Augustus Le Plongeon

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Augustus Henry Julian Le Plongeon was a British-American antiquarian and photographer who studied the pre-Columbian ruins of America, particularly those of the Maya civilization on the northern Yucatán Peninsula. While his writings contain many notions that were not well received by his contemporaries and were later disproven, Le Plongeon left a lasting legacy in his photographs documenting the ancient ruins. He was one of the earliest supporters of Mayanism. [1]

Early Life

Augustus Henry Julian Le Plongeon was born on May 4, 1826. 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. Le Plongeon started full time research on the Maya civilization, and 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 exploration.

Expedition in Peru

He traveled extensively all over Peru for eight years visiting and photographing the ancient ruins, including making photographs for E. G. Squier's expedition. Le Plongeon was influenced by the work of Charles Étienne Brasseur de Bourbourg, John Lloyd Stephens, and Frederick Catherwood. These works, in combination with his own explorations in Peru, led Le Plongeon to believe that civilization had its origins in the New World. While in Peru Augustus became interested in the causes of earthquakes. He was able to observe the 1868 Arica earthquake and he studied the resulting damage and interviewed people about what they experienced. During this time Le Plongeon began to speak out against abuses by Jesuit priests and the Catholic Church in Peru. He left Peru in 1870 and traveled 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. It was at this time that Le Plongeon began full time research on Maya civilization, and started to use photography as a tool for his research rather than as a commercial enterprise.

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 was born in London in 1851. Her father, Henry Dixon, 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 Photographing Relics of Old London. Alice learned the techniques of photography from her father and worked as an assistant in his studio. After meeting Augustus, she became interested in ancient American civilizations and studied John L. Stephen's Incidents of Travel in Yucatan. She agreed to accompany Augustus on an archaeology expedition to study Maya ruins in Mexico. The pair left for New York to finalize preparations for the trip. They married in New York before traveling to Mexico in 1873. [2]

Expedition in the 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. They 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'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. 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.

Theories & Mayanism

By 1873, after Augustus 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 had then gone on to the Middle East where they founded Egypt. While most archaeologists of the early and mid-nineteenth century placed Maya civilization later than Egypt, the chronologies were still uncertain and Le Plongeon's theory found some limited acceptance. By the late nineteenth century most scholars, with Daniel Brinton in the vanguard, were convinced that he had failed to prove his diffusionist theory.


Some of the most compelling evidence to support Le Plogneon’s theory of cultural diffusion was the Mayas’ corbelled arch. The arches of Temple V atop the Magician’s Pyramid at Uxmal he believed, had proportions that related to the “mystic numbers 3.5.7” which he stated were used by ancient Masonic master builders. He also noted that those same proportions were found in tombs in Chaldea and Etruria, in ancient Greek structures and as part of the Great Pyramid in Egypt, and were due, he said to the Maya influence. While Uxmal provided a link to the Old World through Masonry, it was at Chichen Itza that the Le Plongeons thought they had found the Mayas' own account of their history, including an exodus to Egypt by a Maya queen. The key pieces of evidence were murals in the Upper Temple of the Jaguars, and a statue they called Chaacmol or "Thunder Paw" (now called Chacmool) which they had excavated from the Platform of the Eagles and Jaguars. In his book The Mayas and the Quiches Le Plongeon wrote, "There [at Chichen Itza], we not only see their portraits carried in bas-relief, on stone or wood, or their marble statues in the round, or represented in the mural paintings that adorn the walls of the funeral chamber [Upper Temple of the Jaguars] built to the memory of the victim, but we discover [in the Platform of the Eagles and Jaguars] the ornaments they wore, the weapons they used, nay, more, their mortal remains." His interpretation of the murals and iconography at Chichen Itza and Uxmal allowed him to develop a single generation account of the Maya elite at those sites. He also concluded that the Platform of the Eagles and Jaguars was the burial place of Chaacmol, prince consort to a dethroned Maya queen who had escaped to Egypt. He excavated the mound, and to his delight the statue of Chaacmol was recovered. The find was fortunate because it brought to light an outstanding example of Maya sculpture, but unfortunate because it convinced Le Plongeon that his iconographic interpretation, and therefore, diffusionist theories were correct. He would defend those ideas to the day he died. [3]


A collection of the works of Le Plongeon currently resides at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles. The archive contains original records covering his 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.


  1. Desmond, Lawrence Gustave. "Augustus Le Plongeon: A Fall from Archaeological Grace." In Assembling the Past: Studies in the Professionalization of Archaeology, edited by Alice B. Kehoe and Mary Beth Emmerichs. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1999.
  2. Desmond, Lawrence G. (2009) Yucatan through her eyes: Alice Dixon Le Plongeon, writer and expeditionary photographer. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
  3. Desmond, Lawrence G. 2001 Augustus Le Plongeon. In, David Carrasco, Ed., Oxford Encyclopedia of Mesoamerican Cultures, 3 Vols., New York, Oxford University Press, Vol. 2, pp. 117-118.