Time patrol: Land of the Maya

The pyramid of the Magician. Uxmal. c.1882. Désiré Charnay expedition. Charnay was a French explorer who documented a number of abandoned Maya cities in the peninsula of Yucatan, Mexico, in the second half of the 19th century. See the pyramid then: a heap of stones and earth, invaded by vegetation.

The very same pyramid of the Magician, 1978. In May that year, I took an on-site summer course in Maya anthropology delivered by the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa. (Roll tide!). I was doing an MBA there. Heard about the course. Asked my adviser if I could apply the credits to my MBA. He said no, but that I was welcome to join. LOL. (Already told the story, I know). So join I did. See how the restored pyramid looks like as opposed to Charnay’s heap of stones?

Uxmal, 1978. That pyramid is the only one in all Mexico and central America to have round corners.

Désiré Charnay (1828-1915) was born in Fleurie in the Beaujolais region. (Fleurie is an excellent wine. Very commendable) Charnay first went to Mexico between 1857 and 1860. He was the first to photograph major Maya sites. The previous explorers who first “documented” the Maya cities were Stephens and Catherwood in 1839-1840. Way before photography, Catherwood brought back the first drawings and paintings of the lost civilisation of the Maya.

Digging up a wall of Chaac gods, Uxmal, c.1882, Charnay. All temples and bas-reliefs were then covered by plants and even trees. To this date, there still are hundreds of temples hidden away in the forest. The National Institute of Anthropology in Mexico prefers to leave them that way. Less risk of destruction and/or theft of valuable pieces.

Chaac, at Uxmal, 1978. Chaac is one of the most important Maya Gods: the God of Rain. He brings rain to the corn crops, the basis of Maya diet along with beans. No rain, no food. One can recognize the Chaac by its two large eyes, and trunk-like nose. See below:

A line of Chaac by the stairs at Uxmal, 1978. To the right, wearing a yellow guayabera, Dr Richard Krause, our “expedition chief.” The course was split between formal classes one day and field trips the other day. Krause and his colleagues, Dr Moseley, Dr Coombs, Dr Bryant were our PhD guides to Maya civilisation. Thank y’all for a wonderful experience.

Chaac again. Uxmal, 1978.

Kukulcan, the feathered serpent, Uxmal, c.1882.

Very same. 1978. In the centre are three piled representations of Chaac. To the right are the head (below) and tail (above) of Kukulcan, the feathered serpent. Kukulcan or his Aztec equivalent, Quetzalcoatl, was the principal god of Good versus Evil. He had left the world sailing across the sea, so when the Spaniards came by the sea, many believed they were announcing the return of Kukulcan/Quetalcoatl.

Again, compare Charnay’s photographs in the 19th century with the more recent ones. The restoration work was fantastic.

The quadrangle of the nuns, Uxmal, c.1882, Charnay.

By mere chance, I took practically the same shot, almost a century later, in 1978. The “Quadrangle of the nuns” was built around 900-910AD at the end of the Classic period. Maya civilisation starts around 2500BC until the 1500’s AD. Most Maya cities had long been abandoned by their inhabitants before contact was made with the Spaniards… No-one can really explain why flourishing cities with abundant land and trade were all abandoned.

Uxmal, Quadrangle of the nuns, c.1882. Charnay. I (re)discovered Charnay this summer at a rather stupid expo at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. Our Library of Congress of sorts. The expo was called “Faces of exploration in the 19th century.” The archives of the French Geographic Society (founded in 1821) are kept there and served as a basis for the expo. I disliked the tone and so-called analysis of the curators, but I knew what to expect and that’s just me… 😉 At any rate it served as a reminder of who Charnay was and his impact on exploration and eventually restoration of major sites. One can see the state of disrepair the sites were in when he visited.

Uxmal 1978.

Uxmal by Charnay, c.1882. See the corbel arch to the right?

Very same building, 1978. (See the corbel arch again?) The restorers decided to wall the two doors to the left. A good example: what we see now, is a reconstruction. That happens in just about any restoration anywhere in the world. We can never be sure of the accuracy or the reconstruction. Yet, it’s the only thing we have.

