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Romancing the Maya

Romancing the Maya
Mexican Antiquity in the American Imagination, 1820-1915

An exploration of why nineteenth-century Americans felt entitled to appropriate Mexico's cultural heritage as the United States' own.

April 2004
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216 pages | 6 x 9 | 64 figures |

During Mexico's first century of independence, European and American explorers rediscovered its pre-Hispanic past. Finding the jungle-covered ruins of lost cities and artifacts inscribed with unintelligible hieroglyphs—and having no idea of the age, authorship, or purpose of these antiquities—amateur archaeologists, artists, photographers, and religious writers set about claiming Mexico's pre-Hispanic patrimony as a rightful part of the United States' cultural heritage.

In this insightful work, Tripp Evans explores why nineteenth-century Americans felt entitled to appropriate Mexico's cultural heritage as the United States' own. He focuses in particular on five well-known figures—American writer and amateur archaeologist John Lloyd Stephens, British architect Frederick Catherwood, Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and the French émigré photographers Désiré Charnay and Augustus Le Plongeon. Setting these figures in historical and cultural context, Evans uncovers their varying motives, including the Manifest Destiny-inspired desire to create a national museum of American antiquities in New York City, the attempt to identify the ancient Maya as part of the Lost Tribes of Israel (and so substantiate the Book of Mormon), and the hope of proving that ancient Mesoamerica was the cradle of North American and even Northern European civilization. Fascinating stories in themselves, these accounts of the first explorers also add an important new chapter to the early history of Mesoamerican archaeology.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • 1. The Second Discovery of America
  • 2. Incidents of Transcription: American Antiquity in the Work of Stephens and Catherwood
  • 3. Joseph Smith and the Archaeology of Revelation
  • 4. The Toltec Lens of Désiré Charnay
  • 5. Bordering on the Magnificent: Augustus and Alice Le Plongeon in the Kingdom of Móo
  • Epilogue
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

R. Tripp Evans is Assistant Professor of Art History at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts.


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On September 8, 2000, the New York Times ran a page-one story announcing an important archaeological discovery at Cancuen, in Guatemala. Entitled "Splendid Maya Palace Is Found Hidden in Jungle," the article begins:

In a remote jungle of Guatemala, among the remains of a little-known ancient city with a name meaning Place of the Serpents, archaeologists have uncovered one of the largest and most splendid palaces of Maya kings ever discovered . . .

In both language and tone the article's author, John Wilford, evokes the powerful combination of mystery and exoticism that American readers have associated with pre-Columbian archaeology since its modern inception in the nineteenth century. The passage could well be mistaken, in fact, for one of John Lloyd Stephens' archaeological narratives of the 1840s.

The remainder of the Times article, however, markedly departs from nineteenth-century models—demonstrating the profound changes that have transformed Mesoamerican archaeology since Stephens' day. The Times reader learns, for instance, that the structure at Cancuen dates from the eighth century; that it is believed to be the royal seat of a king named as "Tah-ak-Chaan"; that his reign lasted from 740 to 790 A.D.; and furthermore, that glyphic records indicate a marriage between a princess from this site and a prince from Dos Pilas. Had Stephens or any other nineteenth-century archaeologist found the site at Cancuen, rather than Arthur Demarest in the year 2000, the discovery would have retained its romantic appeal while yielding none of this crucial historical information. In fact, the site may not even have been designated as "Maya" at all but rather credited to the ancient Israelites or to refugees from Atlantis.

For nineteenth-century archaeologists working in Latin America, the absence of any certifiable, historical information about the ancient Maya explains how they were able to mythologize the Mesoamerican past; in effect, no scholar could conclusively challenge even the most bizarre theory about the ruins' age or authorship. Why these explorers invented or distorted archaeological information, however—and why American explorers showed a particular susceptibility to this practice—is the subject of this book.

