Augustus Le Plongeon
|Augustus Le Plongeon|
Photograph by Alice Dixon Le Plongeon
May 4, 1825|
|Died||December 13, 1908
Brooklyn, New York, United States
|Occupation||antiquarian and amateur archaeologist|
|Subjects||Maya civilization, Atlantis|
Augustus Le Plongeon (May 4, 1825 – December 13, 1908) was a British-American photographer and antiquarian who studied the pre-Columbian ruins of America, particularly those of the Maya civilization on the northern Yucatán Peninsula. While his writings contain many eccentric notions that were discredited by later researchers, Le Plongeon left a lasting legacy in his photographs documenting the ancient ruins. He should also be regarded as one of the earliest proponents of Mayanism.
Le Plongeon wrote a lengthy history of Maya culture, going so far as to propose a theory that Maya had been in touch with the lost continent of Atlantis and were ancestral to Ancient Egypt, a theory which has since been discredited by the scientific community. Le Plongeon, a Freemason, was also convinced that the roots of Freemasonry were to be found in the ancient Maya culture. However, as a pioneer in producing photographic records of Maya sites and inscriptions, Le Plongeon's works retain at least a curio value to later researchers and his photographs preserve the appearance of many sites and objects that have been subsequently damaged or destroyed.
Early life and careers
Le Plongeon was born on the island of Jersey on May 4, 1826. At 19, he sailed to South America and shipwrecked off the coast of Chile. While there he settled in Valparaiso and taught mathematics, drawing, and languages at a local college. In 1849 he sailed to San Francisco during the California gold rush to work as a surveyor, and also apprenticed to became a doctor of medicine. One of his accomplishments as a surveyor included drawing a plan for the layout of the town of Marysville, California in the Central Valley in 1851.
He moved to England and studied photography with William Fox Talbot in 1851. He returned to San Francisco in 1855 to open a daguerreotype portrait studio on Clay Street. In 1862, he traveled to Lima, Peru and opened another photography studio and an "electro-hydropathic" medical clinic based on an early form of alternative medicine.
Travels in Peru
Le Plongeon pioneered the use of photography as a tool for his studies. He began using the wet collodion glass-plate negative process he used for studio portraits to record his explorations. He traveled extensively all over Peru for eight years visiting and photographing the ancient ruins, including making photographs for E. G. Squier's expedition.
In 1870, he left Peru and traveled back once again to San Francisco where he gave a number of illustrated lectures at the California Academy of Sciences on Peruvian archaeology and the causes of earthquakes. His travels then continued on to New York, and by 1871 he was at the British Museum in London studying Mesoamerican manuscripts. His reading of the works of the French scholar Charles Étienne Brasseur de Bourbourg culminated in a stirring belief that civilization had its origins in the New World.
Alice Dixon Le Plongeon
While in London he met Alice Dixon, the woman with whom he would collaborate for the rest of his life. Alice, born in London in 1851, had been well educated, and also had been taught the art of photography by her father Henry Dixon - a man who was recognized in the late nineteenth century for his contribution to the development of panchromatic photography, and for his photos of London architecture taken for the Society for Preserving the Relics of Old London.
Alice returned with Augustus to New York, where the couple married.
Travels in Yucatán
In 1873, the Le Plongeons traveled to Yucatán, and remained there almost continuously until 1885 in search of cultural connections between the Maya and Ancient Egypt. Le Plongeon was inspired by the work of his contemporary Heinrich Schliemann and the discovery of ancient Troy, a location that had been described in the epic poems of Homer. Brasseur de Bourbourg had suggested links between the ancient Maya and Atlantis and Le Plongeon felt that descriptions of Atlantis by Plato also provided a key to finding places described in ancient myths and legends.
The Le Plongeons used photography to record the ruins. Their photographic work was methodical and systematic, and they took hundreds of 3-D photos. They documented entire Maya buildings such as the "Governor's Palace" at Uxmal in overlapping photos by placing the camera on a tall tripod or scaffold to correct for perspective, and then processed the plates in the unlit rooms of Maya buildings. In addition to entire facades of buildings, they also photographed small artifacts, and architectural details such as bas-reliefs, Maya hieroglyphic inscriptions, and sculptures.
