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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Collecting Native America: John Lloyd Stephens and the Rhetorics of Archaeological Value


This article focuses on the representations of Maya statues made by archaeologist–explorer John Lloyd Stephens and his artistic collaborator Frederick Catherwood in the 1840s. While Stephens’s and Catherwood’s trips to Central America, Mexico, and the Yucatán were meant to provide material objects for a Pan-American museum of Native American “antiquities,” the statues themselves were never exhibited to the public. Nonetheless, the visual and literary representations of the Maya “idols” circulating across North and Central America as well as Europe incited international interest and dramatically increased similar statues’ monetary value. Stephens’s valuation of Indigenous objects as possessable historical relics rested on the transformation of Indigenous bodies into laborers and Indigenous homelands into saleable property; their representation as mystical “idols” merely concealed this transformation. What is more, the historical and monetary value of the relics collected by Stephens was eventually surpassed by their textual reproductions. These representations—rather than the artifacts or communities behind them—set a persistent pattern for the study and evaluation of Native American “culture” as demonstrated by the textual afterlives of Stephens’s work.


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