Prior to the expulsion of Spain from Latin America in the 1820s, the very existence of most pre-Columbian sites was generally unknown. Their rediscovery following Spain's departure initiated a period of exploration that the New World had not seen since the sixteenth century, undertaken at a time when ancient geography, biblical history, and even the source of human origins itself were all being seriously questioned. The ruins of Mexico and Central America in this era were, for a variety of different intents and purposes, a historical tabula rasa.

In their attempts to explain the existence of this lost civilization, previously unknown or only partially known in the West, scholars eagerly sought its descendants. Determining that this rediscovered culture had left no legitimate modern heirs, amateur archaeologists, travel writers, and self-proclaimed prophets from America claimed the United States' next-of-kin status to the ancient city-builders. Those who made no such direct link nonetheless considered the United States as the most appropriate custodian for this antiquity, insisting that politically unstable and "culturally inferior" Latin American nations were inappropriate guardians of such a valuable legacy. Cultural claim-staking in the region was not only possible but also inevitable in this period, given Latin America's porous borders, dependence upon foreign investment, and ever-changing leadership. During Mexico's difficult first century of independence, history became its greatest export and the United States, itself a young republic, the most eager consumer of this past.

Paralleling their colonization of the New World, European explorers initiated the reclamation of Mexican antiquities. In chapter 1, I examine the earliest European images of ancient Mesoamerican architecture, concentrating upon the late colonial works of Antonio del Río, José Luciano Castañeda, and Jean-Frédéric Waldeck. Appearing for the first time during the decades following Mexican independence, these works were modeled upon the eighteenth-century French Encyclopédie, pairing technical illustrations with systematic scholarly commentary.

The formal orthodoxy of these publications contrasted sharply with the fantastic cultural treatises offered by their authors. As each grappled with the question of America's cultural origins, he inevitably enlisted "scientific" illustrations to support highly conjectural cultural-migration theories. Artists either represented Mesoamerican antiquities in isolated illustrations or within fictional Arcadian landscapes, while their accompanying texts suggested the ruins' analogous—or actual—relationship to ancient Greco-Roman architecture. In American hands, both the formal presentation and the cultural projections of such works would substantially change.

Between 1839 and 1843, American writer and amateur archaeologist John Lloyd Stephens and British architect Frederick Catherwood collaborated on four volumes devoted to ancient Maya architecture, the most complete record of pre-Columbian sites that had ever been produced. Whereas previous European works had been produced in expensive limited editions, Stephens and Catherwood published their Incidents of Travel series cheaply and in enormous quantity, reaching an unprecedented readership in the United States. Catherwood's illustrations of Maya ruins departed from earlier models by providing accurate, if romantic, engravings of the buildings in situ, while Stephens' documentation and commentary parted company with the bizarre origin theories proposed by the first generation of European scholars.

For much of the nineteenth century, the United States founded its domestic and foreign policies upon the paired principles of manifest destiny—the presumption of Americans' territorial "divine right"—and the Monroe Doctrine, which barred future European colonization in the Americas. Stephens, whose role as a U.S. diplomat is discussed in greater detail in chapter 2, managed to combine both of these policies in his archaeological investigations. Not only did he attempt the wholesale purchase of ancient Maya sites by authority of the U.S. government, but he also actively sought to exclude Europeans from attempting similar actions. These operations represented more than mere territorial acquisition, for it was Stephens' plan to physically remove the sites' structures to New York City, reerecting them within a proposed national museum of American antiquities. Within this institution, Stephens hoped to unite the material culture of living Native Americans with his "reclaimed" Mesoamerican antiquities. Gathered under one roof, the exhibits would have presented a seamless narrative of the American past that was, in reality, neither truly "American" nor "past."

