A MAJOR EXCAVATION RECORDED
In late 1883 the Le Plongeons returned to Chichen Itza to excavate what Augustus hoped was the mausoleum of the High Priest Cay, and record the murals in the Upper Temple of the Jaguars, or "Memorial Hall," overlooking the Ball Court. They had barely begun their work when they were nearly driven from the site by a plague of locusts. A mile-wide column of flying insects passed over Yucatan, descending on the area, and causing great destruction. For seven days it continued. Crops were eaten, and water was polluted by the millions of dead insects. The people of the countryside did everything they could to destroy them. They burned thousands of acres, and hacienda owners paid their workers by the bushel for dead locusts.
Alice bemoaned the regularity of the plague. "At dusk they settle, devour what they find, and rest till nine or ten o'clock the next morning" (1884b:7174). Despite all efforts to control or destroy them, there was really nothing to do but wait until they left again, following their own mysterious schedule.
Finally, Augustus was able to begin his long-postponed excavation of the Platform of Venus. It had fascinated him since 1875 when his excavation of the nearby Platform of the Eagles uncovered the Chacmool statue. The similarity of shape and size between the two mounds, and their decoration, led him to inspect the Venus platform carefully. On the exposed portion of the structure was the bas-relief of a fish, which Le Plongeon interpreted as the symbol of the High Priest Cay, the brother of warrior Chaacmol. This interpretation was based on the Yucatec Maya word for fish, "cay," and the assumption that similar structures would be used for similar purposes. Since the 1880 analysis of organic material deposited beside the Chacmool led him to think they were human remains, Augustus assumed he was looking at another burial of an equally important family member. And he expected the platform to contain another statue similar to the Chacmool.
Based on their earlier work, they had a clear idea of the steps they should take in excavating and recording the mound. They were familiar with the work of their contemporaries, including, Heinrich Schliemann, whose excavations of Troy were drawing so much attention. Alice and Augustus wanted the record of their excavation of this mound to clearly show what they actually found, and thus allow no room for criticism of their interpretation.
Thus they took notes and measurements as they began to clear the Platform of Venus. They drew a plan at a scale of approximately 1 to 100 with the sides measuring 15.9 meters by 15.75 meters. The height was 4 meters. They calculated the position of the structure as north 10 degrees east. Le Plongeon began a 1.5 meter-wide trench in the northwest corner of the platform, away from the stairs, where few facing stones remained. As the workers cut into the mound working toward the center they found rubble core stones with mortar between them.
After eight days of excavating, Le Plongeon's workmen uncovered a sculpture lying on its back about 1.5 meters north of the center of the platform at ground level. Alice recorded the excavation and reported its results in Scientific American. "The figure was thickly coated with loose mortar. One leg was broken off below the knee, but we found it under the figure, and afterward adjusted it in place to make a picture" (1884a:7145).
Alice described the sculpture in detail, giving its dimensions and colors, and noting that the shell finger and toe nails had become separated from the figure. The statue rested on small "conodial pillars" laid on their sides as part of a configuration of 182 cones covering about eight square meters. "Two-thirds of the pillars are painted blue and one-third red; they vary in height from eighty centimeters to one meter twenty-five centimeters."
Augustus drew a cross-section of the platform, showing the cones piled in neat rows up to four deep, with some clusters oriented north-south and others east-west. Some were on, and others were below the ground-level floor, which Augustus indicated by a double line four meters below the top of the platform.
"On a level with the pillars were twelve serpent heads" oriented in various directions. Alice described their decorations and colors which had survived undisturbed within the structure. "From the top of each head rises a kind of plume or perhaps flame, and on each side of the front of the head perpendicular ornaments like horns." The heads were painted green and had feathers incised on the upper part. Their undersides were covered with serpent scales. The edges of the jaws were also yellow, while the forked tongue and the gums were red. The teeth were white. Around the eyes and "over the brow" was blue and the eyes were filled with a white "shell." The horns or nose plugs projecting from the snout were green, and tipped in red as was the "feather" on the top. Alice lamented the broken condition of the heads and suggested that they had been fractured at the time of their interment.
