A TURNING POINT
If Augustus Le Plongeon was to prove his theory of the origin of civilization in the New World, he had to study the Maya city of Chichen Itza, abandoned hundreds of years earlier. It was equally as large, and as important to him as Uxmal. But there was a major problem getting to the site. In 1875 the territory around Chichen Itza was controlled by the Chan Santa Cruz Maya, who were still waging guerilla warfare against the government.
It was a standoff between two lifestyles and two worlds. On the one hand were the traditional Maya who saw their ties to the land being broken by forced migrations into towns and haciendas. Their leaders had retreated to remote areas of Quintana Roo, where they rallied support around a cult that waited for prophecies from an oracle who spoke through a sacred Speaking Cross. On the other hand were those of Spanish background who controlled the govern-ment and the Maya who had accepted their presence.
In the spring of that year, despite warnings from government officials, the Le Plongeons made their way toward Chichen Itza. They circled north of it, arriving on May 20 at the government-held town of Valladolid a few miles to the east. Within the old colonial town they were relatively safe.
All summer their efforts to reach Chichen Itza, only a few miles away, were stymied by the lack of a military escort and the constant reports of guerrillas in the area. All the while they waited, the Le Plongeons gathered infor-mation about the Maya and their beliefs. In the town of Espita, the curate, Senor Dominguez, introduced them to a very old man named Mariano Chable, said by some to have reached the astounding age of 150 years. Augustus, who had not yet perfected his Maya, interviewed the man with the aid of a Spanish-Maya interpreter.
The conversation left Augustus with two important pieces of information that helped shape his research at Chichen Itza. The first was that a man named Manuel Alayon, who died in 1835, "had a book that none could read," a "sacred book." They must be referring to a codex, Augustus thought. This gave him the hope that he might find one of the sacred Maya picture books still intact. The second was a statement by Chable about a hieroglyphic text in the Akab Dzib, a many-chambered building at Chichen Itza. Le Plongeon related this and other events and findings in field reports to Stephen Salisbury, Jr. of the American Antiquarian Society, in Worcester, Massachusetts, who published them in the Pro-ceedings of the Society.
Le Plongeon understood Chable to say that the text spoke of a day in the future "when inhabitants of Saci (Valladolid) would converse with those of Ho (Merida) by means of a cord, that would be stretched by people not belonging to the country" (Salisbury 1877:117). Le Plongeon reasoned that since old Chable had no knowledge of the telegraph, there must be something to the story, since the informant had no reason to deceive him. Instead Chable may have been telling Augustus the Maya legend of a cosmic umbilical cord that was thought to connect Maya cities to the gods. Augustus made a mental note to search for the Akab Dzib as soon as he arrived at Chichen Itza.
On September 21, General Palomino, later to become Governor of Yucatan, finally completed arrangements for a military escort to Chichen Itza. Accompanying the Le Plongeons on their journey from Valladolid to Chichen Itza were Colonel Felipe Diaz, commander of the eastern defense line--known as the "Line of the East", Colonel Jose Coronado, and two companies of soldiers.
The entourage arrived at Dzitas, ten miles north of Chichen Itza, only to find the path to Piste, a deserted village with a military post near the site, completely overgrown. Colonel Coronado volunteered with some men to clear the way. A few days later, on September 27, after a six-hour journey on foot from Dzitas, the Le Plongeons and their party arrived in Piste without incident.
There, nestled around a cenote, they saw the remains of what had been a pretty village ten years earlier. On election Sunday l865 the peaceful beauty of the village with its thatch-roofed houses, citrus trees, and kitchen gardens was shaken by an attack of the Chan Santa Cruz Maya. They were coming to avenge anyone they thought had cooperated with their enemies. The village was destroyed that day, and only a few of its residents, taking refuge in the bush, escaped the terrible machete blows.Now the roofless houses, their walls crumbling, lay nearly hidden, overcome by the thick forest. Augustus was moved by the sight of the church which had been converted into a fortress for the handful of soldiers stationed there.