In chapter 3, I examine the work of Stephens' contemporary Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who shared Stephens' desire to adopt the archaeological past of Latin America. Publishing his revelations as the Book of Mormon in 1830, Smith claimed that the Americas had been settled in ancient times by wandering members of the House of Israel. As proof of this assertion, Smith and other Mormon church leaders eagerly embraced Stephens' newly rediscovered ruins—which, they proposed, represented the remains of an apocalyptic battle between warring factions of the church's Israelite ancestors.4 Like Stephens, Smith sought to collapse North American and Mesoamerican antiquities within the same framework, yet his reasons for doing so were spiritual rather than overtly nationalistic or territorial. Seeking the reestablishment of God's chosen people on the North American continent, Smith believed that these ruins provided the historical foundation for his new Zion.

With the advent of field photography in the later nineteenth century, visually faithful documentation of the ruins developed in tandem with increasingly subjective theories of their cultural origin. Of the two principal photographers from this period, Désiré Charnay and Augustus Le Plongeon, Charnay was considered by his contemporaries to be the greater scholar and technician—even if Le Plongeon's discoveries ultimately proved to be more valuable. In chapter 4, I examine Charnay's guiding belief that Mesoamerica derived from the Toltec civilization, a group he distantly linked to the presumed Aryan ancestors of northern Europe. By insisting upon the unity of all ancient North American cultures and suggesting their ethnic distinction from contemporary Latin American indigenous groups, he confirmed the primacy of the United States in the region's archaeology.

The career of Le Plongeon and his wife, Alice Dixon Le Plongeon, who were Charnay's field competitors in the 1870s and 1880s, was characterized by early successes and ultimate discrediting. Basing his theories upon the dubious scholarship of diffusion theorist Charles-Étienne Brasseur de Bourbourg, Le Plongeon made a variety of important finds yet published doctored photographs of Mesoamerican sites that "proved," among other things, their astoundingly remote origins as well as their role in the foundation of Freemasonry. Le Plongeon argued not only that world culture had originated from the American continent but also that he and his wife were, themselves, the reincarnated monarchs of this so-called former Kingdom of Móo.

In the epilogue, I consider the culmination of nineteenth-century America's perceptions of ancient America, and the ultimate transformation of Mesoamerican archaeology into a professional field. A comparison of the anthropological/archaeological exhibits at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago and at the 1915 Panama-California Exposition in San Diego reveals a paradigmatic shift in the public presentation of Maya architecture. At Chicago the installment of life-size Maya temples, cast in plaster, evoked a sense of virtual reality for fairgoers; arranged in a Stonehenge-like configuration, these structures were landscaped with clinging vegetation and were artificially aged to simulate their decay, re-creating the romantic settings of Catherwood's engravings. At San Diego, by contrast, exhibitors presented fairgoers with fully reconstructed, yet miniaturized, models of Mesoamerican architecture in the fair's California Building. Whereas the San Diego fair still emphasized the physicality of the ancient structures, the aesthetic shift from 1893 to 1915 demonstrated that the American concept of Maya architecture itself had changed. Evolving from a romantic emblem of "America's" lost architectural past, this antiquity was now perceived as a distinctly regional and foreign tradition—and one that belonged to the domain of professional, institutionally supported archaeologists.

The period preceding the San Diego fair also marked a new beginning for Mexico and for pre-Columbian studies in a general sense. Following years of revolution and the eventual establishment of a united republic, Mexico had firmly delineated its political borders by 1915, sharply reducing its susceptibility to territorial or cultural claims from the north. Second, with the successful correlation of the Christian and Maya calendars by J. T. Goodman in 1905, the ancient Maya too came into their own. From this point forward, archaeologists were compelled to consider the ancient Maya a historical group acting within a quantifiable chronology and—most importantly—to recognize them as the ancestors of the living Maya. With the advent of this newfound cultural independence, American claims on the Mesoamerican past, and the heyday of the amateur explorer, ultimately came to an end.


