Ancient History & Civilisation


A full moon was shining down on the jungle. Accompanied only by an Indian guide, the American explorer and archæologist Edward Herbert Thompson—thirteen hundred years after the Mayas had left their cities and made a break for the country farther north—was riding through the New Empire that they had built for themselves, which had collapsed after the arrival of the Spaniards. He was searching for Chichén-Itzá, the largest, most beautiful, mightiest, and most splendid of all Mayan cities. Horses and men had been suffering intense hardships on the trail. Thompson’s head sagged on his breast from fatigue, and each time his horse stumbled he all but fell out of the saddle. Suddenly his guide shouted to him. Thompson woke up with a start. He looked ahead and saw a fairyland.

Above the dark treetops rose a mound, high and steep, and on top of the mound was a temple, bathed in cool moonlight. In the hush of the night it towered over the treetops like the Parthenon of some Mayan acropolis. It seemed to grow in size as they approached. The Indian guide dismounted, unsaddled his horse, and rolled out his blanket for the night’s sleep. Thompson could not tear his fascinated gaze from the great structure. While the guide prepared his bed, he sprang from his horse and continued on foot. Steep stairs overgrown with grass and bushes, and in part fallen into ruins, led from the base of the mound up to the temple. Thompson was acquainted with this architectural form, which was obviously some kind of pyramid. He was familiar, too, with the function of pyramids as known in Egypt. But this Mayan version was not a tomb, like the Pyramids of Gizeh. Externally it rather brought to mind a ziggurat, but to much greater degree than the Babylonian ziggurats it seemed to consist mostly of a stony fill providing support for the enormous stairs rising higher and higher, toward the gods of the sun and moon.

Thompson climbed up the steps. He looked at the ornamentation, the rich reliefs. On top, almost 96 feet above the jungle, he surveyed the scene. He counted one—two—three—a half-dozen scattered buildings, half-hidden in shadow, often revealed by nothing more than a gleam of moonlight on stone.

This, then, was Chichén-Itzá. From its original status as advance outpost at the beginning of the great trek to the north, it had grown into a shining metropolis, the heart of the New Empire. Again and again during the next few days Thompson climbed onto the old ruins. “I stood upon the roof of this temple one morning,” he writes, “just as the first rays of the sun reddened the distant horizon. The morning stillness was profound. The noises of the night had ceased, and those of the day were not yet begun. All the sky above and the earth below seemed to be breathlessly waiting for something. Then the great round sun came up, flaming splendidly, and instantly the whole world sang and hummed. The birds in the trees and the insects on the ground sang a grand Te Deum.Nature herself taught primal man to be a sun-worshipper and man in his heart of hearts still follows the ancient teaching.”

Thompson stood where he was, immobile and enchanted. The jungle melted away before his gaze. Wide spaces opened up, processions crept up to the temple site, music sounded, palaces became filled with reveling, the temples hummed with religious adjuration. He tried to recognize detail in the billowing forest. Then suddenly he was no longer bemused. The curtain of fancy dropped with a crash, the vision of the past vanished. The archæologist had recognized his task. For out there in the jungle green he could distinguish a narrow path, barely traced out in the weak light, a path that might lead to Chichén-Itzá’s most exciting mystery: the Sacred Well.

In the record of archæological discovery in Mexico and Yucatán, up to this point there has been no personality of Schliemann’s, Layard’s or Petrie’s stripe. There has been a lack, too, except in the trail-breaking explorations of John L. Stephens, of that piquant combination of research and adventure, of scientific success and treasure-hunting, of that romantic éclat which comes when the excavator’s spade suddenly strikes on a find of great material and intellectual value.

In one respect at least, Edward Herbert Thompson was very much the Schliemann of Yucatán, for when he pushed forward to Chichén-Itzá he was staking everything on a book that no one but himself took at all seriously. Schliemann himself could not have acted more credulously. Thompson also brings Layard to mind, for like Layard, who set out on his first expedition with only sixty pounds in his purse and one companion to guide him, he plunged into the depths of the jungle with hardly a penny of backing. And when he ran into difficulties that would have cowed any other man, he reacted with all of Petrie’s stubbornness.

