Friday, July 29, 2011

Ancient Civilizations and Ruins of Central America




To understand the situation and historical significance of the more important antiquities in Southern Mexico and Central America, we must keep in view their situation relative to the great unexplored forest to which attention has been called. Examine carefully any good map of Mexico and Central America, and consider well that the ruins already explored or visited are wholly in the northern half of Yucatan, or far away from this region, at the south, beyond the great wilderness, or in the southern edge of it. Uxmal, Mayapan, Chichen-Itza, and many others, are in Yucatan. Palenque, Copan, and others are in the southern part of the wilderness, in Chiapa, Honduras, and Guatemala. Mr. Squier visited ruins much farther south, in San Salvador, and in the western parts of Nicaragua and Costa Rica.
The vast forest which is spread over the northern half of Guatemala and the southern half of Yucatan, and extended into other states, covers an area considerably larger in extent than Ohio or Pennsylvania. Does its position relative to the known ruins afford no suggestion concerning the ancient history of this forest-covered region? It is manifest that, in the remote ages when the older of the cities now in ruins were built, this region[104] was a populous and important part of the country. And this is shown also by the antiquities found wherever it has been penetrated by explorers who knew how to make discoveries, as well as by the old books and traditions. Therefore it is not unreasonable to assume that Copan and Palenque are specimens of great ruins that lie buried in it. The ruins of which something is known have merely been visited and described in part by explorers, some of whom brought away drawings of the principal objects. In giving a brief account of the more important ruins, I will begin with the old city of which most has been heard.