Although the chapters of this book are arranged chronologically, they are not intended to illustrate a linear narrative. Chapter 1 establishes the circumstances under which the Mexican past was rediscovered, and it attempts to explain why this legacy proved useful in the hands of American writers and audiences. Chapters 2 through 5 split this narrative into four separate treatments, the last three roughly contemporary with one another, in order to explore the same period from different vantage points. The picture they present is a cumulative rather than a progressive one.

Changes in methodology from one chapter to the next are intentional. Stephens' and Catherwood's illustrated texts require close visual readings, for example, whereas the Book of Mormon does not; in Charnay's work the role of patronage comes under careful scrutiny, whereas in the Le Plongeons' story this element is less important. Though each of these chapters could stand alone, together they illustrate the multilayered nature of American responses to Mexican antiquity. In my epilogue I depart from the character-driven nature of the five preceding chapters, attempting to provide a bird's-eye view of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The phenomena I explore here, primarily the changing roles that Mexican antiquities played at world's fairs, represent the culmination of this period but invite development as studies in their own right.

My reasons for undertaking this project stem from the fact that although several authors have treated pre-Columbian historiography in a general fashion, few have critically examined the cultural agendas of these nineteenth-century explorer-artists. Of the general surveys, Robert Brunhouse's In Search of the Maya (1973) and Claude Baudez' Lost Cities of the Maya (1992) are two of the best examples. Both works provide engaging narratives of the period's history, yet fail to contextualize early archaeologists' work within the larger framework of nineteenth-century nationalism. Furthermore, their inclusion of such a wide range of archaeologists in this period—regardless of nationality or professional status—spreads these otherwise valuable treatments somewhat thinly.

In addition to the few broadly focused surveys devoted to this period, several authors have produced excellent biographies of the American explorers from this era, including Victor Van Hagan's Maya Explorer: John Lloyd Stephens and the Lost Cities of Mexico and Central America (1947), Keith Davis' Désiré Charnay: Expeditionary Photographer (1981), and Lawrence Desmond and Phyllis Messenger's A Dream of Maya: Augustus and Alice Le Plongeon in Nineteenth-Century Yucatan (1988). These biographies were extraordinarily helpful to me, both in terms of tracking down useful sources and in understanding the larger context of these explorers' careers, yet the authors do not situate their subjects' work within the larger historical and nationalistic questions of this period.

In still another category, there are several treatments of pre-Columbian historiography that subordinate the period I examine to more esoteric issues of Maya scholarship. Two examples include Michael Coe's Breaking the Maya Code (1992), a study of the developments that led to Maya glyph decipherment, and Barbara Braun's Pre-Columbian Art and the Post-Columbian World (1993), an examination of the role that pre-Columbian art has played in the work of twentieth-century artists. Lastly, although Marjorie Ingle's The Mayan Revival Style (1984) examines certain late nineteenth-century perceptions of the Maya, her material represents the culmination, rather than the beginning, of the attitudes I examine in this project. Ultimately I believe that the present book combines the best of all of these approaches, providing as complete a picture of the period as possible, within a thematically unified framework, while using a relatively limited number of case studies.

Regarding the title of this book, I would like to say a word about the terms "Mexican" and "American," because each can be interpreted in several different ways. My use of the term "Mexican" reflects the fact that the majority of the sites I discuss lie within the current national boundaries of Mexico. Other important sites I examine do not. Copan and Quirigua, for example, are found in Honduras; Tikal, in Guatemala. Even the area of Yucatan, now contained within Mexican borders, maintained a hostile, quasi-independent status from Mexico for much of the nineteenth century (similarly, most but not all of the sites in this study were produced by the ancient Maya).

I justify using the umbrella term "Mexican" for this work because of the fluid nature of Latin American nationhood in this period. In the wake of Spain's departure from the region, it was not known to Mexicans or to foreigners whether the present-day nations of Central America would remain independent from Mexico or would eventually become absorbed by it. For foreign travelers in this region, consequently, the terms "Mexico" and "Mexican" encompassed a far greater territory than the area currently contained within the country's borders (obviously so, of course, when one considers the Mexican lands annexed by the United States following the Mexican-American War). I hope that readers will allow for the word's historical elasticity, while understanding that in the text itself I generally use the terms "Mexico" and "Mexican" only in their specific, national contexts.

