I was about thirteen when I first read Augustus Le Plongeon's Queen Moo and the Egyptian Sphinx. I found it in the Benjamin Franklin Library in Mexico City. At the time, I was reading everything I could get my hands on that dealt with archaeology and, since the book was in the section that contained books on ancient Egypt, I took it home and read it. It impressed me quite a bit. For one thing it didn't deal with Egypt but with something closer to home—the Maya. For another it spoke of links between the New World and the Old. Not in vague terms but in a very precise and concrete way. Ruling families, domains, travels, and statues. It also suggested a number of words that, according to the author, proved that the ancient Egyptians were connected to the Maya.
I must have been an inquisitive kid then. I was certainly stubborn for I tried to follow Le Plongeon's train of thought. I plagued my history teacher with questions and tried to read other books on the subject. There weren't many. My teacher said that Le Plongeon was wrong, that the writer hadn't taken into account that the Maya and the Egyptians lived at very different times. He was right, of course, and when I corroborated it I stopped that line of inquiry.
Many years later, as a student of archaeology, I heard the rumor from others that Le Plongeon had used explosives for digging. We of course, had just been through Mortimer Wheeler's Archaeology from the Earth and had been converted to careful digging, so the old Mayanist was pretty much the epitome of everything we wanted to avoid. I was also able to read Robert Wauchope's Lost Tribes and Sunken Continents, Le Plongeon was mentioned there, his life told, his assertions questioned, and his theories and ideas dissected and revealed to be nonsense. Wauchope had written his book in a very angry mood and it clearly showed that non-scientific archaeology was not only wrong but also very damaging. He was right, of course.
A few years later I met Larry Desmond. He was starting his research for this book and was falling in love with Le Plongeon. My initial reaction was that Desmond was showing signs of brainwashing. What was there to write about the old geezer? He was a lousy digger and he was wildly wrong in his crazy theories. Why so much work?
In time I understood why. It didn't have anything to do with his ideas, flaky as some of them might have been or with the quality of his excavations. It had everything to do with the type of activity that archaeology was in Le Plongeon's time and how the general public conceived— and still does to a very high degree—the work of exploring and excavating sites.
Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, was born, large and wise, out of her father Zeus's head. It is a bad allegory. Sciences are never born full-grown. They develop out of lore that is later seen as non-scientific. The first researchers in given field make assertions that future generations consider nonsense. Aristotle's work is a good example. Science is not fully developed in his writings but its origins are there. After a time those ideas are questioned and other theories, mar times as nonsensical as the former ones, are advanced their place. Both cases are probably the normal result insufficient, unsystematically collected evidence. It is on when enough data has been collected, when an ongoing discussion of theory and facts has proceeded for some tirr and when the field has developed a methodology for gat ering, understanding, and explaining the parts of reality that constitute its scope that modern science, universalist and generalist, can be recognized as such.
In this scheme Le Plongeon clearly belongs to the second phase as do the theory of phlogiston in chemistry, Lamarck's theory of heredity of acquired traits in biology, Flammarion's catastrophism in astronomy, or the work of Franz Joseph Gall and Johann Spurzbeim in psychology that developed into phrenology. None of these theories is accepted by modern science but the lives, ideas, and the work that led to them is important for the history of science. This book deals with such a time. Archaeology was contending, as seriously as it could, with the data it had and the body of theory it could develop, attempting to find explanations that made sense. If what was done then doesn't look good now, it wasn't only Le Plongeon at fault. Consider what was being said and done by people like Schliemann or Brasseur. And don't forget what profession swallowed Piltdown whole some years later.
The history of archaeology as a field has become quite important and some books, such as Willey and Sabloff's A History of American Archaeology, are important compendia. The book on Le Plongeon does not follow that generalistic trend. It concentrates on one character and proceeds on the assumption (correct as far as I am concerned) that his life is relevant to the understanding of his work. Since he was influential in the development of Maya archaeology, it helps in understanding why it is as it is and why it became so. As such it is a significant contribution both for the general history of archaeology and for Maya research.
Every profession projects a stereotype. For the public mind the chemist is a man in a dirty, acid-specked lab coat who holds some container full of a foul-smelling liquid up to the light. An entomologist runs around with a butterfly net. A physicist is an absent-minded being who forgers things. Indiana Jones is the archaeologist.
There is a difference between those stereotypes.
Ours is not fiction. Some of the first archaeologists faced dangers no
less than the ones Indy went through. Angry natives, savage beasts, and
wild country really existed and it was people like Le Plongeon who had
to be there to dig. And dig they did, as well as they knew how. Le
Plongeon is one of the causes for the stereotype of the archaeologist even
today. Romantic adventurer, garrulous adversary, a character out of a Jules
Verne novel, Le Plongeon was bigger than life in his time and today, when
the world is quite a bit blander, a reminder that things weren't always
so. Le Plongeon's life brings us to the reasons for public interest
This book accomplishes its authors' purpose, to synthesize the life of one of the most notable archaeologist travelers of the end of the nineteenth century and to let the reader in on a number of previously unknown details of his life. Le Plongeon was controversial, even in his time, both for his ideas and for his methods. His wife has never been regarded before as more than just her husband's loyal helper. This book makes important points and provides a new perspective on both its subjects.
Desmond and Messenger have researched their topic well. They have quoted from contemporary papers, have paid attention to American and Mexican scholarly opinion of the time, and have shown due regard for the Yucatec sources. A Dream of Maya is not only a scholarly book. It is a very entertaining read. The authors, wisely, have not attempted to enter into a deep analysis of Le Plongeon's work. Such a task would be irrelevant now. Le Plongeon is "history" and should be looked upon as such. He deserves a biography and Desmond and Messenger have given him a very nice one, as good as any other one on the ancestors of modern archaeology—or of lndiana Jones. They are quite plainly sympathetic to their subject, and being conscious of it, they have been careful. The resulting work is well rounded, well written, well revised, and damned interesting. I have enjoyed writing this foreword. Maybe the old geezer was telling us something he didn't say explicitly after all.
Jaime Litvak King
Cholula, Puebla, Mexico