Within the concentration of stone cones, the excavators also found a stone urn set into the floor. Inside it were a flat "trapezoidal...green jade with a human face--full face," two half beads of jadeite, a jade tube, a spherical crystal described as "a ball of white glass nearly an inch in diameter, and the remains of a mosaic."
The excavation continued through three earlier floor levels which Augustus plotted in his cross-section drawing and described in the field notes. The upper two were painted red and the lower was yellow. On the floors they encountered more artifacts, including an obsidian projectile point, shards of "fine pottery," and the bones of a small animal. The final floor, at bedrock, was painted red.
After they reached the lowest level, Augustus next directed his Maya workers to trench to the southwest. There they uncovered a number of flat stones carved in low relief. The red floor extended further south. Lying on it, face down, was "another stone with a fish sculptured on it, the fish being surrounded by the fold of a serpent's body." The Le Plongeons were convinced that they were excavating the burial chamber of the high priest Cay, noting all their observations in the excavation notes and drawings.
The record they created, along with photographs of the operation, was on a par with the work of their contemporaries, both self-taught and formally trained. And as yet there was no one else working in Yucatan to confer with or compare results. If they could have been satisfied with only recording observations and gathering data, as influential academicians such as Henry and Haven were demanding, they probably would have continued to be noted as fine researchers. But the more information they gathered, the more they speculated. The pieces to the puzzle of Maya history Augustus had created fell in place too easily for their own good. The Platform of Venus excavation and the discovery of the Chacmool not only made them more committed to their ill-conceived ideas on Maya history, but also hastened their ostracism from scientific circles.
Though it was not their intention, this period at Chichen Itza was to be the last field work in Yucatan for Alice and Augustus. Perhaps sensing this, they continued their recording with a sense of urgency. As they prepared to leave Chichen Itza, the Le Plongeons made notes on other bas-reliefs around the site. At the north of the huge Ball Court stood a small temple with many reliefs. Round stone columns supporting the front of its roof arch were covered with warriors and other designs. Alice described the temple for Scientific American:
The back wall and sides of this box are covered with bas-reliefs that do great credit to theThey returned to the murals in the Upper Temple of the Jaguars to finish tracing them. To their dismay, they found the murals damaged beyond repair with whole segments too defaced to interpret. Apparently the damage was caused by the carelessness of a recent visitor, Louis Ayme, the American Consul in Merida.
dead and forgotten artists. They represent human figures in various dresses and attitudes and
landscapes. There is one face with Semitic features and full beard (1884a:7147)
Alice made little attempt to hide the identity of the perpetrator when her account of the discovery was published.
"To our grief, we at once saw that some one had tried to clean the wall by scratching off the dirt.Alice's first thought was that Desire Charnay had done it. "No", said the soldier, "it was M. ...., the Consul Americano, who accompanied M. Charnay."
In answer to our exclamations of disgust, some of the soldiers that escorted us in our expedition
said 'Oh, yes! that gentleman who came two years ago did it; he scraped it with a machete,
and said "Look at this ugly old woman." '
Alice and Augustus were soon to feel the repercussions
of this bold revelation. Ayme was a close friend of Stephen
Salisbury, Jr., whom Augustus had just alienated with his stormy resignation
from the American Antiquarian Society. Salisbury had important political
connections throughout the eastern United States, and even the temporary
loss of his friendship was a severe blow to the Le Plongeons. While still
in Yucatan, Le Plongeon may not have realized the extent of the damage
he was bringing to own career as a Maya archaeologist by making examples
of people like Ayme, as well as attacking Ayme in his letter of resignation.
Instead, while on-site and seeing first-hand the destruction that was occurring
there, he and Alice felt obligated to expose, and, they hoped, stop the
guilty parties. After all, Yucatan was their life; the Maya, their