Augustus Le Plongeon

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Augustus Henry Julian Le Plongeon[1]

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. [2]

Early Life

Augustus Henry Julian Le Plongeon was born on May 4, 1826. Le Plongeon was born on the island of Jersey off the coast of Normandy, France on May 4th, 1825. At the age of 19 he sailed to South America and was shipwrecked off the coast of Chile. He settled in Valparaiso, a major city and sea port in Chile. While there he taught at a local college. In 1849, he sailed for San Francisco to participate in the California Gold Rush as a surveyor. As a surveyor during the Gold Rush he laid out the plans for Maryville, California. He also apprenticed to become a doctor of medicine. [3] Le Plongeon's initial contact with archaeology came in the 1860s while he was working in Peru as a photographer. The use of photography for documentation and research was obvious to Le Plongeon who was familiar with the pioneering photographic work of Maxime du Camp and Francis Frith in Egypt. 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. [4]

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. [5] 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. [6]

Alice Dixon Le Plongeon

While in London he met Alice Dixon, the woman with whom he would collaborate for the rest of his life. According to Alice, after she first met Augustus, Alice told her mother, "Mother, while I was out today I met him who I know that I shall have to marry by and by." 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. [7]

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 goal was to explore the possibility of links between the Maya and the civilizations of ancient Egypt and Atlantis. Their first stop was in Mérida and they stayed there while Alice recovered from yellow fever. During her recuperation, the couple made connections with local scholars and both Augustus and Alice learned to speak Yucatec Maya. [6] 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). They used photography to record what they considered evidence of those connections, but also attempted a thorough photographic record of the sites for future research. Their photographic work was methodical and systematic, and they took hundreds of 3-D stereo 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 dark rooms of Maya buildings. In addition to entire facades of buildings, they also photographed small artifacts, and architectural details such as bas reliefs, hieroglyphic texts, and sculptures. Each negative was exposed and processed with great care, and often it took several attempts before the sharpness and exposure were considered acceptable. 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. Sometime later, rudimentary archeological instinct led Augustus Le Plongeon to a small mound where he found a large sculpture of a reclining male. The legend of Moo came to archeological life; the sculpture could only be the figure of Prince Chaacmol, the youngest brother and consort of the Queen. The legend of Queen Moo and Chaacmol was to preoccupy the Le Plongeons for the rest of their lives. [8]

Le Plongeon leaning on a chacmool sculpture. [9]

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. His reading of Abbé Brassuer de Bourboug’s work on ancient Central American and Mexican cultures led him to consider the notion that civilization had its beginnings in the New World, and, after reading John Lloyd Stephens’ and Frederick Catherwood’s accounts of Central America and Yucatan, to form the notion that perhaps the Maya had disseminated civilization. Le Plongeon insisted that the symbols of Freemasonry could be traced to the ancient Maya and that the 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. 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. [4] Le Plongeon’s interpretation of what he saw and found at Chichén Itzá has been called by some authors as “inventive.” He had that “blank slate” previously mentioned, and could fill it with whatever he wanted, sometimes bending the physical archaeological record accordingly. One of Le Plongeon’s first “inventive” interpretation of what he saw at Chichén Itzá had to do with a Maya rope design he saw as part of a temple’s frontal carvings. He declared that the Maya had an ancient telegraph system that spanned the globe and connected it to other civilizations and colonies it had throughout the world. One of the biggest licenses he took with what he was uncovering was when he discovered a series of wall carvings on El Castillo, also now known as the Temple of Kukulcán. Not only did Le Plongeon claim that one of the portraits of the warriors on the temple looked like him, he claimed that he was the reincarnation of that warrior, and that he had actually lived at Chichén Itzá in its heyday as one of its rulers. He communicated his beliefs, or assertions, to the Maya crew working with him and they believed him. He did have a strange knack for finding important artifacts, everyone would agree, and so maybe, some thought, there was truth to what he was saying. He and his wife Alice would pioneer a new pseudoscientific field while in Mexico, that of “psychic archaeology.” They came upon major artifacts, they claimed, by using a unique blend of supposed psychic abilities, intuition, and channeling spirits to help them with their finds. [10]


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. [4]