Itzamná, 1882. Charnay. Itzamná was a colonial “Hacienda” near an ancient pyramid built in honour of Itzamná, the God of the sky, and likely the husband of Ixchel, the Goddess of the Moon. Yes, Goddess. Only in German is the Moon male. 😉

Itzamná, 1978. I remember vividly Moseley and Krause taking only a handful of students there. It was not a part of the formal programme. Beautiful place. Charnay “discovered” many major sites, including Chichen Itzá, and also Yaxchilán:

“April 25, 1882. To Jules Ferrry, Paris.

“Paris Nevv York… (Yes, ‘Nevv’)

“Charnay discovered important antique city Lacandon territory.

(signed:) “Rice.”

Jules Ferry (1832-1893) was then French Secretary of Education. He declared free, non-religious, public education obligatory for all children from 6 to 13. And included “young girls” in secondary education. He is in fact responsible for a radical change in French education. Up till then, if I’m not mistaken, close to 40% of French population could not read or write. He was also instrumental in French colonial expansion which may be why he received this telegramme from Rice, the secretary of Pierre Lorillard, one of Charnay’s main financial backers. (Source: Archives Nationales)

The city was Yaxchilán, lost in the jungle on the Usumacinta river. The above is a cast based on Charnay’s sketch of a bas-relief featuring a high priest/nobleman and a war prisoner maybe? c. 1882. (Quai Branly museum)

On the Usumacinta river. Photos taken in the early 21st century.

Yaxchilán. A very large city, it seems to have been a major local centre from the 600’s to the 800’s (AD). Architecture is quite unique in style. The city ruins are only accessible by boat on the Usumacinta river, which forms a natural border between Mexico and Guatemala.

One of the many stelae at Yaxchilán. Representing either a high priest or king. The six “squares” under the feet are Maya glyphs, a very elaborate writing system. I’m sure Dr Krause could tell us what they mean. But Maya writing was not part of our course. Darn.

The author of these lines. Yaxchilán. 21st century…

Thank you for flying Equinoxio Airways, the only Time-Space Airline still running.

Free Ukraine 🇺🇦

117 thoughts on “Time patrol: Land of the Maya

  1. I love these posts, Brieuc. They are fascinating, informative and interesting! Merci mon ami.
    And I haven’t had a glass of Fleurie in forever. I remember loving that one.

    • Thank you. The expo was a definite bore… (Rather not go into the details… P… me off)
      Later when I looked at the Charnay’s pix (some were actually presented as mere negatives which I photoshopped) I realized I might have material for a post…
      Au revoir.

    • Happy Chines New Year of the rabbit. 🐰
      Don’t worry about late. I do feel ashamed at not visiting you more often, end of year and January have been busy… Not an excuse, just an apology. Hope all is well?

  2. Les Ray-Ban à part, c’est moi ! Une question, Brieuc : Est-ce que toutes ces pierres étaient peintes ? Je les vois peintes … sûrement des visions d’un cerveau surmené !
    Merci et une belle journée à toi.

    • Haha. Mon frère caché des Ardennes! 😉 Potes-tu la barbe?
      Nos églises et cathédrales étaient peintes. Ces monuments aussi très probablement. Mais le temps et la pluie… Il reste quelques fresques découvertes plus tard. A Bonampak. (En très mauvais état, bien qu’à l’intérieur. Couvertes de salpêtre ou qq chose d’approchant.
      Il y en a de superbes (on a vu les deux) à Cacaxtla, à qqs heures de voiture de Mexico.
      Donc, oui, la plupart des monuments étaient probablement peints.

  3. Dag Brian. I like this post a lot. Because of the facts I learned and also the comparisons between the exelent photo’s Charnay took and the just as good ones you made. It shows what cleaning up and restoration can do, the latter in terms of recovered detail but also in terms of choises being made in what to show and wat not. It is in the end a matter of view and interpretation. I envy you being able to visit those sites under guidance of experts who can explain what one actually is seeing. I didn’t know the Maya-culture lasted for 4000 years. And yes, as I understood it is still is unknown what made the culture dissapear so suddenly. Over here in the Netherlands we have these neolitic burial mounts, that are left untouched for the same reason as some pyramids in Mexico. Although I can imagine the fingers get itchy sometimes. 🙂 A very cool trip on your time-space-airline again, Brian. Tot ziens.