No one can tell the true name of the ancient city now called Palenque. It is known to us by this name because the ruins are situated a few miles distant from the town of Palenque, now a village, but formerly a place of some importance. The ruins are in the northern part of the Mexican State of Chiapa, hidden out of sight in the forest, where they seem to have been forgotten long before the time of Cortez. More than two hundred years passed after the arrival of the Spaniards before their existence became known to Europeans. They were discovered about the year 1750. Since that year decay has made some progress in them. Captain Del Rio, who visited and described them in 1787, examined “fourteen edifices” admirably built of hewn stone, and estimated the extent of the ruins to be “seven or eight leagues one way [along the River Chacamas], and half a league the[105] other.” He mentions “a subterranean aqueduct of great solidity and durability, which passes under the largest building.”
Other explorers have since visited Palenque, and reported on the ruins by pen and pencil; but it is not certain that all the ruined edifices belonging to them have been seen, nor that the explorations have made it possible to determine the ancient extent of the city with any approach to accuracy. The very great difficulties which obstruct all attempts at complete exploration have not allowed any explorer to say he has examined or discovered all the mouldering monuments hidden in the dense and tangled forest, even within the space allowed by Del Rio’s “half league” from the river, not to speak of what may lie buried and unknown in the dense mass of trees and undergrowth beyond this limit.
The largest known building at Palenque is called the “Palace.” It stands near the river, on a terraced pyramidal foundation 40 feet high and 310 feet long, by 260 broad at the base. The edifice itself is 228 feet long, 180 wide, and 25 feet high. It faces the east, and has 14 doorways on each side, with 11 at the ends. It was built entirely of hewn stone, laid with admirable precision in mortar which seems to have been of the best quality. A corridor 9 feet wide, and roofed by a pointed arch, went round the building on the outside; and this was separated from another within of equal width. The “Palace” has four interior courts, the largest being 70 by 80 feet in extent. These are surrounded by corridors, and the architectural work facing them is richly[106] decorated. Within the building were many rooms. From the north side of one of the smaller courts rises a high tower, or pagoda-like structure, thirty feet square at the base, which goes up far above the highest elevation of the building, and seems to have been still higher when the whole structure was in perfect condition. The great rectangular mound used for the foundation was cased with hewn stone, the workmanship here, and every where else throughout the structure, being very superior. The piers around the courts are “covered with figures in stucco, or plaster, which, where broken, reveals six or more coats or layers, each revealing traces of painting.” This indicates that the building had been used so long before it was deserted that the plastering needed to be many times renewed. There is some evidence that painting was used as a means of decoration; but that which most engages attention is the artistic management of the stone-work, and, above all, the beautifully executed sculptures for ornamentation.
Two other buildings at Palenque, marked by Mr. Stephens, in his plan of the ruins, as “Casa No. 1” and “Casa No. 2,” views of which are shown in Figures 27 and 28, are smaller, but in some respects still more remarkable. The first of these, 75 feet long by 25 wide, stands on the summit of a high truncated pyramid, and has solid walls on all sides save the north, where there are five doorways. Within are a corridor and three rooms. Between the doorways leading from the corridor to these rooms are great tablets, each 13 feet long and 8 feet high, and all covered with elegantly-carved[107] inscriptions. A similar but smaller tablet, covered with an inscription, appears on the wall of the central room.
Elevation and plan of the Temple of the Inscriptions, PalenqueFig. 27.—Casa No. 1, Palenque—Front View and Ground Plan.
“Casa No. 2” consists of a steep and lofty truncated pyramid, which stands on a terraced foundation, and has its level summit crowned with a building 50 feet long by 31 wide, which has three doorways at the south, and within a corridor and three rooms. This edifice, sometimes called “La Cruz,” has, above the height required for the rooms, what is described as “two stories of interlaced stucco-work, resembling a high, fanciful lattice.” Here, too, inscribed tablets appear on the walls; but the inscriptions, which are abundant at Palenque, are by no[108] means confined to tablets. As to the ornamentation, the walls, piers, and cornices are covered with it. Every where the masterly workmanship and artistic skill of the old constructors compel admiration; Mr. Stephens go[109]ing so far as to say of sculptured human figures found in fragments, “In justness of proportion and symmetry they must have approached the Greek models.”
Elevation and plan of the Temple of the Sun, PalenqueFig. 28.—Casa No. 2, Palenque (La Cruz)—Front View and Ground Plan.
“Casa No. 2” of Mr. Stephens is usually called “La Cruz” because the most prominent object within the building is a great bas-relief on which are sculptured a cross and several human figures. This building stands on the high pyramid, and is approached by a flight of steps. Dupaix says, “It is impossible to describe adequately the interior decorations of this sumptuous temple.” The cross is supposed to have been the central object of interest. It was wonderfully sculptured and decorated; human figures stand near it, and some grave ceremony seems to be represented. The infant held toward the cross by one of the figures suggests a christening ceremony. The cross is one of the most common emblems present in all the ruins. This led the Catholic missionaries to assume that knowledge of Christianity had been brought to that part of America long before their arrival; and they adopted the belief that the Gospel was preached there by St. Thomas. This furnished excellent material for the hagiologists of that age; but, like every thing else peculiar to these monkish romancers, it betrayed great lack of knowledge.
The cross, even the so-called Latin cross, is not exclusively a Christian emblem. It was used in the Oriental world many centuries (perhaps millenniums) before the Christian era. It was a religious emblem of the Phœnicians, associated with Astarte, who is usually figured bearing what is called a Latin cross. She is seen so[110] figured on Phœnician coin. The cross is found in the ruins of Nineveh. Mr. Layard, describing one of the finest specimens of Assyrian sculpture (the figure of “an early Nimrod king” he calls it), says: “Round his neck are hung the four sacred signs; the crescent, the star or sun, the trident, and the cross.” These “signs,” the cross included, appear suspended from the necks or collars of Oriental prisoners figured on Egyptian monuments known to be fifteen hundred years older than the Christian era. The cross was a common emblem in ancient Egypt, and the Latin form of it was used in the religious mysteries of that country, in connection with a monogram of the moon. It was to degrade this religious emblem of the Phœnicians that Alexander ordered the execution of two thousand principal citizens of Tyre by crucifixion.
The cross, as an emblem, is very common among the antiquities of Western Europe, where archæological investigation has sometimes been embarrassed and confused by the assumption that any old monument bearing the figure of a cross can not be as old as Christianity.
What more will be found at Palenque, when the whole field of its ruins has been explored, can not now be reported. The chief difficulty by which explorers are embarrassed is manifest in this statement of Mr. Stephens: “Without a guide, we might have gone within a hundred feet of the buildings without discovering one of them.” More has been discovered there than I have mentioned, my purpose being to give an accurate view of the style, finish, decoration, and general character of the architecture and artistic work found in the[111] ruins rather than a complete account of every thing connected with them. The ruins of Palenque are deemed important by archæologists partly on account of the great abundance of inscriptions found there, which, it is believed, will at length be deciphered, the written characters being similar to those of the Mayas, which are now understood.


