LIFE IN THE GOVERNOR'S PALACE
By their third visit to Uxmal in June and July of 1881, Alice and Augustus knew what they were looking for. They had been studying their earlier photographs of the site, comparing iconographic details with those at Chichen Itza. Their goal was to complete the record, and report the irrefutable results to the public through the American Antiquarian Society's Proceedings, as well as other books and newspaper articles, and public lectures.
They wanted to find every shred of evidence that supported their reconstruction of Maya history revolving around Queen Moo and Prince Coh. Based on the figures they had studied on the murals in the Upper Temple of the Jaguars at Chichen Itza, they thought they saw Queen Moo's profile in a motif on the facade of the Governor' Palace. It was an unclear image, shadowy, not visible from every angle, and of uncertain origin. The Le Plongeons said it was carved under the direction of Queen Moo's brother, Prince Aac. Their interpretation did little, in the end, to bolster their increasingly unpopular theory of Maya cultural diffusion and history. And, Augustus was accused of intentionally falsify-ing his photo-graph when he touched it up. He did highlight some details to clarify the profile, making it apparent to anyone looking at the photograph.
Augustus had an additional incentive for developing his arguments about very ancient connections between Egypt and the Maya; he also wanted to find the origin of Freemasonry, which many wanted to trace to Egypt. As a Mason himself, Augustus knew the symbolism of that secret fraternal society, and found what he considered to be ample evidence of it at Uxmal. He concluded that the Maya must have been direct antecedents of those who founded Masonry. This would mean that its origins were more ancient than if it had begun in Egypt. The most sure signs, he felt, were a skull and crossbones carved on the Adivino Pyramid, and a sculptured torso with an inverted hand on an apron, both Masonic symbols. Augustus showed the torso briefly to two Masonic friends in Merida. Then it disappeared, its fate shrouded in mystery. Without this piece to support the Freemasonry connection, a more cautious person might have dropped that line of reasoning, knowing it would be controversial. But Augustus persisted and even used certain architectural features, including the Maya corbelled arches as further evidenced of the connection.
During this last intensive period of research at Uxmal, the Le Plongeons set up housekeeping in the Governor's Palace stringing their hammocks in one of the raised inner rooms, while using the outside room as a spot for writing field notes. At the end of a hot, humid day of climbing up and down shaky scaffolding to expose one plate after another, they would retreat into the coolness of the Governor's Palace. There they could relax, discarding Remington rifle and pith helmet. With their dog Trinity at their feet, they would record insights of the day.
Their living room was also photographic studio and kitchen, complete with campfire, cooking pots, and storage flasks. There were few leisure activities beyond reading, writing, strumming the guitar, or napping safe within the shroud of the mosquito netted hammock. Alice amused herself by pondering the variety of creatur-es that shared their existence. "There is no solitude here, though far from the abodes of living men. The place swarms with life and perfect silence never reigns, for every tiny insect has something to say for itself" (1881b:1-2).
Every creature seemed preoccupied with finding water, from iguanas who noisily prowled their room at night, to
"foolish bees which throw themselves into any liquid they can find and part with life for aWorst of all, in Alice's opinion, were the blood-sucking flying bed bugs.
drop of it. When they feel the dark waves closing over them they doubtless repent of the rash
deed, and having taken a drink and a bath, are very grateful if anyone will ladle them out."
"When they began to feed on one it is like a needle running in the flesh. A dozen of themIndeed, the insect-borne diseases, lack of supplies, and other characteristics of the tropical lowlands took their toll over the years. Alice and Augustus merely had to look at each other to see how rapidly they were aging.
will give you bad dreams and draw an ounce of blood. Man does not require bleeding every
night in a place where food is scarce and work plentiful."
