FACE OFF AND RETREAT
Augustus and Alice were constantly reminded of the potent-ial danger in the circumstances that surrounded them. They were working in an isolated location, made more remote because the Chan Santa Cruz Maya, the Cruzob, controlled all but one route of communi-cation. And their Maya guards and workers must have felt some sympathy toward the rebel cause, or at least feared retribution from the gods or the Cruzob, for meddling in what was considered to be sacred ground. Some Maya towns had been burned to the ground because residents were thought to be aiding the enemy.
Augustus, however, felt he had the power to
control the situation. But he needed to persuade his workers of his
special relationship to the site, perhaps as a reincarnated ruler.
He knew that he bore a noticeable resemblance to a certain bearded figure
portrayed on a door jamb atop El Castillo. They were sure to be impressed
if they thought it was actually his portrait. And it was a way to
test his suspicion that they believed in reincarnation as did "their forefathers
and the Egyptians of old." One day Augustus led them with great mystery
and ceremony to the summit of the great pyramid. In the outside room
on the north side he showed them the profile of a warrior wearing a long
"I placed my head against the stone so as to present the same position of my face as that of Uxan and called the attention of my Indians to the similarity of his and my own features" (1881a:54). They were instantly persuaded. Desiderio Kansal related the same story to his grandson. "We saw that the faces of the two were as the face of one. Then we said one to the other, 'Doubtless they are one'" (Thompson 1931:342).
Le Plongeon's theatrics convinced the workers that he was one of their great personages "dis-enchanted," and they agreed to continue their work, as well as pay homage. That his companion was a rifle toting woman, adept at the somewhat mysterious surveying and photographic equipment, fluent in Maya, and sympathetic to their problems, no doubt contributed to the rapport they had with their workers.
Such was the aura of mysticism growing around
Le Plongeon that even simple coincidences became important events.
One day Desiderio Kansal climbed the pyramid and entered the temple of
Kukulcan, where he saw the bearded white one standing in front of an earthen
vessel, "the kind the ancient ones used in burning incense before their
In time, such moments became part of the local lore and were passed down from father to son. Le Plongeon himself publicized such events, adding to the reputation that was growing in Merida because of his "meditative" approach to finding the Chacmool.
The profile incident may have helped the Le Plongeons ward off hostile attacks from the Chan Santa Cruz. But publishing the episode brought no end of accusations and recriminations against him. Some stated that the whole story was a fabri-cation; others felt that it was true, but was the product of a deranged mind.
The presence of the excavated Chacmool seemed to bring a mixture of danger and protection to the work at Chichen Itza. One day a Maya Cruzob guerrilla patrol came into the camp, not only to pay homage, but to see for themselves what the bearded white man was up to. Augustus had been warned by Colonel Felipe Diaz, commander of troops covering the eastern frontier, that tracks of the hostile Maya had been discovered by his scouts. Diaz had advised them to keep a sharp look out, lest they be surprised by the enemy.
Several years later in Vestiges of the Maya, his first book laying out his theories on the Maya, Augustus told the story of the encounter.
Now to be on the look out in the midst of a thick, well-nigh impenetrable forest," he wrote,Suddenly and noiselessly the group appeared, emerging from the thicket, one by one. Realizing that the intruders were armed only with machetes, Le Plongeon ordered his men not to shoot. Their leader was an old gray-haired man, his eyes blue with age.
"is rather a difficult thing to do, particulary with only a few men, and where there is no road;
yet all being a road for the enemy. Warning my men that danger was near, and to keep their
loaded rifles at hand, we continued our work as usual, leaving the rest to destiny (1881a:55)
He would not come near the statue, but stood at a distance as if awe-struck, hat in hand,Putting down his weapon, Augustus approached the old man and, offering his arm, led the Maya leader up the steep and crumbling stairs of El Castillo. When Augustus again placed his face next to the stone profile, the stranger fell on his knees and kissed his hand.
looking at it. After a long time he broke out, speaking to his own people: 'This, boys, is one
of the great men we speak to you about.' Then the young men came forward, with great respect
kneeled at the feet of the statue, and pressed their lips against them.
Then the old man, with a respectful but steady gaze began to ask questions. He began, "Rememberest thou what happened to thee whilst thou wert enchanted?" It was quite a difficult question for Augustus to answer. It had to be a "correct" answer to retain his superior position, yet he did not know how many people might be hidden in the thicket. "Well, father," he asked the old man, "dreamest thou sometimes?" He nodded his head in affirmation. "And when thou wakest, dost thou remember distinctly thy dreams?," continued Augustus. "Ma, no!" was the answer. "Well, father," Augustus continued, "so it happened with me. I do not remember what took place during the time I was enchanted."