When the world was excited by Stephens’s first discoveries, the question was hotly debated whether the Mayas were the descendants of the people of the lost Atlantis, one of the lost tribes of Israel, an offshoot of the primordial American Indian stock, or what not.

As a budding archæologist, Thompson defended the Atlantean theory of Mayan descent in an article published in 1879 in a popular periodical. This was one of his very first ventures into print. The special problem of origins slipped into the background of his critical consciousness, however, when he actually went to Yucatán in 1885. At this time he was twenty-five years old, the youngest man in the American consular service. Once on the spot, he had no time for theory.

It was a hunch, a mere belief, rather than a considered judgment that drew Thompson to Yucatán. Thompson took a long chance on the validity of Diego de Landa’s reports. In one of the volumes written by the bishop he discovered the story of the Sacred Well, the “Cenote” of Chichén-Itzá. Basing his account on old Mayan stories, de Landa described how, in times of drought or disaster, processions of priests and common people went to the Sacred Well of Sacrifice to propitiate the angry gods who lived in the depths. The marchers brought offerings with them to appease the deity, including beautiful maidens and captive warrior youths. After solemn ceremonies the maidens, de Landa said, were cast into the well, which was so deep that no victim ever rose to the surface.

The way of the young Mayan maidens was a path leading only to death in the terrible Cenote. They approached the brink of the pool in all their finery; then their muffled cries echoed from the walls as they struck the stagnant water.

But what else was there to Diego de Landa’s story? It was a custom, he said, to throw in rich offerings after the sacrificial victims—household utensils, ornaments, gold. Thompson had read that “if this land once contained gold, the largest part of it must be in the Well.” Generally this description had been dismissed as a quaint old tale with a great deal of rhetorical flourish and little factual basis. But Thompson accepted it as the gospel truth. He believed, and became grimly determined to prove the validity of his belief. When he looked down on the Way to the Well of Sacrifice from the pyramid platform, little did he know what toil was to be his before arriving at the goal.

When Thompson went to the well a second time many years later, he was an experienced jungle-man. He had roamed the length of Yucatán from north to south, his eyes had been sharpened for the task of penetrating ancient mysteries. All about him were magnificent structures, begging to be explored, offering a wonderful challenge to any archæologist. But Thompson instead turned to the well, a dark pit filled with slimy water, stones, and the woody debris of generations. Even if Diego de Landa’s story were based on fact, was there the least prospect of finding in this stinking, inky hole the treasure that the priests had allegedly thrown in after their victims?

How go about exploring the depths of the well? Thompson had an adventurous answer: by the use of diving apparatus.

Having returned to the United States to attend a scientific congress, Thompson set about trying to raise money for his project. He finally got what he wanted, though everyone who listened to his plan thought him mad. “No person,” he reports them as saying, “can go down into the unknown depths of that great water pit and expect to come out alive. If you want to commit suicide, why not seek a less shocking way of doing it?” But Thompson had weighed the pros and cons, and made up his mind.

“My next step was to go to Boston and take lessons in deep-sea diving,” he writes. “My tutor was Captain Ephraim Nickerson, who passed to his reward a score of years ago. Under his expert and patient teaching, I became in time a fairly good diver, but by no means a perfect one, as I was to learn some time later. My next move was to adapt to my purpose an ‘orange-peel bucket’ dredge with the winch, tackles, steel cables, and ropes of a stiff-legged derrick and a thirty-foot swinging boom. All this material was crated and ready for immediate shipment when ordered by either letter or wire.”

At last he was back at the well. The hole, at its widest point, was some 187 feet across. With the sounding lead he determined the depth of the slimy waters as approximately eighty feet. He shaped wooden logs like human beings, attached ropes to them, and threw them into the water about as far as the sacrificial maidens, in his judgment, could have been hurled by the priests when they were providing brides for the gruesome god down below. By measuring the rope after it had been hauled in, he was able to establish the greatest distance that the girls could have been tossed. The idea was simple: to localize the search at the bottom of the well. Once this had been done, Thompson set to work with his dredge.

