Augustus Le Plongeon (1825-1908) was a photographer, antiquarian and amateur archaeologist. He 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 which 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.
He wrote a lengthy history of Maya culture, going so far as to propose a theory that Maya had founded Ancient Egypt, a theory which has since been discredited by the scientific community. Le Plongeon, a Freemason, was convinced that the roots of Freemasonry were to be found in the ancient Maya culture. In general, his theories were considered to be somewhat outlandish by near-contemporaries and later Mayanist scholars such as Désiré Charnay, Teoberto Maler and Alfred Maudslay, and he is regarded today as one of the more eccentric characters to have worked in the field. However, as a pioneer in producing photographic records of Maya sites and inscriptions, Le Plongeon's works and images retain at least a curio value to later researchers and in several cases preserve the appearance of sites and objects which were subsequently damaged.
After graduation, at the age of 19, he sailed to South America and was caught in a shipwreck off the coast of Chile. While there he settled in Valparaiso and taught mathematics, drawing, and languages at a local college. In 1849, news of the California gold rush reached him, and he sailed to San Francisco 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 then moved to England and studied photography later in 1851. After learning photography, 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 yet another photography studio and an "electro-hydropathic" medical clinic.
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 Etienne Brasseur de Bourbourg culminated in a stirring belief that civilization had its origins in the New World.
Augustus le Plongeon also had the opportunity to learn the technology of creating photographic negatives directly from the father of modern photography, William Fox Talbot in 1873.
After he had made what he considered to be a complete comparative study of Maya and Egyptian religion, linguistics, and architecture, he concluded that Maya culture had been diffused throughout Southeast Asia by Maya travelers who then went on to the lost continent of Atlantis and subsequently the Middle East to found Egyptian civilization. While most archaeologists of the early and mid-nineteenth century placed the Maya civilization later than Egypt, the chronologies were still relatively uncertain and Le Plongeon's theory found some adherents.
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's 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 Mu, which he interpreted as Atlantis.
Le Plongeon 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. He named kings and queens of these dynasties, and said that various artworks were portraits of such ancient royalty (such as the famous Chac Mool). He claimed that the ancient Maya understood the use of the electric telegraph. Le Plongeon wrote that the sites of the central lowlands were not Maya at all, but were built by a different people much later than the sites of Yucatán. He attributed the construction of Palenque to people from Polynesia. All of this is now known to be false, and most was considered very dubious by Le Plongeon's contemporaries.
He was never fully recognized for his work in the Yucatán, but his over five hundred photos 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.
Le Plongeon photographs of Uxmal. http://academic.reed.edu/uxmal/contents.html