The ruins known as Copan are situated in the extreme western part of Honduras, where they are densely covered by the forest. As already stated, they were first discovered by Europeans about forty years after the war of the conquest swept through that part of the country, and were at that time wholly mysterious to the natives. The monuments seem older than those at Palenque, but we have only scant descriptions of them. They are situated in a wild and solitary part of the country, where the natives “see as little of strangers as the Arabs about Mount Sinai, and are more suspicious.” For this reason they have not been very carefully explored. It is known that these ruins extend two or three miles along the left bank of the River Copan. Not much has been done to discover how far they extend from the river into the forest.
View of the river erosion cut at CopanFig. 29.—Great Wall at Copan.
Mr. Stephens describes as follows his first view of them: “We came to the right bank of the river, and saw directly opposite a stone wall from 60 to 90 feet high, with furze growing out of the top, running north and south along the river 624 feet, in some places fallen,[112] in others entire.” This great wall supported the rear side of the elevated foundation of a great edifice. It was made of cut stone well laid in mortar or cement, the blocks of stone being 6 feet long. Figure 29 shows the wall somewhat imperfectly. He saw next a square stone column standing by itself, 14 feet high and 3 feet on each side. From top to bottom it was richly ornamented with sculptured designs on two opposite sides, the other sides being covered with inscriptions finely carved on the stone. On the front face, surrounded by the sculptured ornaments, was the figure of a man. Fourteen other obelisks of the same kind were seen, some of them being higher than this. Some of them had fallen. These sculptured and inscribed pillars constitute the chief peculiarity of Copan. Mr. Squier says of them: “The ruins of Copan, and the corresponding monuments[113] which I examined in the valley of the Chamelican, are distinguished by singular and elaborately carved monoliths, which seem to have been replaced at Palenque by equally elaborate basso relievos, belonging, it would seem, to a later and more advanced period of art.”
The great building first noticed stands, or stood, on a pyramidal foundation, which is supported along the river by that high back wall. The structure extends 624 feet on the river line. Mr. Stephens described it as an “oblong inclosure,” and states that it has a wide terrace nearly 100 feet above the river, on which great trees are growing, some of them more than 20 feet in circumference. Here, as at Palenque, the ornamentation was “rich and abundant.” The ruins, greatly worn by decay, still show that “architecture, sculpture, painting, and all the arts that embellish life had flourished in this overgrown forest.” Some beautifully executed sculptures were found buried in the earth, and there can be no doubt that extensive excavation, if it were possible in that almost invincible forest, would lead to important and valuable discoveries. Besides the great building and the monoliths, several pyramidal structures are mentioned by Mr. Stephens, who points out that extensive exploration is impossible unless one shall first clear away the forest and burn up the trees.
Palacios, who described this ruined city nearly three hundred years ago, saw much more than Mr. Stephens. He described “the ruins of superb edifices, built of hewn stone, which manifestly belonged to a large city.” He mentions, in connection with the great wall, an enormous[114] eagle carved in stone, which bore a square shield on its breast covered with undecipherable characters. He mentions, also, a “stone giant,” and a “stone cross” with one arm broken. He saw a “plaza,” circular in form, surrounded by ranges of steps or seats, which reminded him of the Coliseum at Rome, “as many as eighty ranges still remaining in some places.” This “plaza” was “paved with beautiful stones, all square and well worked.” Six of the great obelisks, which he described as “statues,” stood in this inclosure, and in its centre was a great stone basin.
A history of Guatemala, by a writer named Huarros, states that the “Circus of Copan,” as he calls the “plaza” described by Palacios, was still entire in the year 1700. He mentions gateways which led into the inclosure, and says it was surrounded on the outside by stone pyramids six yards high, near which were standing sculptured figures or obelisks. No doubt, remains of this remarkable “circus” would be found now, if the forest should be removed. What else could be found there by means of careful and thorough exploration may never be known, for the region is uninviting, the forest very difficult, and such an exploration would require much more than the means and efforts of one or two individuals.
Not very far away, in the neighboring State of Guatemala, on the right bank of the River Motagua, to which the Copan is a tributary, are the ruins called Quirigua. It is manifest that a great city once stood here. These ruins have a close resemblance to those at Copan, but they appear to be much older, for they have, to a great[115]