“I doubt,” he writes, “if anybody can realize the thrill I felt when, with four men at the winch handles and one at the brake, the dredge, with its steel jaw agape, swung from the platform, hung poised for a brief moment in mid-air over the dark pit and then, with a long swift glide downward, entered the still, dark waters and sank smoothly on its quest. A few moments of waiting to allow the sharp-pointed teeth to bite into the deposit, and then the forms of the workmen bent over the winch handles and muscles under the dark brown skin began to play like quicksilver as the steel cables tautened under the strain of the upcoming burden.

“The water, until then still as an obsidian mirror, began to surge and boil around the cable and continued to do so long after the bucket, its tightly closed jaws, dripping clear water, had risen, slowly but steadily, up to the rim of the pit. Swinging around by the boom, the dredge deposited on the planked receiving platform, a cartload of dark brown material, wood punk, dead leaves, broken branches, and other debris; then it swung back and hung, poised ready to seek another load.… Once it brought up, gripped lightly in its jaws, the trunk of a tree apparently as sound as if toppled into the pit by a storm of yesterday. This was on a Saturday. By Monday the tree had vanished and on the pile of rocks where the dredge had deposited it only a few lines of wood fiber remained, surrounded by a dark stain of a pyroligneous character. Another time the dredge brought up the bones of a jaguar and those of a deer, mute evidence of a forest tragedy.”

And so the work went on, day after day. The dredge would breech the surface of the pool with a load of mud and slime, with stones and branches, with the skeleton of an animal that in some time of drought, smelling the waters of the Well of Sacrifice, had come to drink and drowned. The sun burned down on the men, the stench of decay rose from the water and came in billows from the piles of muck that towered higher and higher about the rim of the pool (see Plate XXXI).

“I began to get nervous by day and sleepless by night,” says Thompson. “ ‘Is it possible,’ I asked myself, ‘that I have let my friends into all this expense and exposed myself to a world of ridicule only to prove, what many have contended, that these traditions are simply old tales, tales without any foundation in fact?’ ”

Then came the day when Thompson dredged up strange, yellowish-white, resinous lumps, which he retrieved from the muck. He smelled them, he even tasted them. Happily he thought of holding the resinous substance over the fire; a stupefying perfume spread on the air. Thompson had found Mayan incense at the bottom of the well, perfumed resin burned during sacrifice.

Did this prove that Thompson was on the right track? Two small pieces of sacred resin—could they discount mountains of muck and slime? For most people they would have proved exactly nothing, but their effect on Thompson was electric. His fancy took wing. “That night for the first time in weeks,” he writes, “I slept soundly and long.”

And Thompson carried the day. Piece after piece of the long-awaited treasure came to light, one object after another. Implements and ornaments, vases and lanceheads, obsidian knives and bowls of jadeite were lifted from the depths. Presently the first human skeleton was found. Diego de Landa had told the truth.

Before Thompson came to “the weirdest part of the weird undertaking,” by chance he discovered the meaning of an old Mayan tradition. Diego de Landa, the bishop, had shown him the Way to the Well, but it was Don Diego Sarmiento de Figueroa, alcalde of Madrid in 1579, who turned Thompson’s attention to the sacrificial rites connected with the Well of Sacrifice. According to Figueroa’s account, which at first Thompson thought obscure to the point of being incomprehensible:

“The lords and principal personages of the land had the custom, after sixty days of abstinence and fasting, of arriving by daybreak at the mouth of the Cenote and throwing into it Indian women belonging to each of these lords and personages, at the same time telling these women to ask for their masters a year favorable to his particular needs and desires.

“The women, being thrown in unbound, fell into the water with great force and noise. At high noon those that could cried out loudly and ropes were let down to them. After the women came up, half dead, fires were built around them and copal incense was burned before them. When they recovered their senses, they said that below there were many people of their nation, men and women, and that they received them. When they tried to raise their heads to look at them, heavy blows were given them on the head, and when their heads were inclined downward beneath the water they seemed to see many deeps and hollows, and they, the people, responded to their queries concerning the good or the bad year that was in store for their masters.”

