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Le Plongeon (Augustus and Alice Dixon) Papers
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  • Descriptive Summary
  • Biographical/Historical Note
  • Administrative Information
  • Related Material
  • Scope and Content of Collection
  • Indexing Terms

  • Descriptive Summary

    Title: Augustus and Alice Dixon Le Plongeon papers
    Date (inclusive): circa 1840-1937 (bulk 1860-1910)
    Number: 2004.M.18
    Creator/Collector: Le Plongeon, Augustus, 1826-1908
    Physical Description: 39.4 Linear Feet (63 boxes)
    The Getty Research Institute
    Special Collections
    1200 Getty Center Drive, Suite 1100
    Los Angeles 90049-1688
    Business Number: (310) 440-7390
    Fax Number: (310) 440-7780
    URL: http://hdl.handle.net/10020/askref
    (310) 440-7390
    Metadata Rights:
    Abstract: The collection documents the archaeological excavations, fieldwork, research, and writings of the nineteenth-century photographers, antiquarians, and amateur archaeologists Augustus and Alice Dixon Le Plongeon, the first persons to systematically excavate and photograph the Maya sites of Chichén Itzá and Uxmal (1873-1886). The couple's pioneering work in documenting Maya sites and inscriptions with photography, which in many cases recorded the appearance of sites and objects that have subsequently been damaged or lost, was overshadowed in their own lifetimes by their theories of Maya cultural diffusion, and in particular by their insistence that the Maya founded ancient Egypt. The Le Plongeon's work, and evidence of their wide-ranging interests, is found in manuscripts, diaries, correspondence, and photographs. The collection also contains papers belonging to Maude and Henry Field Blackwell, who inherited the literary estate of the Le Plongeons.
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    Language: Collection material is in English, Spanish, and French.

