- Historic Sites
“Savages Never Carved These Stones”
Magnificent Central American ruins, overgrown by the thickening jungle, testify to a sophisticated culture already ancient when Columbus sailed
February 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 2
Yet it was the Spaniards who—indirectly at least—contributed to the revival of interest in the treasures uncovered by the conquistadors. About 1785, soon after the Maya ruins at Palenque in southern Mexico had been discovered, Spanish commissions visited the site. Although their reports were promptly consigned to the royal archives, a copy of one of them was eventually published in London in 1822, and aroused enough interest to lead to an exhibition entitled “Ancient Mexico” two years later in the Egyptian Hall on Piccadilly.
Among those who saw the exhibition was a certain Lord Kingsborough, who a few years later brought out the first of nine huge volumes called Antiquities of Mexico in which he sought to prove the theory that the pre-Columbian peoples of the Americas were descendants of the lost tribes of Israel. The effort failed: he died in debtors’ prison—jailed for failing to meet the printing bills.
Another man who read the Spanish report published in London was young John Lloyd Stephens, and in 1839 he and Catherwood decided to investigate for themselves. Stephens’ accounts of their travels, illustrated by Catherwood, were published in New York in two books: Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatán in 1841, and Incidents of Travel in Yucatán in 1843. Both became very popular in the United States.
The latter part of the nineteenth century saw the birth of scientific archaeology all over the world, stimulated especially by the basic discovery of Schliemann, who in excavating the successive cities of Troy had helped document the “layer” theory of archaeology: the deeper you dig, the earlier are the remains you are likely to find, for cultures developed again and again in the same place, one building on top of the ruins of another.
On several expeditions through Mexico and Central America in the 1880’s, the English archaeologist Alfred Percival Maudslay took the first accurate casts and photographs of Mayan monuments. Most important, he also made the first scientifically accurate drawings of the glyphs which appear on so many buildings and monumental stelae, or columns. With the help of these drawings he and later archaeologists were able to decipher the elaborate calendrical inscriptions and numerical notations contained in these glyphs. Maudslay’s reports, Biologia Centrali-Americana , published in London from 1889 to 1902, are still consulted today as one of the basic sources for pre-Columbian studies.
In 1892 Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology sent the first of a series of great expeditions to the Maya ruins. Perhaps the most dramatic discovery, however, was made by a U.S. diplomat and amateur archaeologist, Edward H. Thompson, who found and dredged the “Well of Sacrifice” in the temple-city of Chichén Itzá. Here, for many centuries, Mayan women had been thrown into the sacred well as offerings to a demanding god. Less gruesome, but more interesting archaeologically, was the fact that many treasured objects were thrown in with them. By slowly dredging and fishing along the well’s deep, muddy bottom, Thompson brought to the surface some of the most exciting treasures of ancient America: jade and gold, some of it traded from as far away as Panama, as well as figurines, masks, bells, and other objects that showed the great artistic heights and surprising level of sophistication which the pre-Columbian artisans had reached.
But along with scientists, many wonderful crackpots were attracted by the field of archaeology. One, a Frenchman named Le Plongeon, believed the Maya had come from Atlantis or the lost continent of Mu and even that they had developed a telegraphic system with electrical wires. Others theorized that the fabled fortress-city of Machu Picchu high in the Peruvian Andes was built by Phoenicians who sailed up the Amazon from Brazil.