This story, on the surface mere fable, gave Thompson, who was always on the alert for historical nuclei, many a puzzling hour. One day, however, he was sitting on the flat scow that had been lowered into the pool for use in diving operations. The scow was moored sixty or more feet below the overhang of the cliff, beneath the spot where the derrick had been set up. Looking over the low gunwale of the scow, Thompson saw something that gave him a start. “It was the key,” he says, “to the story of the women messengers in the old tradition.”

“The water … of the Well of Sacrifice,” he goes on to explain, “is … dark-colored and turbid, changing in hue at times from brown to jade green and even to a blood red, as I shall later describe, but it is always so turbid that it reflects the light like a mirror rather than deflecting it like a crystal.

“Looking over the gunwale of the pontoon and downward to the water surface, I could see, as if looking down through great depths, ‘many deeps and hollows.’ They were in reality the reflections of the cavities and hollow places in the side of the cliff directly above me.

“When they recovered their senses, the women had said: ‘Below, there were many people of their nation and they … responded to our queries.’ As I continued to gaze into those deeps and hollows, I saw below many people of their nation, and they, too, responded. They were the heads and parts of the bodies of my workmen, leaning over the brink of the well to catch a glimpse of the pontoon. Meanwhile they conversed in low tones and the sound of their voices, directed downward, struck the water surface and was deflected upward to my ears in words softly sounding in native accent, yet intelligible. The whole episode gave me an explanation of the old tradition that developed as clearly as the details of a photographic negative.

“The natives of the region have long asserted that at times the waters of the Sacred Well turn to blood. We found that the green color the water sometimes shows was caused by the growth of a microscopic algæ; its occasional brown hue was caused by decaying leaves; and certain flowers and seed capsules, blood-red in color, at times gave the surface of the water an appearance like that of clotted blood.

“I mention these discoveries to show why I have come to believe that all authentic traditions have a basis of fact and can always be explained by a sufficiently close observation of the conditions.”

The most difficult part of the project was yet to come, but Thompson was now to achieve a success that put all his previous ones in the shade. As the dredge went down again and again, never bringing up much besides a few stones, Thompson saw that the time had come to search with his own hands for the objects that the jaws of the dredge were letting slip through.

“Nicolas, a Greek diver with whom I had previously made arrangements,” Thompson writes, “arrived from the Bahamas where he had been gathering sponges. He brought an assistant, also a Greek, and we prepared at once for under-water exploration.

“We first rigged the air pump in the boat, no longer a scow but once more a dignified pontoon, and then the two Greeks, turned instructors, taught a chosen gang of natives how to manage the pumps and send through the tube, in a steady current, the air upon which our lives depended, and how to read and answer signals sent up from below. When they considered that the men were letter perfect, we were ready to dive.

“We rode down to the pontoon in the basin of the dredge, and, while the assistant took his place by the men at the pump to direct them, we put on our suits, outfits of waterproof canvas with big copper helmets weighing more than thirty pounds and equipped with plate-glass goggle-eyes and air valves near the ears, lead necklaces nearly half as heavy as the helmets and canvas shoes with thick wrought-iron soles. With the speaking tube, air hose, and life-line carefully adjusted, I toddled, aided by the assistant, to where a short, wide ladder fastened to the gunwale led down into the water.

“As I stepped on the first rung of the ladder, each of the pumping gang, my faithful native boys, left his place in turn and with a very solemn face shook hands with me and then went back again to wait for the signal. It was not hard to read their thoughts. They were bidding me a last farewell, never expecting to see me again. Then, releasing my hold on the ladder, I sank like a bag of lead, leaving behind me a silvery chain of bubbles.

