


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Case Studies

Inscribed to President Van Buren
Rare books mark climactic page in archaeology's history

By Hope Green

Since 1968 he has worked in the Maya lowlands of Central America, rooting about in the jungle for treasures lost civilizations left behind. But in less rugged places, CAS Archaeology Professor Norman Hammond pursues artifacts of another sort: rare books.

This semester a prized sample from Hammond's bookshelves appears in a Special Collections exhibition at Mugar Memorial Library. How he acquired these volumes is a tale worthy of Antiques Roadshow.

  One of the Maya stelae of Copán, drawn by Frederick Catherwood in 1839. Catherwood was an archaeologist and architect, as well as a highly regarded illustrator, who accompanied John Lloyd Stephens on his expeditions.

Displayed on the main floor just opposite the New Books area are a pair of two-volume sets, published in 1841 and 1843, in which explorer John Lloyd Stephens and artist Frederick Catherwood document astonishing Maya structures, many of which they had discovered themselves. Each set bears an inscription from Stephens to Martin Van Buren, one set having been presented to him while he was president, and the second after he left office.

About five years ago a colleague of Hammond's, CAS Archaeology Professor Curtis Runnels, came across the first set, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan, at an antiquarian book fair in New Hampshire. Runnels noticed the inscription on the flyleaf of the first volume while he was checking the edition and price.

"The bookseller who sold it to him hadn't read the inscription," Hammond says, "because he certainly wouldn't have sold it for the modest sum he did had he realized it was the copy given to the president."

Hammond then purchased the books from Runnels. A few months later he spotted the second set, Incidents of Travel in Yucatan, in a catalog with a quoted price 10 times what Runnels had paid for the first. The price was beyond Hammond's reach, but he alerted George Stuart, a friend at the National Geographic Society who shared his interest in Maya research.

"He was extremely jealous of what I had got, so I told him about the books for sale in the catalog," Hammond recalls. "He said to me, 'I'll think about it.' Twenty minutes later he called me back and said, 'I thought, I bought.'"

An antiquarian's delight

Because these sets were gifts from Stephens to Van Buren, they were probably the first copies off the press, two decades before the Civil War. So the books are valuable on many levels, especially to the trio involved in their purchase.

"As archaeologists, all three of us are interested in how our discipline came to be the way it is," Hammond says. "The publications of Stephens represent a vital turning point in the history of Maya archaeology: a change from a subject about which few people knew, and in which relatively few people were interested, to a subject of broad public and scholarly interest.

"And these particular copies are among the most redolent of important personal associations of the author," he adds. "The only two copies that would be of more value from a historical perspective would be the copies Stephens kept himself and the copies he gave to Catherwood. Neither of those, as far as I know, has been identified. If they survived, they are most likely in collections where nobody knows the significance of the writing inside."

Hammond and Stuart reunited all four of the books two years ago for an exhibition at the National Geographic Society. They now alternate custody of the volumes, two years each, keeping them together at all times.


Norman Hammond.
Photo by Michael Hamilton


The exhibition at Mugar has particular relevance for the University's archaeology department: BU is one of the principal centers in the United States for Maya research, and has ongoing internship programs and graduate studies based in Belize. Hammond has an entire antique book collection devoted to Maya studies and the history of archaeology, which is the subject of one of his graduate seminars.

Accompanying the four books and two flyleaf inscriptions in the display case are reproductions of rare Catherwood lithographs depicting ruins and monuments, which appear in the book Vision Del Mundo Maya (Mexico, 1978). Special Collections took photographs of the book's illustrated plates for this exhibition.

In the field, Catherwood used a camera lucida -- a prism that projected an image down onto paper where it could be drawn with a pencil. He completed his drawings in New York City, then handed them over to engravers for reproduction.

Landmark discoveries

Long before there were tourists clambering up the pyramids of Mexico, there was John Lloyd Stephens. The lawyer-turned-explorer was an outspoken supporter of Van Buren, who rewarded him with a diplomatic post in Central America as a means of supporting his expeditions.

Beginning in 1839, Stephens and Catherwood made a series of discoveries, among them the lost Maya city of Copán in Honduras. Accounts and illustrations of these places, as well as known but until then inadequately explored sites such as Chichén Itzá, appear in both of their two-volume sets.

When the first set was published in 1841, Hammond says, "it was a wild critical success and made an enormous public and scholarly impact. It launched the study of Maya archaeology as a serious field."

The exhibition With the Best Respects of the Author: John Lloyd Stephens' Mayan Explorations as Presented to President Martin Van Buren is currently at the Mugar Library, first floor, during regular library hours.

"Case Studies" is an occasional feature highlighting items of interest from the University's collections and archives.


23 March 2001
Boston University
Office of University Relations