    • Dag Peter, dankje wel. I had long been interested in Pre-Columbian civilisations. That course was a once in a lifetime opportunity. 😉
      The culture goes way back. And the languages are still spoken in Yucatan and Guatemala.
      Now the “Classic” period, with all its buildings and cities is much narrower: 250AD to 900AD.
      I didn’t know Holland had neolithic mounds as in Ireland or Brittany. Terrain might make conservation harder. But it makes sense. The Celts spread out north as well…
      Tot ziens.

    • I’m sure you would have…
      And yes, it was fascinating. My only “beef” was with Dr. Moseley who would not let me apply the credits to my MBA… Tsss. 😉
      He was a great teacher, advisor, human being. (Even gave me a scholarship that came very handy for my second year…)
      Great academic too. he’s “gone” now, but I do cherish his memory… I understand Krause is still around. Emeritus of course.

      • I thought you might not. (I wouldn’t have). 🤣
        But. But. I tried. And my advisor just smiled. He knew me well. And I was practically an A student. Got only a C once, I was so p.o’d I tried to get the paper graded by another teacher. Who refused. Pleasantly but firmly… I must have been a pain of a student… LOL.

      • Of course not. But in this particular case I was not happy with the grade. And the teacher was not open at all. I was a “model” student. Active in campus activities and politics. I even was a student senator, can you believe that? I ran the business game. Stuff like that.
        I liked the U. It was quite a unique and very formative experience.

      • I found that using a grading rubric so that students understood the criteria for their grade helped a great deal–although I did change grades a few times for computational errors or unclear instructions.

      • A clear criterion is excellent. Now, flexibility – limited though – is also important.
        On another level, I tried to evaluate my executives on facts. One of the criteria was the number of pages in the report where I asked for a change or a clarification. Some of the best executives had less than two changes… LOL.

      • Hope so.
        One really should learn a dozen words in many languages: Hello. How are you? Please. Thank you. How much? (That is very important!) Good bye… Be well.
        With those words or expressions, one is ready for any language, right?
        Maging mahusay… 😉

      • Salamat was the first word I learned in Tagalog. Somewhere on a blog. It struck me because in Malay, Selamat means “good” Selamat pagi = good morning. Selamat malam = good night… There might be some common origin, who knows…

  4. Why the mayans have suddenly left their cities? Easy: the aliens that had bred the neanderthal DNA with their own DNA long time ago took the “refined” product of their genetic engineering back “home” for studying.

    I know the last picture, had it on my old phone for your number. 🙂

    • Hallo Dina… So nice to hear from you. I haven’t visited in a long while. Als goed?
      (Who? the guy in the hat? Nah. I don’t pilot, I just used to jump out of airplanes…)
      Tot ziens…

      • Hi Brian, I am also lazy to visit WordPress. Was just scrolling through and happened to hit on your wonderful interesting blog. Everything is fine here. Just bach from visiting kids in Aus. Our country is falling apart. Will rather not go there. You know the story.

      • Glad you popped by. Kids in Oz… It is a long “ways” away. I know it is falling apart. Sadly. very sadly. I also guess I was infuriated by the guest of honour at the new King Charles’ first gala dinner. (You know who I mean, of course, it. must have made the headlines…) Have Europeans no common sense left?
        Stay safe.

      • Our electricity system used to be worldclass. In less tha thirty years they managed to ruin everything, by doing no maintainance, throwing out people who could do the job and stealing left right and centre. Our economy is affected badly and businesses close down, because of the electricity problem. Crime is rife and police are involved everywhere.Anyway I can write pages full, but it won’t help.
        Thanks for visiting my blog.

      • Same old, same old… I remember arriving in Guinea, west Africa, in ’59, just after Independence. In less than a year, the stores were empty, power cuts frequent. After a few years, (we’d left thank God) political assassinations started, many of our friends were either killed or jailed for years…
        Do-gooder left-wing Westerners have no idea what is going in Africa. And none could survive there (or in Latin America for that matter) for… more than three months? It is very sad to me, as I’m sure it is for you…
        It’s always a pleasure to visit you and chat. I hope you can still go to the bush once in a while? 😉

      • The sad story of Africa.But we are ataing positive and make plans. Got our whole roof covered with solar panels and are planning to use our borehole as a replacement for municipal water, that is also becoming erratic.
        Anyway, let’s keep blogging! I love your posts!