“During the first ten feet of descent, the light rays changes from yellow to green and then to purplish black. After that I was in utter darkness. Sharp pains shot through my ears, because of the increasing air pressure. When I gulped and opened the air valves in my helmet a sound like ‘pht! pht!’ came from each ear and then the pain ceased. Several times this process had to be repeated before I stood on the bottom. I noted another curious sensation on my way down. I felt as if I were rapidly losing weight until, as I stood on the flat end of a big stone column that had fallen from the old ruined shrine above, I seemed to have almost no weight at all. I fancied that I was more like a bubble than a man clogged by heavy weights.

“But I felt as well a strange thrill when I realized that I was the only living being who had ever reached this place alive and expected to leave it again still living. Then the Greek diver came down beside me and we shook hands.

“I had brought with me a submarine flashlight and a submarine telephone, both of which I discarded after the first descent. The submarine flashlight was serviceable in clear water or water merely turbid. The medium in which we had to work was neither water nor mud, but a combination of both, stirred up by the workings of the dredge. It was a thick mixture like gruel and no ray as feeble as that of a flashlight could ever penetrate it. So we had to work in utter darkness; yet, after a short time, we hardly felt the fact to be a serious inconvenience; for the palpic whorls of our finger-ends seemed not only to distinguish objects by the sense of touch, but actually to aid in distinguishing color.

“The submarine telephone was of very little use and was soon laid aside. Communication by the speaking-tube and the life-line was easier and even quicker than by telephone. There was another strange thing that I have never heard mentioned by other divers. Nicolas and I found that at the depth we were working, from sixty to eighty feet, we could sit down and put our noses together—the noses of our helmets, be it understood—and could then talk to each other quite intelligibly. Our voices sounded flat and lifeless as ifcoming from a great distance, but I could give him my instructions and I could hear his replies quite clearly.

“The curious loss of weight under water led me into several ludicrous mishaps before I became accustomed to it. In order to go from place to place on the bottom, I had only to stand up and push with my foot on the rock bottom. At once I would rise like a rocket, sail majestically through the mud gruel and often land several feet beyond where I wanted to go.

“The well itself is, roughly speaking, an oval with one hundred and eighty-seven feet as its longer diameter. From the jungle surface above to the water surface varied from sixty-seven to eighty feet. Where the water surface commenced could be ascertained easily, but where it left off and the mud of the bottom began was not so easy to determine, for the lines of demarcation did not exist. However, I can roughly estimate that of the total depth of mud and water, about sixty-five feet, thirty feet was a mud deposit sufficiently consistent to sustain tree-branches and even tree-roots of considerable size. About eighteen feet of this deposit was so compact that it held large rocks, fallen columns, and wall stones. Into this mud and silt deposit the dredge had bitten until it had left what I called the ‘fertile zone’ with a vertical wall of mud almost as hard as rock at the bottom and fully eighteen feet high. In this were embedded rocks of varied shapes and sizes, as raisins are embedded in plum puddings.

“Imagine us, then, searching in the darkness, with these mud walls all about us, exploring the cracks and the crevices of the rough limestone bottom for the objects that the dredge had failed to bring up to the light of day. Imagine also that every little while one of the stone blocks, loosened from its place in the wall by the infiltration of the water, would come plunging down upon us in the worse than Stygian darkness that was all about us. After all, it was not so bad as it sounds. It is true that the big blocks fell when and where they would and we were powerless to direct or even to see them, but so long as we kept our speaking-tubes, air hose and life-line and ourselves well away from the wall surface we were in no special danger. As the rock masses fell, the push of the water before and around them reached us before the rock did and even if we did not get away of our own accord, it struck us like a huge, soft cushion and sent us caroming, often head down and feet upward, balancing and tremulous like the white of an egg in a glassful of water, until the commotion had subsided and we could get on our feet again. Had we incautiously been standing with our backs to the wall, we should have been sheared in two as cleanly as if by a pair of gigantic shears and two more victims would have been sacrificed to the Rain God.