"The church alone sad and melancholy, without doors, its sanctuaries silent, its floor pavedAfter resting and exchanging news with the soldiers at Piste, the Le Plongeons and their escort continued their march to Chichen Itza. Long before they reached the site, they could see the tallest pyramid, El Castillo, towering over the green canopy "as a solitary light-house in the midst of the ocean." Night had already fallen when they reached the principal house of the Hacienda Chichen, which Colonel Coronado had ordered cleaned for their use. Alice and Augustus could hardly sleep that night, anticipating the days of discovery and hard work that lay ahead.
with the burial slabs of the victims, surrounded by parapets, yet stands in the midst of the ruined
adobes of those who used to gather under its roof. Its old walls, its belfry, widowed of its bells, are
all that indicates to the traveler that Piste once was there."
The next day Colonel Diaz had the house fortified and lookouts placed strategically atop some of the higher structures to provide a warning if attack came from the Chan Santa Cruz who continued to scout the area.
Colonel Diaz soon reported that the Chan Santa Cruz were about to attack and urged withdrawal from Chichen Itza. Le Plongeon refused, resolving to remain there with Alice and complete their task, despite the dangers. "I made known my unalterable resolution to Colonel Diaz, asking him only to arm a few of the Indians that remained with me, for I did not wish even a single soldier of the post of Piste to accompany me." Perhaps he and Alice felt they were pro-tected by some mystical force, or perhaps their deepening empathy for the Maya gave them a sense of security.
They made the church at Piste their headquarters, walking to the site each morning. At night they returned to Piste, leaving their photographic and measuring equipment at the ruins a league away.
Augustus was anxious to track down the Akab Dzib, "the house of dark writing," so he could examine the hieroglyphic text Chable had described. He found the building deep in the brush behind the spiral-shaped observatory, known as the Caracol. The Akab Dzib was a small west-facing building with two wings housing a series of rooms. The east side, a stone-faced founda-tion as high as the building, had been added by its builders, apparently for a second story that was never finished.
The stone lintel Augustus was seeking lay atop the door to an interior room in the west wing. It was carved with glyphs on the front and the portrait of a Maya priest or ruler underneath. As soon as Augustus located and cleared the lintel, he excitedly began his interpretation of it. To his astonishment he saw glyphs that, to him, represented "lightning" or electricity. His interpre-tation of the glyphs included a reference to the cord Chable had told him about in Espita. This important find had to be thoroughly recorded and documented, so Augustus set up his photographic equipment. It would be a difficult task. No direct sunlight reached the doorway, although the afternoon sun cast some light into the room.
After much trial and error, he succeeded in producing a good negative using a long exposure. "With care I washed the slab, then with black crayon darkened its surface until the intaglio letters appeared in white on a dark background." He took the photo in stereo to further enhance its clarity, and made a mould of the Maya writing that supposedly foretold the invention of the telegraph.*
Augustus wrote of his interpretation both to the President of Mexico, Sebastian Lerdo de Tejada, and to Stephen Salis-bury at the American Antiquarian Society. He noted that the text was "said to be a prophecy." His interpre-tation was published in the Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society in 1877, and soon thereafter those who were eager to find fault with his work claimed Dr. Le Plongeon believed that the Maya used the telegraph for communication.
Augustus drew a detailed and accurate floor plan of the Akab Dzib, noting tunneling in four of the rooms. In the drawing he hypothesized a mirror image of the west central structure, represented by dashed lines in the center of the core area. He must have observed the filled-in rooms on the second level of the nearby Monjas, or Nunnery, structure and conjectured that a similar method was used to provide a foundation for a second level on the Akab Dzib. He noted that the northeast corner of the structure had collapsed since Frederick Catherwood drew it in 1842.
