- Maya Ruins Revisited: In the Footsteps of Teobert Maler by William Frej
Maya Ruins Revisited: In the Footsteps of Teobert Maler
Santa Fe, New Mexico: Peyton Wright Gallery Press, 2020. 240 pp. Maps, notes, duotone and tritone illus., and references. $60.00 cloth (978-0-578-63921-5).
The peyton wright gallery has published a gem by harnessing some four decades of architect William Frey’s photographic, archival, and field research findings from remote parts of southern Mexico and northern Guatemala. The result Maya Ruins [End Page 219] Revisited, threads a dream-like yet grounded tour of some of the better-known sites of Mayan Meso-America (Chichén Itza, Tikal) as well others less likely to roll off either the scholar’s or tourist’s tongue. It continues the nineteenth-century practice of using “photography to convey the sensational archaeological discoveries [archaeologist-explorers] were making” (p. 9) of ruins in the Maya Lowlands of Mexico and Guatemala. Pioneering work by John Lloyd Stephens, Désiré Charnay, Alice and Augustus LeP-longeon, Alfred Maudslay, and the first daguerreotypes and fine drawings by Frederick Catherwood, set the stage for Frey and collaborators. However, the lion’s share of the visual path was cleared by Prussian explorer and self-taught archaeologist Teobert Maler (1842–1917) and a handful of local helpers and guides. He led mulebacks carrying voluminous camera equipment between 1886 and the second decade of the twentieth century that bequeathed a treasure trove of “more than 1,000 negatives and a sizable number of prints and enlargements” (p. 50) for scholars and the curious sojourner venturing into the material culture of pre-Hispanic civilization.
An introduction and three substantive chapters about architect Frej’s motives and explorer Maler’s travails provide the context for appreciating dozens of stunning, crisp, black-and-white photographs (in high-contrast and revealing duotone and tritone format). Lest the reader assume these are nineteenth-century Maler photographs juxtaposed against architect Frej’s more recent Nikon images, be assured this is not the book’s venue. We could start anywhere, but why not consider, firstly, quinine imbued coffee (as did Maler) to ward off malaria. Add to it the use of fires burning lowly at night to ward off panthers, and then trekking through territories where international boundaries were blurred, and the landscape was considerably more dangerous than it is today. As Maler deciphered Mayan carvings, architectural styles, and attempted to photograph slowly deteriorating limestone-based temples and landmarks, he contended with food deprivations, set up dark rooms in abandoned temples and caves to develop his own photographs, and tried to appease those individuals and institutions who funded his fieldwork.
Readers will come to appreciate the dilemmas faced by this historic figure. He argued against hotels being opened near archaeo-logical sites for fear the ruins would be pilloried for their stonework. We gain insight into the power wielded by the U.S. consulate over a frontier-like wilderness where decentralized decision-making made up for the indecisiveness of capital places like Mexico and Guatemala cities. Maler repeatedly had quarrels with his main institutional benefactor, the Peabody Museum of Harvard, who –among other assignments—paid him just $7,000 for eight years of agonizing fieldwork, photographic and written documentation. None of these rewards earned him academic tenure or promotion; rather, he sought to connect myriad dots about meaning, semi-otics, source stone, astronomy, empire, and all things Mayan. Among other architectural morsels, William Frey is careful to point out the classic Puuc colonnette styles, and the banded columns, so richly displayed in many of the sites. [End Page 220]
This book is not a mere re-photography á là then-and-now of pre-Hispanic structures. Instead, Frej’s goal “is to illustrate the environment Maler encountered and the environment I encountered over a century later” (p. 21). The book has rich sidebars about the meanings of buildings, pediments, portals, and colonnades from periods of ancient Mayan development: pre-classic (2000 BE-250 CE); classic (250–1000 CE); and post-classic (1000-early...