    • Thank you Derrick.
      (I have noted your good taste in wine. 😉)
      Ferry was instrumental in THE major change in French education. At that time I believe most main European countries were at the same level of poor education. Anybody in the UK did a similar job?
      (I know Oxford only delivered its first diplomas to women in 1923… a century ago… A date to celebrate…)
      All well I hope?

      • We are well, Thanks, Brian. Charles Dickens did as much as anyone to draw attention to the need for decent education. The Elementary Education Act of 1870 was the first of a number of acts of parliament passed between 1870 and 1893 to create compulsory education in England and Wales for children aged between five and 13. It was known as The Forster Act after its sponsor William Forster.
        The school leaving age has slowly risen over the years to 16. My parents left aged 15

      • I’m sure Dickens played a part. (As you know I have some huge gaps in the Dickens department…) it would seem Parliament in England played a large role. Good. I will look Forster up.
        16 is the same in France now. My parents had different strories. My father was quite Bourgeois but couldn’t finish university because of the war. My mother was blue collat never finshed high school (O levels?) for the same reason. My maternal grandfather only had his brevet. 3 years of secundary education which was the common limit in his days.

      • High school probably was the equivalent of our O levels. My paternal grandparents ran a “School for the Sons of Gentlemen”, but my Dad was thought have had TB and didn’t attend school until the age of 8, leaving at 15

      • I don’t know. HIgh school in the US are the last 3 o 4 years. before College. French Baccalauréat would be your A levels???
        “The sons of gentlemen”? Love that. Almost Victorian. And just the sons, mind you. What ab out the daughters of gentlemen? Staying at home and learning embroidery? 😉
        TB was quite common then. And very lethal. Then at 15 many were supposed to start “earning their keep”. Well, that is part of our history. it’s good that you remember those things… Have a nice Sunday Derrick…

  5. How amazing! Thank you for taking me to the land of the Maya! One day I’ll get there I’m sure.

    Love your 35mm film photography. How are you scanning those? Negs, slides, or photos?
    Think I mentioned before I scanned over 4,000 before leaving Oz in 2014, but I didn’t set my scanner correctly and kind of made a mess of it all…hope you had better luck.

    • A pleasure to take you there, at least in photo.
      Prints I have found better to take a picture with my Iphone then Photoshop and adjust light and colour.
      Slides and negatives, which I also used for this post, I have a small adapter I bough ton Internet. Has worked all right so far. (I seem to remember your mentioning that. 4,000 pix would be a bore to re-do). Now, whatever I do, take another pic or scan/adapt, I always re-work it on PS. I see it as my digital lab. Been using it for years now. You might want to try some of your old scans with PS. You might be surprised at the result?

      • Not sure why I didn’t get a notification of your response – think WP has banned me from your site!

        You’re such a professional at PP! Like I said before, I find it tedious and time-consuming so I loathe doing it, but really need to change my mindset. Maybe it’s because it’s in front of a laptop again after a 45+ hour working week. A darkroom is so different.

        I’ve been using PS Elements for years now. I also have Affinity Photo, but it was for my MAC. I had to change laptops a few years ago and returned to Windows then had to buy a new license – not transferable of course. Subscriptions are a license to print money!

        I’m looking for a good lightweight camera to take travelling with me again, as I’m not taking “The Beast” that weighs 3kgs. I’ve got a new phone but also need a ‘real’ camera. 😉

      • Just spent a long time using PS. So I more or less know the major features. One day I might go through the entire menu again. They keep changing stuff.
        But I understand your point about not sitting at a screen again after N hours of work.
        And the license is not transferable? Ha! Robbers and thieves…
        I understand there are new small digital cameras that can do the trick. A good zoom is a must… Best of luck.

      • I know. I still have my Asahi Pentax zoom. Great zoom but weighs a ton… I am hoping phones will eventually develop better zooms. I never use the zoom on the Iphone. Bad definition.