A Fall from Archaeological Grace

If Le Plongeon had continued to document only Uxmal and Chichen Itza, avoiding all but the most minor of interpretations, he might be regarded today as one of the fathers of American archaeology. Unfortunately, he deemed his interpretations just as significant as his documentation. When he began his writings on the Maya and Egypt he found few who would oppose his conclusions. He could juggle the origins of the two civilizations with little worry of contradiction. But, within a few years of his first pronouncements, he was faced with new data that placed the Maya much later than ancient Egypt. And even before 1896 when he published what he considered his most important work, serious doubts were being raised about his theories. But, it seems there was more to the dispute than a rarified theoretical argument about the merits of cultural diffusion. The feuds with colleagues that began in the 1880s may have also contributed to his downfall. In 1881 Le Plongeon began writing to his patron Stephen Salisbury, Jr. about the incompetence of Louis Aymé, American Consul in Merida, as a photographer and archaeologist, but the complaints fell on what, he felt, were deaf ears. Thus in 1882 Le Plongeon resigned from the Society with an angry letter filled with accusations against Aymé. Two years later as part of their documentation at Chichen Itza, the Le Plongeons made tracings of the murals in the Upper Temple of the Jaguars. The murals were already in a bad state of decay due to the tropical heat and humidity, but Alice Le Plongeon reported in an article published by the Scientific American in August, 1884, that she and Augustus Le Plongeon had been told by soldiers in their escort that the American Consul in Merida, Louis Aymé, had defaced the murals, attempting to clean them by "scratching" the dirt off with a machete. Possibly having heard of the impending the Scientific American article through connections in the very small Merida community, Aymé wrote to Stephen Salisbury, Jr. in June 1884, "I have decided that I will not return to Merida as U.S. Consul," and petitioned his friends in high places for a position in Peru. "I shall invoke your aid and the powerful influence of Senator Hoar on my behalf". Augustus Le Plongeon's victory over Aymé in 1884 solved nothing, and turmoil continued in his professional life. Within a few months of Le Plongeon's resignation from the American Antiquarian Society in 1882, Phillip J. J. Valentini published his article, "The Olmecas and the Tultecas," in the Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society , and in it, two of Le Plongeon's photographs of bearded figures in bas-relief taken at Chichen Itza. The photos were published without the permission of Le Plongeon. And to make matters worse, Valentini's photo captions stated the beards on the photographed bas-relief figures had been retouched into the photos by Le Plongeon in order to bolster his diffusionist theories. The original negatives and prints are not retouched. [2]


Augustus Le Plongeon was representative of many mid-nineteenth century explorer scholars, an educated man who was unencumbered by the geographic or disciplinary boundaries that were being forged at the time and that he chose to ignore if they did not fit his need or worldview. His experiences around the world must have led him to think that with a little research and experimentation he could discover or prove any hunch or perfect any process. [11] By the 1880s, while other Americanists fully accepted that the Maya post-dated Egypt, Le Plongeon refused to yield to the new findings. He stood by his years of field and archival studies, and challenged those he considered "arm chair" archaeologists to debate the issues. But the chronology and evidence against cultural diffusion was overwhelming, and he very quickly found himself ignored, his theories condemned to the fringe of the new profession. Augustus Le Plongeon spent his final twenty-three years in Brooklyn, New York, writing about the Maya and Egypt and defending himself against detractors. He died in Brooklyn in 1908 at the age of eighty-three; Alice died two years later when she was fifty-nine. While the conclusions of Augustus Le Plongeon have not stood the test of time, the photos of Augustus and Alice remain an important contribution to American archaeology. [4] 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. [12]


  1. Le Plongeon, A. D. (1900). Augustus Le Plongeon. Queen Móo and the Egyptian Sphinx (p. 12). photograph, Washington DC.
  2. 2.0 2.1 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.
  3. Masonry Today. (2021, May 4). Today in Masonic History Augustus Le Plongeon is Born. Today in Masonic History - Augustus Le Plongeon is Born. Retrieved December 10, 2021, from
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 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.
  5. Guynn, Beth Ann. "Finding Aid for Augustus and Alice Dixon Le Plongeon Papers". Getty Research Institute.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Desmond, Lawrence G. (2009) Yucatan through her eyes: Alice Dixon Le Plongeon, writer and expeditionary photographer. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
  7. Desmond, Lawrence; Messenger, Phyllis (1988). A Dream of Maya. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. ISBN 0-8263-1000-1.
  8. Fagan, Brian. “THE CRADLE OF CIVILIZATION?” The New York Times, 23 Oct. 1988, p. 30.
  9. Kehoe, Alice B. Ethnohistory, vol. 37, no. 2, Duke University Press, 1990, pp. 195–97,
  10. Bitto, Robert. “The Lost Continent of Mu & the Mexican Mother Civilization.” Mexico Unexplained, 25 June 2018,
  11. Desmond, Lawrence G. 1988 Of Facts and Hearsay: Bringing Augustus Le Plongeon into Focus.In, Andrew L. Christenson, Ed., Tracing Archaeology's Past, Southern Illinois University Press, pp.139-150.
  12. Augustus and Alice Dixon Le Plongeon Photographs of Chichén Itza, Uxmal and Yucatán, The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, Accession no. 2007.R.8.