“The present natives of the region believe that big snakes and strange monsters live in the dark depths of the Sacred Well. Whether this belief is due to some faint remembrance of the old serpent worship, or is based upon something seen by some of the natives, can only be guessed at. I have seen big snakes and lizards swimming in these waters, but they were only snakes and lizards that in chasing their prey through the trees above had fallen into the pool and were trying to get out. We saw no traces of any reptiles or monsters of unusual size anywhere in the pool.

“No strange reptile ever got me in its clutches, but I had one experience that is worth repeating. Both of us, the Greek diver and I, were busily digging with our fingers in a narrow crevice of the floor and it was yielding such rich returns that we neglected some of our usual precautions. Suddenly I felt something over us, an enormous something that with a stealthy gliding movement was pressing down on me. Something smooth and slimy was pushing me irresistibly into the mud. For a moment my blood ran cold. Then I felt the Greek beside me pushing at the object and I aided him until we had worked ourselves free. It was the decaying trunk of a tree that had drifted off the bank of mud and in sinking had encountered my stooping body.

“One day I was seated on a rock gloating over a remarkable find, a moulded bell of metal, and I quite forgot to open the air valves as I should have done. I put the find in my pouch and rose to change my position, when suddenly I began to float upward like an inflated bladder. It was ludicrous, but also dangerous, for at this depth the blood is charged with bubbles like champagne and unless one rises slowly and gives the blood time to become normal, a terrible disease called the ‘bends’ results, from which one can die in terrible agony. Luckily I had enough presence of mind to open the valves before going up very far and so escaped the extreme penalty, but I suffer the effects of my carelessness today in a pair of injured ear drums and greatly impaired hearing.

“Even after I had opened the valves and was rising more and more slowly, I struck the bottom of the pontoon topsy-turvy, half dazed by the concussion. Then, realizing what had happened and laughing at the thought of the fright my boys must have had when they heard me thump on the bottom of the boat, I scrambled from under it and threw my arm over the gunwale. As my helmet appeared over the side I felt a pair of arms thrown around my neck and startled eyes looked into the plate-glass goggles of my helmet. As they took off my diving-suit and I rested on a seat, getting back into normal condition and enjoying a cup of hot black coffee and the sunlight, the young Greek told me the story.

“ ‘The men,’ he said, ‘turned a pale yellow with terror when they heard the knock on the bottom that announced your unexpected arrival. When I told them what it was, they shook their heads mournfully and one of them, faithful old Juan Mis, said: ‘It’s no use,El Amo the master is dead. He was swallowed by the Serpent God and spewed up again. We shall never hear him speak to us again’; and his eyes filled with tears. When your helmet came over the gunwale and he looked into its window, he raised both arms high abovehis head and said with great thankfulness, ‘Thank God, he is still alive, and laughing.’

“As for the results of our dredging and diving into the great water pit, the first and most important is that we proved that in all essential details the traditions about the Sacred Well are true. Then we found a great store of symbolical figures carved on jade stone and beaten on gold and copper disks, copal masses and nodules of resin incense, many skeletal remains, a number of hul chés, or dart-throwers, and many darts with finely worked points of flint, calcite, and obsidian; and some bits of ancient fabric. All these had real archæological value. Objects of nearly pure gold were encountered, both cast, beaten, and engraved in repoussé, but they were few in number and relatively unimportant. Most of the so-called gold objects were of low-grade alloy, with more copper than gold in them. That which gave them their chief value were the symbolical and other figures cast or carved upon them.

“Most of the objects brought up were in fragments. Probably they were votive offerings broken before being thrown into the well, as a ritualistic act performed by the priests. The breaking was always in such a way that the head and features of the personages represented on jade plaque or gold disk were left intact. We have reason to believe that these jade pendants, gold disks, and other ornaments of metal or stone when broken were considered to have been killed. It is known that these ancient civilized races of America believed, as did their still more ancient forbears of northern Asia and as the Mongols to this day believe, that jade and other sacred objects have life. Accordingly these ornaments were broken or ‘killed’ that their spirits might serve as ornaments to the messenger, whose spirit would be appropriately adorned when it finally appeared before the Hunal Ku, the One Supreme God in the Heavens.”