    Biographical/Historical Note

    Augustus Henry Julian Le Plongeon was born on Jersey, Channel Islands on May 4, 1826. After graduating from the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris he embarked on a series of adventures in the Americas, beginning with an attempt to sail to Chile with a friend in the late 1840s. Wrecked off the coast, they made their way to Valparaiso, Chile, where Le Plongeon took a position at a local college. When gold rush fever reached Chile, he joined the exodus to northern California. By 1850, Le Plongeon was working as a surveyor and city planner in Marysville, California. To finance further travels he sold the land that he had received in payment for his services, going first to England, where he reportedly badgered Henry Fox Talbot into teaching him his new method for making photographic negatives on paper. From England, Le Plongeon went to St. Thomas, Virgin Islands to experiment with Talbot's techniques in tropical climates, and then traveled to Mexico, Australia, China, and the Pacific Islands. He returned to California at the end of 1851, established a photography studio in San Francisco, and also entered the medical profession, perhaps by apprenticing himself to a local doctor. By the 1860s, Le Plongeon had appended the title Doctor to the front of his name.
    In 1862, Le Plongeon moved to Lima, Peru, where he opened a photography studio and also practiced medicine, specializing in hydroelectric treatments. He traveled extensively throughout Peru studying and photographing Inca ruins, as well as the causes of earthquakes. 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's and Frederick Catherwood's accounts of Central America and Yucatan, to form the notion that perhaps the Maya had disseminated civilization. During this time he also carried out a public debate with a Jesuit priest in the Lima newspapers, and consequently published two anti-Jesuit books, La religion de Jesus comparada con las ensenanzas de la Iglesia (1867), and Los Jesuitas y el Peru (1869).
    After eight years in Peru, Le Plongeon returned briefly to California where he presented a series of lectures on ancient Peruvian civilization and on seismology to the California Academy of Sciences (he had become a member of the academy in 1856). From California he traveled to New York to lecture, also hoping to sell paintings by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo and Juan del Castillo that he had acquired in Peru, and then to London to study Spanish manuscripts held by the British Museum. One day by chance he met Alice Dixon (b. 1851), the young daughter of the architectural photographer Henry Dixon, who was out running an errand for her father. According to Alice she went home after their meeting and said to her mother, "Mother, while I was out to-day I met him who I know that I shall have to marry by and bye." By the end of January, 1873, the couple was in New York preparing for their explorations of Maya Yucatan.
    While in New York Augustus published his Manual de Fotografia (1873), which he had written in Peru. He also attempted, without success, to reclaim the glass negatives that he had sent to New York in 1863 via Ephraim G. Squier, with whom he had collaborated in Peru, and who had published them as his own work. In July, the couple set sail for the Yucatan peninsula, where they were to spend most of the next twelve years searching for the evidence to prove Augustus's theory that Maya travelers had diffused their culture throughout Southeast Asia and the Middle East, and that it thus predated Egyptian culture.
    The Le Plongeons excavated and extensively recorded the ruins at Chichén Itzá and Uxmal, and photographed sites at Izamal, Isla Mujeres, Cozumel, Cancun, and Ake. Their photographic work was thorough and inclusive. They took aerial site views, documented individual structures from all angles, and made close-ups of entire facades of structures such as the Governor's Palace at Uxmal, and also recorded individual architectural details, glyphs, bas reliefs, and other sculptures, as well as the artifacts that they unearthed. They made wet collodion glass plate negatives, most often using a stereoscopic camera. Alice was particulary instrumental in the photography work, having been thoroughly trained in her father's studio. At Chichén Itzá, the Le Plongeons also discovered a superb Chac Mool figure while excavating the Platform of the Eagles and Jaguars, and made extensive tracings of the murals in the Upper Temple of the Jaguars.
    During their time in Yucatan the Le Plongeons sent dispatches about their work to organizations such as the American Antiquarian Society, regularly published accounts of their work in Mexican and American newspapers and journals, and Augustus published his Vestiges of the Mayas (1881). Augustus also became embroiled in debates with scholars such as Daniel Brinton, Samuel Haven, and Philipp Valenti over theories of cultural diffusion. He believed that his discoveries of carved reliefs at Uxmal resembling Masonic symbols proved the link between Yucatan and Egypt. As Augustus was never one to back down from an argument, his beliefs soon estranged him from his fellow Mesoamericanists, who, in discounting his theories, also overlooked the meticulous work he and Alice had accomplished in the field.
    The Le Plongeons returned to the New York in 1885 and settled in Brooklyn where they continued to write and lecture on the Maya and Egypt. Augustus's published books include Sacred Mysteries among the Mayas and Quiches, 11,500 Years Ago (1886), Queen Moo and the Egyptian Sphinx (1896), and The Origin of the Egyptians (1913-1914). Alice became a prolific writer of articles on a wide range of topics that were published in scientific, popular, and theosophical journals. In addition to writing about archaeology, she also wrote on contemporary Maya and Yucatecan culture, and other ethnographic and natural history subjects. Her books include Here and There in Yucatan (1886), and Queen Moo's Talisman (1902), an epic poem. She also delivered many popular lantern slide lectures on a wide range of subjects including the ancient and modern Maya, Christopher Columbus and the discovery of the Americas, and the architecture of old London.
    Estranged from the academic archaeological community, the Le Plongeons increasingly concentrated their activities in theosophist and spiritualist circles. At some point they met Henry Field Blackwell, an electrical engineer and inventor, and his wife Maude, perhaps through a Masonic connection, as both men were Freemasons. The two couples became close friends, and Maude in particular championed the Le Plongeon's work. Augustus died in 1908 at the age of eighty-three, and only two years later Alice died at age fifty-nine. The Blackwells inherited the research and writings of the Le Plongeons, promising to make every attempt to continue publishing and promulgating their work. In 1913-1914, Maude Blackwell was successful in seeing Augustus's The Origin of the Egyptians and The Pyramid of Xochicalco published in The Word, a theosophical journal, but she subsequently fell on hard times following her husband's death. Alone in Los Angeles, where the couple had moved in the late 1920s, Maude struggled to survive through the Great Depression. Although her connections to theosophist circles increased, Maude's efforts during the 1930s to interest archaeologists such as Frans Blom and Sylvanus Morley in the work of the Le Plongeons came to naught. Nevertheless, throughout the twentieth century the Le Plongeons and their theories continued to be mentioned in scholarly, theosophical, and popular literature, and in recent years the value of their fieldwork and photography has been reassessed by scholars.

    Administrative Information


    Open for use by qualified researchers.

    Publication Rights

    Preferred Citation

    Augustus and Alice Dixon Le Plongeon papers, circa 1840-1937, bulk 1860-1910, The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, Accession no. 2004.M.18.