 extent, become little more than heaps of rubbish. Over a large space of ground traces of what has gone to decay are visible. Doubtless important relics of the old city are now more abundant below the surface than above it. Mr. Stephens, describing what he saw there, confines his attention chiefly to a pyramidal structure with flights of steps, and monoliths larger and higher than those at Copan, but otherwise similar. He states, however, that while they have the same general style, the sculptures are in lower relief and hardly so rich in design. One of the obelisks here is twenty feet high, five feet six inches wide, and two feet eight inches thick. The chief figures carved on it are that of a man on the front, and that of a woman on the back. The sides are covered with inscriptions similar in appearance to those at Copan. Some of the other standing obelisks are higher than this. It seems reasonable to infer that the structures at Quirigua were more ancient than those at Copan.
View of the ruinsFig. 30.—Ruins at Mitla.


The ruins called Mitla are in the Mexican State of Oxaca, about twelve leagues east from the city of Oxaca. They are situated in the upper part of a great valley, and surrounded by a waste, uncultivated region. At the time of the Spanish Conquest they were old and much worn by time and the elements, but a very large area was then covered by remains of ancient buildings. At present only six decaying edifices and three ruined pyramids, which were very finely terraced, remain for examination, the other structures being now reduced to the last stage[118] of decay. Figures 30 and 31 present views of some of these structures, as given by Von Temski. Figure 32, from Charnay’s photograph, shows a ruin at Mitla.
Detail of buildingFig. 31.—Great Hall at Mitla.
These important ruins were not described by Stephens and Catherwood. Captain Dupaix’s work gives some account of them, and Desiré Charnay, who saw them since 1860, brought away photographs of some of the monuments. Four of the standing edifices are described by Dupaix as “palaces,” and these, he says, “were erected with lavish magnificence; * * * they combine the solidity of the works of Egypt with the elegance of those of Greece.” And he adds, “But what is most remarkable, interesting, and striking in these monuments, and which alone would be sufficient to give them the first[119]