Nevertheless, the tasks they assigned themselves in these later visits were no less strenuous than in earlier years. Their goal was to record the iconographic detail that would support the existence of the historical figures they had discovered at Chichen Itza. To do so they began with overall views of the Governor's Palace and other structures, then made detailed and accurate plans of them, "in order to be able to comprehend by the disposi-tion of their different parts, for what possible use they were erected" (Augustus Le Plongeon 1881a:16). Their confidence that interpretation was possible relied on their basic assumption "that the human mind and human inclinations and wants are the same in all times, in all countries, in all races when civilized and cultured." They also painstakingly studied and recorded the ornamental details that covered the upper registers of the buildings. Out of those complex patterns, they hoped to solve the riddle of their designs. Augustus wrote, "we believe that if a human intelligence had devised it, another human intelligence would certainly be able to unravel it." But it was first necessary, they knew, to be intimately familiar with the inventory of what was there at Uxmal. And no-one had yet taken the time, they felt, to do that ade-quately. Charnay certainly hadn't during his short visit.
Augustus photographed the entire 320-foot east facade of the Governor's Palace in 16 overlapping stereo photos. Alice recorded him balancing on a ladder with his large view camera. For each photograph the process was the same. Each glass-plate had to be sensitized in a bath of collodion silver nitrate solution, rushed up the ladder and to the camera to keep the plate from losing its sensitivity, exposed for a calculated amount of time, then rushed to the darkroom for develop-ment. Photographs of the Governor's Palace could be developed in the darkroom in their makeshift quarters. But work at other buildings not on the palace platform required a portable darkroom.
Augustus also made 83 moulds of the Governor's Palace to record the low reliefs and other details too small or too difficult to photograph. Alice photographed him hard at work carefully forming the wet papier-mache onto the bas-reliefs.
The moulds produced precise details and added new information not visible in the stereo photos. The craftsman-ship of these three-dimensional replicas drew great praise. Louis Ayme, American Consul in Merida, who later had violent conflicts with Le Plongeon, lauded his workmanship. He glowingly commented to Stephen Salisbury that Le Plongeon's "paper moulds are really exquisite." This provided en-couragement for the Le PLongeons to continue the time consuming project. They hoped to sell them to American museums to help finance their work in Yucatan. The possi-bility of presenting the Maya to the world through an impressive reconstruction of a temple facade at an inter-national exhibition was also on their minds. For of what value was their work if it was not to reveal the greatness and antiquity of the Maya to an appreciative audience.
Alice recorded their observations. She wove some of them into vignettes about Yucatan which she sent back to New York to be published. The New York World carried several of her pieces. In one article on Uxmal Alice described the Governor's Palace, giving measure-ments of the rooms and the directions they face. She described the sequence of con-struction, -surmising that the "wings" extend-ing beyond the corbelled arches were built at a later time because the stone work was inferior to the main sections. She identified vestiges of stone rings fastened in the inner part of the walls on each side of the entrance as curtain holders. Her experience with actually living in the rooms of the structure allowed her to comment on their comfort.
"It might be supposed that these chambers would be close and unhealthy. Far from it. TheyAlice described the condition of the rooms, the thick-ness of the walls, and the destruction caused by a large hole dug by John L. Stephens into the west wall from inside the center room. She surmised that Stephens must have thought that a wall 2 meters, 50 centimeters thick must contain a room, though there was no trace whatever of a doorway. Instead, Alice hypothesized, at the more ancient time it was built, "cyclones and other atmospheric disturbances may have made it necessary thus to strengthen the structure in its lofty position."*
make delightful habitations, and their atmosphere is never oppressive. During the heat of day
they are so cool that to step outside is like entering a heated oven, and at night, when the air is
sometimes damp and chilly, they are comfor-tably warm."
Alice was amused by the recent hiding of large phallic stones at the southeastern corner of the terrace on which the Governor's Palace stood.
"The round columns and the religi-ous symbols they supported, which once stood on it,She also described vistas from the platform, and the difficulty of climbing the steps of the pyramidal structures at Uxmal.
were thrown down by order of the owner of the hacienda, Don Simon Peon, at the time
when the Empress Carlotta visited these ruins, lest she should be offended by the sight of them!"