When Thompson’s report of his finds in the Sacred Well reached the public, the world pricked up its ears. The circumstances of the finds were so unusual, the treasure brought to safety out of the soupy silt of the pool so rich, that the whole affair was bound to attract notice. Yet in truth the material value was of secondary consideration.

“The value in money of the objects recovered from the Sacred Well with so much labor and at such expense is, to be sure, insignificant,” Thompson writes. “But the value of all things is relative. The historian delves into the past as the engineer digs into the ground, and for the same reason, to make the future secure. It is conceivable that some of these objects have graved upon their surfaces, embodied in symbols, ideas and beliefs that reach back through the ages to the primal homes of these peoples in that land beyond the seas. To help prove that is well worth the labor of a lifetime.”

Even so, the value of the treasure of Chichén-Itzá has been surpassed in our time only by the treasure of Tutankhamen. The gold of the Pharaoh had been found interred with a mummy, laid to rest in a stately tomb. But the gold of the Cenote was fished out from among the bones of young maidens who had been hurled, screaming, into eternity by cruel priests as offerings to cruel gods. Had ever one of the girls pulled a priest into the water with her? Among the many female skulls Thompson found one of a man, a skull with the protuberant glabellæ of an old man. A priest’s?

When Thompson died, in 1935, he had no cause for regretting the way he had spent his life, though he himself says that he squandered most of his substance investigating the ancient Mayas. During the twenty-four years that he served as United States consul in Yucatán, and in nearly fifty years of archæological digging, he had seldom seen the inside of an office. He roamed the jungle and lived with the Indians, literally sharing their lot, eating their food, sleeping in their huts, speaking their languages. An infection left him with a lame leg, and diving into the Sacred Well resulted in a chronic disturbance of his hearing. His work shows all the signs of excessive enthusiasm. His first reports often overshot the mark by far. Once, when he found several super-imposed graves in a pyramid, and later the main grave in the rock beneath the base of the pyramid, it seemed to him that he had discovered the last resting place of Kukulcan, the fabled primeval teacher of the Mayan people. Finding precious ornaments of jadeite that had been quarried at considerable distance from Yucatán, he immediately revived his old Atlantean theory of Mayan origin, though by this time he was an experienced archæologist. And yet is not enthusiasm a necessary thing? How else still crippling doubts if not with the exuberance of the ever hopeful?

Meanwhile extensive excavations have been carried out in Yucatán, Chiapas, and Guatemala. More recently airplanes have proved useful in archæological exploration of this difficult terrain. Colonel Charles Lindbergh was the first to photograph bird’s-eye views of a civilization that was already hoary with age when Cortés discovered the New World. In 1930 P. C. Madeira, Jr., and J. A. Mason flew over the virgin forest of Middle America, and from the air photographed and mapped hitherto unknown Mayan islands of settlement in the jungle.

Most recently, in 1947, an expedition was sent to Bonampak in Chiapas. Discoveries were made that appear to have added significantly to the already rich finds of the past. The expedition was financed by the United Fruit Company and scientifically sponsored by the Carnegie Institute of Washington. The United Fruit Company expedition was led by Giles Greville Healey. In a short time eleven fine temples of the Old Empire period were found, dating back to the years immediately preceding the great migration, and also some magnificent stelæ, one of them twice as large as any previously discovered. This stele is 19.2 feet high and covered with carvings. But the most wonderful thing brought to light by Healey in the jungle was the wall paintings. The once brilliant red, yellow, ocher, green, and blue colors were revealed by technical means, and showed warriors, kings, and priests in full ceremonial costume. Pictures of this sort had been found before only at Chichén-Itzá in the Temple of the Warriors.

