A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
A Victorian archaeologist's obsession with a fictitious Maya queen
Even in the dry season, days in Mexico's Yucatán are as steamy as a barber's towel. In the spring of 1874, French amateur archaeologist and professional photographer Augustus Le Plongeon, along with his wife, Alice, were enduring the climate and supervising excavations at Chichén Itzá, one of the region's richest archaeological sites.
Money, never plentiful, was running out. Le Plongeon was counting on his photography, writing, and future lecture tours to subsidize his fieldwork, but without a great discovery he knew his efforts were unlikely to attract much notice.
Then a miracle happened. Piqued by the similarity between glyphs on the partially uncovered temple buildings near what is now called the Platform of the Eagles and Jaguars and those found in a pile of rubble nearby, Le Plongeon became convinced that the heap hid something wonderful. After hours of sweat-drenched labor, his hired workers uncovered what he was to call "Chaacmol" (now known as "Chacmool"), a five-foot-long reclining human figure holding an offertory bowl on his belly. Believing he'd found something important, Le Plongeon thought nothing would stand between him and the professional recognition he felt he deserved.
A restless, self-taught, paunchy man, Le Plongeon devoted more than 20 years to one fascinating and mysterious part of the ancient world, but ended up no more than an ironic footnote. His crime? Love of an outlandish theory.
Some things he did right. He excavated ancient artifacts; he traced and documented hundreds of previously ignored inscriptions, murals, and bas-reliefs; he brought high-quality molds and castings of architectural details to the United States; he and Alice took hundreds of remarkable photographs, often in stereopticon (3-D) format; he respected local indigenous cultures, which was unusual in his time; and he endured threats and interference from Maya rebels, freelance looters, and politicians.
Other things he did wrong. Le Plongeon linked Preclassic Maya culture to the invention of the telegraph, the Masonic Order, use of the meter as the standard unit of measure, and the Jewish diaspora; and he energetically promoted an erroneous interpretation of certain glyphs to support his belief that Egyptian, indeed, world culture had emerged from the influence of a peripatetic Maya queen named "Móo." He refused to be discredited.
Sean McDaniel is a freelance writer living in Santa Monica, California. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.