"From afar is the Dwarf's House, on the summit of an artificial mound one hundred feet high.This steep structure, the Adivino Pyramid, was con-structed in five phases, they determined, with temples built in different styles high-lighting various parts of the structure. Recording these phases was an important, but extremely difficult task. From the roof of the adjacent Nunnery Quadrangle, Augustus photo-graphed an elaborately carved temple half way up the west side of the pyramid, using lenses of different focal lengths. From a precarious ladder set near the edge of a 50-foot drop-off on the structure itself he photo-graphed the same temple close-up. That temple with its serpent-mouth doorway attracted him. Over the doorway hung a huge mask of the rain god Chac, its curling nose broken off. Above the nose, and barely visible without a ladder were two very interesting figures on their hands and knees. Covering the temple facade were a large number of carved motifs that Le Plongeon attempted to interpret.
The ascent is...so perpendicular that some of those who go up, when they have to descend
wonder how they could have been so rash, and repent having made the attempt" (1885:376).
Augustus made 43 moulds of decorations from the temples on the Adivino Pyramid in order to preserve them and give him and Alice research material. Making moulds of small sculp-tures and architectural details was also a way to take mementos away from the site while not contri-buting to its destruction. This was important to the Le Plongeons who were appalled by the senseless destruction they were beginning to see. Alice condemned the actions of visitors who were already leaving graffiti on the walls of Uxmal and other sites in the 1870s and 1880s.
"The walls of the rooms are now covered with the names of visitors in letters of every size andIn addition to photographing the temples on the Adivino Pyramid, Augustus used the pyramid itself as a platform to make a stereopticon panorama of the site. The series of photographs, from the Governor's Palace to the Nunnery Quadrangle, presented an almost 180-degree perspective. No one had ever done anything quite like this before at Uxmal. Surely this near recreation of this spectacular Maya city would cause quite a stir among those who doubted the greatness of the Maya.
color. Some silly people, called civilized, have thought theirs so important that they have
painted them on several walls within the same building."
Other views included a scene of the Prehispanic ball-court lying in ruins between the terraces of the Governor's Palace and the Nunnery Quadrangle. Its two small low rectangular buildings formed the boundaries of the playing space. Alice measured and described what she called the "tennis court" for the New York World.
"Portions of two large stone rings, and fragments of stone pillars, with the feathers of theShe cited the seventeenth-century Spanish historian Fray Juan de Torquemada's description of the ballgame.
winged serpent carved on them, are on the ground. The rings were originally opposite each
other, above the middle and near the top of the wall."
"The players were to receive the ball on the hip, and from there by a peculiar motion ofThe last major focus of the Le Plongeons' research at Uxmal was the Nunnery Quadrangle, the large four-structure complex to the west of the Adivino Pyramid. When they first saw the complex, the east structures stood intact, having suffered little from 800 years of abandonment. However the west and north buildings were in need of major repairs.
the hip throw it upward. If they succeeded in throwing it through either of the rings, it was
their right to seize the cloaks of as many of those present as they could catch."
Most of the facade on the West Building had fallen shortly before 1841, when Stephens and Catherwood were at the site. During that visit the hacienda owner Don Simon had told Stephens that "in 1835 the whole front stood, and the two serpents were seen encircling every ornament in the building" (1843:179). Don Simon's intention was to preserve one of the serpent heads in the wall of a house in Merida as a memorial of Uxmal. Beyond that, he told them, they could "tear out and carry away every other ornament."
By the time the Le Plongeons saw it, only a few sections of the West Building's upper register were left intact. However, Alice made special note of the intertwining feathered serpents of the west facade, so Don Simon must not have carried out his plan. But, a large section of smooth facing stones from the lower register of the South Building had just been removed, and the limestone mortar had not even begun to weather.
The arch on the South Building had a large crack which gave it the appearance of being near collapse. Alice observed, "It begins at the base on one side, runs down again to the base on the opposite side. This is the consequence of the removal of the stone facing by means of crowbars" (1881c:2). She also noted traces of blue, yellow, and red paint and nine red hand imprints on the arch, a feature not uncommon on the smooth stucco walls and ceilings of Maya rooms.