    Acquisition Information

    Acquired in 2004.

    Processing History

    Beth Ann Guynn processed and described the Augustus and Alice Dixon Le Plongeon papers in 2004-2006. Jamie Allen processed and described Series III.E, glass lantern slides, during the summer of 2005. Lawrence G. Desmond, an independent Le Plongeon scholar, provided invaluable advice and knowledge during the processing and cataloging of the collection.

    Digital Collection

    Selected photographs have been digitized and are available online .

    Related Material

    The following related collections are part of the Getty Research Library, Special Collections and Visual Resources:
    Views of Maya ruins in the Yucatan. Special Collections accession number 96.R.137. Desmond, Lawrence G., The nineteenth century photographs of Alice Dixon Le Plongeon and Augustus Le Plongeon: a catalog of collections from American Museum of Natural History, Donald Dixon Album, Getty Research Institute, Peabody Museum at Harvard University, Philosophical Research Society . Special Collections reference call number NH32.L597 D46 2005.
    The following institutions hold significant collections of Le Plongeon materials:
    Negatives, photographs, and lantern slides. Photographic Archive, Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History, New York. Letters from Alice Dixon Le Plongeon to Phoebe Apperson Hearst. George and Phoebe Apperson Hearst papers, BANC MSS 72/204 c, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. Photographs. Photographic Archives, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. Negatives, photographs, mural tracings, field notes, correspondence, and the manuscript of Augustus Le Plongeon's The Origin of the Egyptians. The Philosophical Research Society, Los Angeles.
    Additionally, copies of Le Plongeon prints, lantern slides, negatives, and mural tracings found in some of the collections listed above are held at The Center for Maya Research, Barnardsville, NC.

    Scope and Content of Collection

    The collection documents the archaeological excavations, fieldwork, research, and writings of Augustus and Alice Dixon Le Plongeon, the first persons to systematically excavate and photograph the Maya sites of Chichén Itzá and Uxmal. The couple's pioneering work in documenting Maya sites and inscriptions with photography, which in many cases recorded the appearance of sites and objects that have subsequently been damaged or lost, was overshadowed in their own lifetime by their theories of Mayan cultural diffusion, and in particular by their insistence that the Maya founded ancient Egypt. The Le Plongeons' archaeological work and evidence of their wide-ranging interests is recorded in unpublished manuscripts, diaries, correspondence, drawings, plans, and photographs. The collection also contains the papers of Maude and Henry Field Blackwell, who inherited the literary estate of the Le Plongeons.
    The papers of Augustus Le Plongeon span from his time in Peru until his death, and evidence his wide-ranging interests. Early materials include sketckbooks and drawings, photographs, notebooks, manuscripts, and correspondence. Topics covered include hydroelectric therapy, earthquakes, comparative religion, and Inca culture. A scrapbook and a portfolio of writings document Le Plongeon's sustained debate on the Jesuits and their religious practices in Peru. Unpublished manuscripts include Le Plongeon's lectures on ancient Peru, delivered before the California Academy of Sciences; his collodion emulsion recipes and notes on photography; and an untitled manuscript on the Inca and another on the Yucatan peninsula, as well as writings on ancient religions and Maya architecture. Published manuscripts include Queen Moo and the Egyptian Sphynx , with reviews and publication correspondence, and his Pyramid of Xochicalco , which was published posthumously.
    The papers of Alice Dixon Le Plongeon coincide with her married life, and consist of correspondence, her field diary, research notes and manuscripts, and published articles. Her correspondence includes 12 letters from their benefactor, Phoebe Hearst. Research notes, unpublished writings, and published articles attest to the wide range of subjects on which Alice wrote and lectured after the couple's return from Mexico, and include not only Mexican archaeological and ethnographical topics, but also subjects such as Hawaii, old London, natural history, and women's rights. Unpublished manuscripts include the typescript for a book entitled "Yucatan: Its Ancient Palaces and Modern Cities."
    Photographs by the Le Plongeons include a few of Augustus's photographs from St. Thomas and Peru, and the extensive photographic documentation made by the couple during their travels in Yucatan and Central America, which records ancient architecture, sculpture, city views, and ethnographic observations. Maya sites photographed include Chichén Itzá, Uxmal, Ake, and Mayapan. Several photographs document the Le Plongeons's discovery of the Chacmool sculpture in the Platform of the Eagles and the jaguars at Chichén Itzá. There are also views of Izamal, Merida, and Progresso, and scenes from daily Yucatecan life, including photographs related to the region's long-running civil war. Although there are some early salt prints made by Augustus, most of the photographs are either albumen or collodian stereographic prints, either in stereo or half prints; some later prints are gelatin silver. Wet collodion glass plate negatives, both single and stereographic, include the Le Plongeons's original plates made in the field, as well as copy work negatives to be used for publications and lecture slides. Glass lantern slides, which the Le Plongeons used for lectures, include both copies of their original photographs and copy work from illustrations. Subjects include Peru, Mexico, Pompeii, old London (from photographs by Henry Dixon), the South Pacific (including Captian Cook), and the life and voyages of Christopher Columbus.
    Drawings and plans include tracings made by the Le Plongeons of the murals in the Upper Temple of the Jaguars at Chichén Itzá, and hand-drawn maps, site plans, and building plans for Chichén Itzá, Uxmal, and Xochicalco. The tracings, in sanguine outline, represent the earliest comprehensive record of the murals which depict scenes from ancient Maya history, religious, and daily life.
    The papers of Henry and Maude Alice Kane Blackwell contain personal and family documents, and include Henry Blackwell's drawings, patents, blueprints, and notebooks for his various inventions. Maude Blackwell's papers focus on her efforts to champion the work of the Le Plongeons, and include letters from archaeologists Frans Blom and Sylvanus Morley.