The most intensively excavated Mayan site has been Chichén-Itzá, the Mayan metropolis. The contemporary visitor is greeted by an altogether different sight from the one that met the eyes of Thompson on that memorable moonlit night. The jungle has now been cleared away from the ruins, allowing them to rise free and well-kept out of open spaces. The tourists come in buses over roads originally hacked out of the forest with machetes. They look at the Temple of the Warriors, with its northwest colonnade, just inside of which begin the steep stairs leading to the platform top of the pyramid. They see the great observatory, a circular structure with windows so placed as to focus the eye on certain astronomical lines of sight. They wander through the ball courts, the largest of which, in the northern part of the city, is 545 feet long and 225 feet wide on the outside. Here the Mayan jeunesse dorée played a game somewhat resembling basketball. And they come at last to the “Castillo,” the biggest of the pyramids. The steps mount the eight terraces of the edifice, which on its upper platform bears the Temple of Kukulcan, the Plumed Serpent (see Plate XXIX).

The onlooker is overwhelmed when he looks into the terrible stone visages at close range, the monstrous snake-heads, the gargoyle gods, the screaming jaguars. And he is taken aback again when he discovers that every symbol, picture, and relief is related to some astronomical number. The two crosses on the eyebrows of a serpent-head; a jaguar claw at the ear of the god Kukulcan; a gate-like shape; a series of “shells”; a recurrent step form—all these glyphs expressed number and time. Nowhere in the world have these categories been coupled with such terrifying forms of artistic expression. (Graham Greene, the English novelist, who hates all ruins, and who took a trip some ten years ago through Mexico and Yucatán, remarks that: “Here heresy was not a confusion of human feeling—as for example Manichæism—but a mistake in reckoning!… One expects to see a quod erat demonstrandum [he is referring to pyramids in general and that of Teotihuacán in particular]—the pyramids correctly added, the number of the terraces multiplied by the number of steps and divided by the total area—and a result as inhuman as an algebraic problem!”) Realizing that frozen mathematics can be a hell, the thoughtful visitor looks around for some signs of life in the ornamentation, at least for a plant motif. And, behold, he discovers that the whole magnificent body of plastic works produced by the Mayas, though they literally depended for their lives on the maize plant and were surrounded by the rankest, lushest sort of vegetation, is remarkable for a scarcity of plant forms. Of the eight hundred species of cactus in the region, not one has given rise to a decorative device, and only a few of the innumerable kinds of flowers were ever reproduced in stone. Recently a five-sectioned ornamental figure has been identified as the blossom of the Bombax aquaticum, a tree that grows half in water, and is considered a rarity in Mayan art. Even the columns of Mayan architecture represent the erect bodies of hideous snakes with darting tongues (see Plate XXX), whereas in architecture elsewhere in the world the upward-thrusting tree trunk is the usual inspiration.

Two of these serpent columns are found in front of the Temple of Warriors. The snake’s horned head is pressed to the ground, the mouth gapes wide, with the body stretching a short distance flat on the ground, then rising vertically to support the temple roof. The feathered serpent columns and the whole Temple of the Warriors—indeed, almost all the structures in Chichén-Itzá—convinced the archæologists that here they were dealing with a special architectural style. The general motif of Chichén-Itzá did not accord completely with the New Empire style, as distinguished from that of the Old Empire. Certain features set it apart from the architecture of Copán and Palenque, Piedras Négras and Uaxactún. An intensive study was made of Chichén-Itzá artifacts. The archæologists tested and compared, here a line, there an ornamental figure, here a ceremonial mask, there an intercalary glyph. They concluded that alien hands had been at work in Chichén-Itzá. There were definite signs of foreign thinking and foreign techniques.

But where did this intrusive influence come from? The archæologists turned their attention to central Mexico, though not to the architecture of the Aztec empire, which was much younger than the Mayas, but to those buildings which were already ancient when the Aztecs invaded Mexico.

Was there no historical evidence, no guide like Diego de Landa, who might lead to the understanding of the astounding fact that the mighty Mayan culture had once yielded to a foreign influence? Was there no one who at least might give a hint as to the origins of these great “architects” from outside the Mayan kingdom?

There was a man whose allusions to this paradox had been known for a long time, but who never before had been accorded serious attention. He was an Aztec prince, Ixtlilxochitl—a perfectly amazing man.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!