In 1860 Desire Charnay had found the buildings in essentially the same condition. When he photographed them, he had tried to compensate for distortion in low angle shots by adjusting the lens board of his view camera. Le Plongeon wanted to avoid all distortion in his photo-graphs, so he built ladders for straight-on detail shots. He augmented these detailed photos with 17 more moulds in the Nunnery Quadrangle.
Alice's descriptions of the iconographic and archi-tectural details at Uxmal also included hypotheses on water storage and population estimates. From practical experience, she knew that the pronounced dry season would have made some form of community water management necessary. One reservoir she examined was on the north side of the Nunnery court.
"Our studies lead us to understand that they were built solely for the reception of rain waterShe described the north building facade as "very elaborate but by no means chaste," referring to more phallic symbolism that had escaped being torn down for the visit of Empress Carlotta.
on which depended a population of 30,000 to 40,000 for they had to dig very far into the
bowels of the earth to obtain even a small quantity otherwise."
A factor that must have made the Le Plongeons' final field season at Uxmal more difficult was publicity surround-ing the discovery of a sculpture which they thought to be Chaacmol's brother. On June first, at the beginning of that visit, Augustus had made a mould of an inscription, which he gradually came to interpret as meaning Cay, the elder brother of Chaacmol. The thought struck him that an effigy of Cay might be hidden nearby in the buried lower part of the Adivino Pyramid. He tunneled into a wall and after three yards,
"I suddenly found myself in the presence of a superb cast of the personage whose name I wasAugustus was then visited by two members of the American community in Merida to whom he showed his find. He asked them to keep his discovery a secret, but one of the party indiscreetly leaked the news to a Merida newspaper.
then satisfied I had interpreted rightly, since the diadem that adorned his brows sustained his
totem--the head of a fish, Cay in the Maya language being a fish" (1881d:10).
The administrator's interests lay not only in Maya sculpture, but also in the finely polished limestone building blocks, which he intended to carry off for reuse. To stop this, Augustus had to devise a plan that would scare him and other would-be scavengers away from the site. He decided to spread the false rumor that he had booby-trapped certain unspecified places there. This appeared in a notice in the July 19 Eco de Comercio saying that he had placed dynamite near the monument. This published statement, though made to protect the monu-ments, brought harsh criticism to Le Plongeon.
Alice conceived of a way that might help spread
the word of his innocence. She used a November 1881 New York World
interview to explain his reported use of dynamite. In it, Alice the
author, asked Augustus the archaeologist,
"Is it true that you put dynamite in monuments to protect them from Indians?" He recounted the origin of the story, explaining that he was trying to prevent destruction,
"not at the hands of the Indians, who stand in awe of the effigies of the ancient rulers ofThe dynamite ploy may have temporarily curbed some dismantling of the ancient Maya buildings, but Le Plongeon's name became inextricably linked with dynamite at Uxmal, and later at Chichen Itza, and would continue to serve as a rallying cry for those who wished to defame him.
the country, but by the very administrator who is destroying these monuments, by order
of the master, to use the stones in the building of his farm-house."
Nevertheless, Augustus and Alice continually sought to make the deteriorating condition of the ruins known to the world. In another 1881 New York World article, Alice wrote, "The Peninsula of Yucatan is strewn with fragments of departed grandeur; silent, deserted, fallen cities. Some are not approachable without danger, lying as they do within the territories of hostile tribes. Others--and these are the worst treated--are in the power of the whites."
Laws to protect the antiquities of Mexico
were diffi-cult to enforce. The political atmosphere was one of turmoil,
with warfare and disease running rampant. Augustus deplored
the destruction of Uxmal by the owner of the hacienda and threatened to
call in government officers to try to stop what he described as the "fury
for destruction of the handiwork of the ancient inhabit-ants of this peninsula"
(Augustus Le Plongeon 1881c). Yet in his heart he doubted that even
government officials could stop the tide of destruction.