Equally problematic, perhaps even more so, are the labels "America" and "American." In Chapter 2, I address the slippery history of these terms but feel it necessary to first explain my own use of them. In my title and throughout this book I use "American" and "America" as synonyms for the United States, although these terms could be applied to other nations within North America. I do this for two reasons. First, as a purely mechanical consideration, I do this because the term "United States" resists transformation into adjectival form. Second, I use the word as I do because most of the explorers from this period did so as well—even when they, too, were aware of its ambiguous meanings (and often, in fact, because they wished to exploit this ambiguity). My own usage springs from the wish for clarity and should not be interpreted as an example of chauvinism.

Concerning the historical parameters of my project, the dates 1820-1915 roughly correspond to the period between Mexican independence and revolution—two events that neatly bracket the first era of archaeological investigation in this region. This bracketing does not imply, however, that no important discoveries preceded Latin American independence or that nineteenth-century explorers in the region were the first to link archaeology and national mythmaking (the Aztecs themselves had transported Toltec artifacts to their capital as evidence of their mythologized descent from this group). It was only the publication of the ruins, however—a phenomenon that clearly postdates independence—that allowed their consumption and transformation by and for American audiences.

As for the end date of my project, one could argue that postrevolutionary Mexico witnessed the amplification of archaeological research by American explorers, rather than its diminution. Although this is true, it is important to note the disappearance of the amateur American archaeologist from this period forward; by 1915 at the latest, figures like Stephens, Charnay, or Le Plongeon had been replaced in the field by professional archaeologists working for institutions like the Smithsonian or university-affiliated museums. These professional archaeologists were not immune to institutionally sanctioned looting, it is true, yet their work was arguably more scientific in both structure and in tone.

For twentieth-century Americans, the allure of pre-Columbian Mexico increasingly lay in its foreign qualities, rather than in its potential to bolster the United States' cultural pedigree. This shift was the result of both Mexico's increased self-confidence as a nation and the United States' waning interests in territorial or historical annexation in Latin America. The United States' continued romanticization of Mexico, then, became a form of exoticism rather than misguided identification. Most importantly, of course, two dramatic developments in Maya archaeology since 1915—pinpoint archaeological dating and increasingly accurate glyph decipherment—led to the American recognition of indigenous authorship and local precedence at these sites.

Certain nineteenth-century attitudes toward the ancient Mesoamerican past, however, continue to persist—especially where local governments remain politically unstable, and when the scientific value of a site requires an aggressive claim against potential looting. In an uncanny evocation of the nineteenth-century's sometimes militaristic approach to Latin American archaeology, the Times article concerning the site at Cancuen explains:

The region is free of civil war now, Dr. Demarest said, but the government of Guatemala has little presence there, and it is still a virtually lawless place. Dr. Demarest said the expedition has mobilized and trained the people of the nearest village, El Zapote, to stand guard over the new-found palace.


“Evans has meticulously researched his subject and writes in an elegant and clear prose style that makes his book a pleasure to read.... In short, this is an outstanding scholarly book that should be of interest to Mayanists, art historians, and students of American literature and history.”
The Americas

“Romancing the Maya will be required (and enjoyable) reading for students of the Maya. And its careful analysis of visual expositions -- including the subjective uses of photography -- makes it especially appropriate for the undergraduate classroom.”
The Journal of Latin American Anthropology

“This work will appeal to general readers because of its subject: ancient Mexico and its first investigators. The archaeologists treated here are some of the most fascinating and rakish in the history of the field. Some were real Indiana Jones types.Khristaan”
Villela Director, Thaw Art History Center, College of Santa Fe


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