Satisfied with this answer, the Maya patrol went their way. Augustus wished them God-speed, and warned them not to go too near the villages on their way back to their homes, as people were aware of their presence in the country. "Whence they came, I ignore; and where they went, I don't know," Augustus concluded.
The Cruzob did not stay long that time, but the tension continued for the Le Plongeons and their workers. They must have wondered what would be the next step for the Maya after they paid homage to the Chacmool.
By January 1876, the Le Plongeons had moved the Chacmool to Piste. Their work at Chichen Itza came to an abrupt halt when Augustus was ordered to disarm his men, forcing them to retreat from Chichen Itza and Piste. There had been a revolt led by Theodosio Canto of those Maya allied with the Mexican government. It was feared the revolt would spread to other Maya soldiers in Yucatan; thus the order was given to disarm all Maya soldiers, including Le Plongeon's small detachment. No amount of reassurances by Le Plongeon about his workers' loyalty could change the order.
With this development, the Le Plongeons decided to quietly move the Chacmool out of Piste, hiding it on the road to Dzitas. They needed time to negotiate some very special plans for the statue.
Augustus described how they concealed the heavy statue, which they moved on a wheeled platform.
At about a quarter of a mile from Piste, that is to say, far enough to put it out of the reach ofWith the Chacmool hidden, Augustus and Alice returned to the safety of Merida, where he wrote a letter to President Tejada, asking that they be allowed to exhibit the Chacmool in Philadelphia at the American Centennial Exposition. He also requested that he be included on a committee of Mexican scientists to accompany the exhibit, and that there be made space available to him in the Mexican section of the Expo-sition to display his finds. And, he asked for presidential authorization to continue his investigations, and armed protection where needed. He did not intend to let local authorities halt the important work he and Alice were doing, just when they had made what they considered to be a significant breakthrough.
mischief from the soldiers of the post, I placed it in a thicket about 50 yards from the road. There,
with the help of Mrs. Le Plongeon, I wrapped it in oil-cloth, and carefully closed the boughs
on the passage that led from the road to the place of concealment, so that a casual traveller,
ignorant of the existence of such an object, would not even suspect it (Salisbury 1877:97).
While they awaited a response from Mexico City, the Le Plongeons busied themselves in and around Merida. They wanted to be ready to travel with the Chacmool when they received authorization from President Tejada. Their wait dragged on for months. To pass the time they traveled from one village to another in the vicinity, photographing Maya people and the ruined buildings of their ancestors.
They returned briefly to Uxmal to inspect some of the figures carved in relief on the beautiful limestone build-ings. They wanted to look at the icono-graphy in light of their new dis-coveries at Chichen Itza. It was a short visit, just long enough to persuade them that Queen Moo and other "historic" Maya figures they had seen at Chichen Itza were indeed pictured at Uxmal, too.
They were also drawn to the colonial towns of Motul and Ake. Like so many other Maya villages, their history stretched back into the days before the Spaniards came. Blending in with the sixteenth-century vaulted churches, and the ubiquitous ellipsoidal thatched huts were limestone and stucco remains of more glorious days. The impressive, lifelike stucco figures on the ancient walls at Ake were promising photographic material, but after only eight days the Le Plongeons were forced to leave because Alice was suffering from malaria. They withdrew to Tixkokob with the photographs and plans of the principal buildings, "regretting not to perfect our work by a complete survey of the whole of them, scattered as they are over a large extent of ground."
Meanwhile Tejada's answer finally came. Citing an 1827 law banning the export of artifacts, the president decreed that the Chacmool was not to be moved and could not be shown at the American Exposition.
Disappointed, Le Plongeon instead sent a few small artifacts and some photographs for display at the Exposition. He could only hope that they might arouse the interest of the American people in Maya civilization. A swell of public sentiment might ease the bureaucratic problems that were beginning and might bring financial support as well. They could only hope. Feeling it was out of his hands for the moment, he and Alice made plans to travel to Isla Mujeres, and other islands on the east coast of the Yucatan peninsula.
They were unaware that bad luck plagued even the modest selection of artifacts and photographs sent to the Centennial Exposition. They did not reach the Exposition in time, and, instead, were pur-chased by Stephen Salisbury for the American Antiquarian Society. The photographs, showing Alice and Augustus Le Plongeons' work at Uxmal, Chichen Itza, and Ake, as well as scenes of the Maya people of Yucatan, were pasted on display boards and titled "From the Wilds of Yucatan." With no fanfare and little explanation available for their interpretation, they had no apparent impact on American opinion.
Meanwhile whatever alternate plans President
Tejada may have had for the Chacmool were forgotten in the political turmoil
of Mexico City. General Porfirio Diaz forced him to resign the presidency,
and it would be months before Diaz' interest in the statue was to become