At Chichen Itza they excavated a curiously formed statue or altar figurine, coining the name "Chaacmol" (later "Chac Mool" or chacmool) for it, from a structure known as the "Platform of the Eagles and Jaguars". Although their alleged derivation of the name is known now to have had no association with figures of this type, the name has remained in general use among later archaeologists. This statue would later be used as a demonstration of Toltec influences at the site, with other examples found at the Toltec capital, Tula. They also documented their excavation of the Platform of Venus with photos as well as plan and cross-section drawings, and visited and photographed other Maya sites such as Izamal, Isla Mujeres, Cozumel, Cancún, and Ake, and traveled to Belize (British Honduras).
Le Plongeon is also known for his attempted translation of the Troano Codex. The "translation" was viewed with much skepticism at the time, and is considered by all modern authorities to be completely mistaken, based on little more than Le Plongeon's own imagination. He claimed that one section detailed the destruction of the lost continent of Atlantis.
Theories and later career
By the 1880s, while most Mayanists accepted that the Maya civilization postdated Ancient Egypt, Le Plongeon stood by his theories. He cited his years of fieldwork and studies of archival sources, and challenged those he considered "armchair" archaeologists to debate the issues. But as evidence mounted against cultural diffusion, Le Plongeon became marginalized and his theories falling further outside of the growing mainstream of Maya archaeology.
Le Plongeon insisted that the symbols of Freemasonry could be traced to the ancient Maya, and that this ancient knowledge had come to ancient Egypt from the ancient Maya by way of Atlantis. He and Alice constructed an imaginative "history", with the Maya sites in Yucatán being the cradle of civilization, with civilization then traveling east first to Atlantis and later to Ancient Egypt. The Le Plongeons named kings and queens of these dynasties, and said that various artworks were portraits of such ancient royalty (such as the famous Chacmool, which the couple excavated at Chichén Itzá). The Le Plongeons reconstructed a detailed but fanciful story of Queen Moo and Prince Coh (also known as "Chac Mool") in which Prince Coh's death resulted in the erection of monuments in his honor (surprisingly similar to the commemoration of Prince Albert by Queen Victoria).
Le Plongeon wrote that some sites identified as part of the Maya civilization were not Maya at all. For example, he attributed the construction of Palenque to people from Polynesia. He also believed that the ancient Maya understood the use of the electric telegraph.
He was never fully recognized for his work in the Yucatán, but the hundreds of photos he and Alice took still remain an important contribution to American archaeology. Augustus spent the remainder of his life in Brooklyn, New York, writing about the connections between Maya and Egypt and defending himself against detractors. Augustus le Plongeon died in Brooklyn in 1908 at the age of eighty-three; Alice followed in 1910 at the age of fifty-nine.
A collection of the works of the Le Plongeons currently resides at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles. The archive contains original records covering their travels from the 1860s through the early 1900s, including diaries, unpublished scholarly manuscripts and notes, correspondence, and extensive photographic documentation of ancient architecture and sculpture, city views, and ethnographic studies.
- Desmond, Lawrence and Phyllis Messenger (1988). A Dream of Maya: Augustus and Alice Le Plongeon in Nineteenth Century Yucatan (Online text reproduction). Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press. ISBN 0-8263-1000-1.
- Desmond, LG (1999). 'Augustus Le Plongeon. A fall from archaeological grace', in AB Kehoe & MB Emmerichs (edd.), Assembling the Past: Studies in the Professionalization of Archaeology, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, pp. 81–90. ISBN 0-8263-1939-4.
- Desmond, LG (2011). 'A Critique of the Wikipedia Augustus Le Plongeon article' at http://archaeoplanet.wordpress.com/2011/11/14/a-critique-of-the-wikipedia-augustus-le-plongeon-article/.
- Desmond (2011)
- Augustus and Alice Dixon Le Plongeon papers, 1763-1937, bulk 1860-1910. Research Library at the Getty Research Institute. Los Angeles, California.
- Dr. Le Plongeon's 3D Photography
- Biography from Minnesota State University
- ArcheoPlanet: Augustus Le Plongeon, Alice Dixon, and the history of archaeology
- Le Plongeon photographs of Uxmal