    Arrangement note

    Organized in five series:
    Series I. Augustus Le Plongeon papers, 1846-1914;
    Series II. Alice Dixon Le Plongeon papers, 1873-1910;
    Series III. Photographs, 1851-1933;
    Series IV. Drawings, maps, and plans, 1860-1931;
    Series V. Papers of Henry Field Blackwell and Maude Alice Kane Blackwell, 1763-1940.

    Indexing Terms

    Subjects - Names

    Morley, Sylvanus Griswold, 1883-1948
    Le Plongeon, Alice D. (Alice Dixon), 1851-1910
    Columbus, Christopher
    Blom, Frans Ferdinand, 1893-1963
    Blackwell, Maude Alice
    Blackwell, Henry Field
    Hearst, Phoebe Apperson, 1842-1919
    Dixon, Henry, 1820-1892
    Cook, James, 1728-1779

    Subjects - Corporate Bodies

    Jesuits (Peru)

    Subjects - Topics

    Maya sculpture
    Mayan languages -- Writing
    Mayas -- Antiquities
    Chac Mool
    Mayas -- Religion
    Mayas in polular culture
    Photography -- Handbooks, manuals, etc.
    Maya mural painting and decoration
    Maya language
    Maya architecture
    Indian art -- Mexico
    Earthquakes -- Peru
    Cultural diffusion

    Subjects - Places

    Xochicalco (Mexico) -- Antiquities
    Yucatán (Mexico : State) -- History
    Yucatán Peninsula -- Description and travel
    Chichén Itzá Site (Mexico)
    London (England) -- Description and travel
    Oceanea -- Description and travel
    Mexico -- Antiquities
    Pompeii (Extinct city) -- Description and travel
    Uxmal Site (Mexico) -- Antiquities

    Subjects - Titles

    The pyramid of Xochicalco–1914 Manual de fotografia–1873 Queen Móo and the Egyptian sphinx–1896

    Genres and Forms of Material

    Lantern slides -- Peru -- 19th century
    Lantern slides -- Mexico -- 19th century
    Sketchbooks -- Mexico -- 19th century
    Photographs, Original
    Stereographs -- Mexico -- 19th century
    Sketchbooks -- Peru -- 19th century
    Wet collodion negatives -- Mexico -- 19th century
    Albumen prints -- Mexico -- 19th century
    Albumen prints -- Peru -- 19th century
    Blueprints -- United States–19th century
    Blueprints -- United States–20th century
    Cabinet photographs -- 19th century
    Collodion prints-Mexico–19th century
    Diaries -- 19th century
    Gelatin silver prints -- Mexico -- 19th century
    Half sterographs -- Mexico -- 19th century


    Le Plongeon, Augustus, 1826-1908