In order to photograph the various buildings, Le Plongeon had to deal with the same monumental problem faced by his predecessors: clearing the jungle. He hired local Maya men with machetes to cut down the heavy growth that extended to the tops of the buildings.
As his loyal Maya soldiers stood guard, Augustus began photographing the most important structures. With Alice's expert assistance he made 500 stereoscopic photos, including close-ups of what he thought were important iconographic details. They concentrated much of their effort on the east wing of the Monjas, photographing its extra-ordinary facade from several angles to highlight the elabor-ately carved details. They also photographed La Iglesia with its elabor-ate roof comb.
The Le PLongeons' work at Chichen Itza included tracing a number of murals and making moulds of bas-reliefs in the Upper and Lower Temple of the Jaguars at the edge of the Ball Court, or Gymnasium, as it had been dubbed. Augustus considered this the most interesting building in Chichen Itza, "historically speaking," and pronounced the bas-reliefs as "having nothing to envy in the bas-reliefs of Assyria and Babylon" (Salisbury 1877:85). He made a composite stereo photo of the bas-reliefs in the Lower Temple of the Jaguars, using his large format, two-lensed camera. He was happy with the crisp detail of the prints, and knew that stereo viewing would provide additional detail.**
In October and November of 1875, Alice and Augustus concentrated on the Upper Temple. Augustus instructed the workers to remove rubble from the collapsed roof that had nearly filled the outer room and blocked access to the murals in the interior room. Under the rubble was a large stone slab supported by pedestals carved like figures with upturned arms. Augustus photographed and made moulds of the reliefs on the columns in the entrance, the carved lintel, the Atlantes, and the altar table which had been broken by the falling roof.
Alice and Augustus studied and began to copy
what remained of the murals within the Upper Temple room. They showed
vivid scenes of village life, religious events, warfare, and rulers.
After studying the scenes in the murals, Augustus concluded that he was
looking at one generation of Maya rulers. He thought it provided
the key to the diffusion of Maya civilization. For him the murals
were evidence of actual history, rather than myth, as found in other cultures.***
Augustus felt he had found the source of other civilizations and worldwide
In them he read a story of Maya royalty who ruled at Chichen Itza long ago. He took animal representations to be their totems or spirits. An eagle, which he identified as a macaw, became the symbol for a Maya princess, one of the central characters. She became "Queen Moo," after the Maya word for "macaw." Her brother was named "powerful warrior," or "Prince Chacmool," a reference to the jaguar whose spots appeared on a shield in the mural, and in bas-reliefs on the side of the temple.
Through intrigue and murder, according to his interpre-tation, Queen Moo was forced to flee to Egypt. On her arrival she was recognized as a long-lost sister, thus proving, as far as Le Plongeon was concerned, that Egyptian civil-ization had been originated by the ancient Maya.
While the Queen Moo story, which Le Plongeon clung to and expanded over the years, was later to reap him much derision, it did lead him to an important discovery that first season at Chichen Itza. Whether by sheer coincidence or by brilliant deductive reasoning, Augustus used the murals to choose the spot where an important statue lay deeply buried.
"In tracing the figure of Chaacmol in battle, I remarked that the shield worn by him had paintedThis reminded him of the ruined mound he had seen a few days earlier about 100 yards away in a thicket. "It was ornamented with slabs engraved with the images of spotted tigers, eating human hearts, forming magnificent bas-reliefs, conserving yet traces of the colors in which it was formerly painted."
on it round green spots, and was exactly like the ornaments placed between tiger and tiger on the entablature of the same monument. I naturally concluded that the monument had been raised to
the memory of the warrior bearing the shield" (l881a:16).
Led by the stones that "speak to those who can under-stand them" and "inspired perhaps also by the instinct of the archaeologist" (Salisbury 1877:86), Augustus returned with one trusted worker, Desiderio Kansal, to the small mound. As they began to clear the brush, a slab emerged, showing a reclining jaguar with the same round dots Augustus had seen on the murals. "My interpretations had been correct," he explained in a letter to President Tejada. "Everything I saw proved it to me. I at once concentrated all my attention at this spot."
