Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Precolumbian Odyssey Volume 58 Number 3, May/June 2005
by Angela M.H. Schuster

The Kelemen Journals

There was a time, little remembered, when Maya sites such as Tikal and Copan lay largely cloaked in jungle, and when the Inca's Machu Picchu was visited only by a curious few. The Kelemen Journals: Incidents of Discovery of Art in the Americas 1932-69 (San Diego: Sunbelt Publications, 2005; $39.95) provides a window on this world yet to be revealed by archaeologists. Written by the late Pál Keleman, an art historian of Hungarian extraction, and his wife, Elizabeth, an opera singer by training, the journals chronicle the couple's extensive travels throughout the Americas, an odyssey that began with a visit to Harvard's Peabody Museum in the fall of 1932. At that time, only a few of the sites the Kelemens would visit had been excavated, much less opened to mass tourism, and literature on the subject of Precolumbian archaeology was all but nonexistent.

Encouraged by the Peabody's Alfred Tozzer, a prominent Mesoamerian archaeologist, the Kelemens set out not only to document a broad array of Precolumbian material both in museum collections and in the field, but to comment on and interpret it as art historians. The result of the their efforts, Medieval American Art, was a seminal work, and for decades the only one of its kind. Subsequent scholarship eventually rendered it obsolete.

Of all of archaeology's subfields, Maya studies in particular has always drawn strength from amateur scholars, particularly those known for their visual acuity. The painter Linda Schele, the graphic designer and filmmaker Simon Martin, and the photographer Justin Kerr have all made important contributions to Maya archaeology. The Kelemans can be considered among the first to contribute in this way.

Abundantly illustrated with Elizabeth's photographs and delightfully written, The Kelemen Journals presents the story behind the story, relaying the actual adventures the couple experienced in their pursuit of scholarship and the extraordinary peoples they encountered.

Angela M.H. Schuster is the editor in chief of World Monuments Fund's Icon.

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© 2005 by the Archaeological Institute of America