      • Indeed. I’m just comfortable with Apple logic and “syntax”. I used to have an Android when I went to Paris. Bought a month chip there, but it was very complicated to me…

  6. I really enjoyed this Mayan culture fascinates me but I have not pursued it, what a great opportunity for you to go and soak that up and see such treasures.

  7. What wonderful ruins. Striking that you could capture that same shot 100 years later. I went to Mexico at the age of 5 with my grandparents. Have never been back. I remember the long climb up a pyramid but I have no idea which one.

    It seems like several of the restorations removed symbols or designs that were carved on the original walls. Is that the case?

    • Some of the shots were easy. Likely spots to take a photo, then and later. Even with a wooden camera, a tripod and glass plates, LOL.
      I didn’t know you’d been here. 5 is young, amazing that you should still remember. Most likely it was the pyramid of the Sun or the pyramid of the moon in Teotihuacán… Look it up, it might trigger memories.
      That was the problem with many of the restorations made in the 30’s. Egos of the restorers… 😉. As the ego of the film director who shoots a classic (Monte-Cristo for instance) And has to change something…
      That is one of the main reasons restoration is now very limited on most “new” sites…

  8. How very interesting. You have studied and seen some amazing things. I have read a bit about the ancient Maya civilization and the abandoned cities. I have also read up about the Inca child sacrifices and I even wrote a short story about it which is published in an anthology.

    • Certains les “décrient”. Ah. Juste des vieux machins… Mais ce sont des témoins de l’histoire. Des histoires parallèles parfois.
      Quand jétais enfant, je voulais être archéologue. J’y suis pas arrivé, mais j’ai suivi ce cours et j’ai vu bcp de veilles pierres. Les plus belles? Angkor, je crois…
      Bonne nuit Mélie

  9. Great old photos of Chichen Itza. I’m sure you thought of me with Uxmal. Can’t wait to take Colin there someday. The architecture there is gorgeous with those arches. Photos indicate it hasn’t changed much other than cleaned up a bit. Great post.

  10. These are wonderful photos, Brian. I’ve visited some of these sites, but it makes me want to visit again – although I suspect tourism has changed things. I’ll never forget going up a river from Orange Walk to Lamanai in Belize. A magical place deep in the forest that’s hard to forget.

    • Things change. Always. Though the sites remain.
      I missed that river in Belize though we did cross the border from Guatemala to Belize. On foot carrying our luggage. Such were the rules. Then climbed back in the same bus to Belize city. 🙄

  11. There’s so much to see, know, and understand. Thanks for making it possible through your blog, Brian. So many of us are so self-contained in our routines and ways of thinking that our worlds shrink smaller with every passing minute. That’s sad…. Keep up the good work! 🙂

    • Not only. You’re right. It’s my Latin languages bias. 😉 Just did a quick research. Romance languages derived form Latin, the moon is female. In “Northern” languages, such as German, Norwegian, Polish, Slovenian, Serbian or Czech, the Moon is male. So I suspect Germanic and Slavic languages. Now if I0m not mistaken, Isis the Egyptian goddess was goddess of the Moon. Wait. I those case I resort to my Dictionary of symbols. Be right back…

    • A quick read in my faithful Dictionary of symbols tells me it is most often feminine. Not always but in many cultures. In Mexico , Ixchel the Pre-Colombian Moon is a woman. The MOons is often associated with fertility.
      I wonder why the “Nordic” and eastern people define it as male. A fascinating subject of srudy… LOL. 🌓
      Hope all is well?

      • That really is fascinating. Maybe because we have other temperatures? The sun is female because it brings warmth & light.
        2023 has not been my year so far but with ying & yang I’m pretty sure this year will offer other things. You doing alright?

      • Levi Strauss’ analyisis of myths shows that myths are repeated over and over with changes. Sometimes the main character is male, in another version female. I think it goes back to the original myths of the Germanic and Slavic tribes. And if I recall, in Germanic tribes there were woman warriors. I don’t remember in which battle, (Champs Cataluniques?) between some Goth tribes and the Gallo-Romans the germanic women took to arms to defend their tribe. Remember the Walkyrie too… 😉
        Sorry about your bad start of year… It should ease soon. I can relate, I seem to have one “dog week” after the other… Oh. Well.
        My eldest brother always tells me: “When it rains I’m happy” he says, “it could be snowing…”
        Be good.

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