Le Plongeon ordered his workers to begin digging carefully into the mound. Deep within it they found a large stone sculpture of a reclining figure, which Le Plongeon immediately identified as the Maya prince, Chaacmol, youngest brother and consort of Queen Moo.
The excavation of the statue, some five feet long and weighing several hundred pounds, was no easy task. It lay more than 20 feet deep amid hundreds of loose stones. Le Plongeon was well aware of the danger involved. "I possessed no tools, nor machines of any description. I resorted to the machete of my Indians, the trees of the forest, and the vines that entwine their trunks. I formed a frame-work to prevent the falling of the stones."
With the assistance of his Maya workmen, he constructed an inclined plane and a capstan to hold the rope for pulling the statue from the deep excavation. A tree trunk served as a fulcrum, with a pole as a lever. With Le Plongeon's careful planning, after some sleepless nights wondering if the sculpture could ever be retrieved, it took his ten men only half an hour to raise it to the surface.
Years later archaeologist Edward H. Thompson, the American Consul in Merida, related an interview he had with the grandson of Desiderio Kansal. The young Maya recalled that all the men accompanied Augustus to the mound. "I, the young son of my father, stood by his knee listening to the words of my father's father. Listening, I remembered and remembering, later understood." He could still picture "the bearded white one" plucking at his long beard and giving orders where to dig. After the statue appeared, Le Plongeon told them to dig at another spot.
"As they dug, the figures of Bacabes (minor gods) rose out of the ground as if to meet theJuan Peon Contreras, Director of the Museo Yucateco, the museum in Merida, recounted his version of how Le Plongeon located the Chacmool. "By abstruse archaeological reasoning, and by his meditation, [he] determined the place, and, striking the spot with his foot, he said 'Here it is, here it will be found'" (Salisbury 1877:93).
bearded white one. He looked at them long and thoughtfully, plucking at his beard, and
as he looked at the Bacabes, we saw that his lips were moving. Then we who saw these things
said to each other, 'Doubtless he is speaking to them'" (Thompson 1931:341-342).
The excavation also uncovered a number of artifacts associated with the statue. A bowl carved on the chest of the figure contained a broken flint blade, a jade bead, and organic material that Le Plongeon thought was from the cremated heart of Prince Chaacmol. Le Plongeon collected the material and took it to Charles Thompson, Professor of Chemistry at the Worcester Free Institute. Thompson analyzed the material and declared it "once part of a human body which has been burned with some fuel." At the base of the statue were 18 flint projectile points including seven of green stone, two flat ceramic plates, and a ceramic pot. Augustus took a jadeite tube, also from the urn, and mounted it in a gold brooch as a gift for Alice. It became her "talisman of Queen Moo", a symbol of Alice's spiritual connection with the queen of Chichen Itza.
Stephen Salisbury, who edited Augustus' reports from the field into an article on "Dr. Le Plongeon in Yucatan," changed the spelling of "Chaacmol" to "Chacmool," a Maya term for puma, not realizing that Le Plongeon had created his own term from two distinct Maya words, "chaac," and "mol" for "powerful warrior." Salisbury's spelling of Chacmool became the accepted name for Le Plongeon's statue and similar ones which were later uncovered elsewhere. Le Plongeon eventually accepted Salisbury's translation, but in an act of linguistic one-upmanship, used "coh" in later writings, a more common Maya word with the same meaning.
With the discovery of the Chacmool, Augustus
was convinced that he had correctly interpreted the murals in the Upper
Temple of the Jaguars. This success gave him confidence in his ability
to reconstruct the history of the Maya which, he hoped, would provide the
key to the origin of world civilization as well. This line of reasoning
in his research was gaining a momentum that would be difficult to derail.