 rank among all known orders of architecture, is the execution of their mosaic relievos, very different from plain mosaic, and consequently requiring more ingenious combination and greater art and labor. They are inlaid on the surface of the wall, and their duration is owing to the method of fixing the prepared stones into the stone surface, which made their union with it perfect.” Figure 33, taken from Charnay’s photograph, shows part of the mosaic decoration on a wall of one of the great edifices at Mitla.
View of ruinsFig. 32.—Ruined Palace at Mitla.
Detail of architectural stone mosaic sculptureFig. 33.—Mosaics at Mitla.
The general character of the architecture and masonry is much like that seen in the structures at Palenque, but the finish of the workmanship appears to have been more artistic and admirable. These ruins are remarkable among those of the country where they are found. All who have seen them speak much as Dupaix speaks of the perfection of the masonry, the admirable design and finish of the work, and the beauty of the decorations. Their beauty, says M. Charnay, can be matched only by the monuments of Greece and Rome in their best days. One fact presented by some of the edifices at Mitla has a certain degree of historical significance. There appears to be evidence that they were occupied at some period by people less advanced in civilization than their builders. M. Charnay, describing one of them, points out this fact. He says of the structure:
“It is a bewildering maze of courts and buildings, with facings ornamented with mosaics in relief of the purest design; but under the projections are found traces of paintings wholly primitive in style, in which the right[122] line is not even respected. These are rude figures of idols, and meandering lines that have no significance. Similar paintings appear, with the same imperfection, on every great edifice, in places which have allowed them shelter against the ravages of time. These rude designs, associated with palaces so correct in architecture, and so ornamented with panels of mosaic of such marvelous workmanship, put strange thoughts in the mind. To find the explanation of this phenomenon, must we not suppose these palaces were occupied by a race less advanced in civilization than their first builders?”
Two miles or more away from the great edifices here mentioned, toward the west, is the “Castle of Mitla.” It was built on the summit of an isolated and precipitous hill of rock, which is accessible only on the east side. The whole leveled summit of this hill is inclosed by a solid wall of hewn stone twenty-one feet thick and eighteen feet high. This wall has salient and retiring angles, with curtains interposed. On the east side it is flanked by double walls. Within the inclosure are the remains of several small buildings. The field of these ruins was very large three hundred years ago. At that time it may have included this castle.


In this part of Mexico Captain Dupaix examined a peculiar ruin, of which he gave the following account: “Near the road from the village of Tlalmanalco to that called Mecamecan, about three miles east of the latter, there is an isolated granite rock, which was artificially[123] formed into a kind of pyramid with six hewn steps facing the east. The summit of this structure is a platform, or horizontal plane, well adapted to observation of the stars on every side of the hemisphere. It is almost demonstrable that this very ancient monument was exclusively devoted to astronomical observations, for on the south side of the rock are sculptured several hieroglyphical figures having relation to astronomy. The most striking figure in the group is that of a man in profile, standing erect, and directing his view to the rising stars in the sky. He holds to his eye a tube or optical instrument. Below his feet is a frieze divided into six compartments, with as many celestial signs carved on its surface.” It has been already stated that finely-wrought “telescopic tubes” have been found among remains of the Mound-Builders. They were used, it seems, by the ancient people of Mexico and Central America, and they were known also in ancient Peru, where a silver figure of a man in the act of using such a tube has been discovered in one of the old tombs.


Old ruins, of which but little is known, exist in Guatemala, Honduras, San Salvador, and the more southern portion of Central America. Mr. Squier, who tells us more of them than any other explorer, says, “I heard of remains and monuments in Honduras and San Salvador equal to those of Copan in extent and interest.” He mentions the ruins of Opico, near San Vincente, in San Salvador, which “cover nearly two square miles, and[124] consist of vast terraces, ruins of edifices, circular and square towers, and subterranean galleries, all built of cut stones: a single carving has been found here on a block of stone.” Remains of “immense works” exist in the district of Chontales, near the northern shore of Lake Nicaragua; and pottery found in Nicaragua “equals the best specimens of Mexico and Peru.” Don Jose Antonio Urritia, curé of Jutiapa, gave the following account of a great ruin on a mountain in San Salvador, near the town of Comapa: it is called Cinaca-Mecallo:
“The walls, or remains of the city wall, describe an oval figure, within which roads or streets may be traced, and there are various subterranean passages and many ruined edifices. The materials of construction are chiefly thin stones, or a species of slate, united by a kind of cement which in appearance resembles melted lead.” It does not appear that he made a complete examination of the monuments, but he mentions three that gained his attention, and left upon his mind a very strong impression. “The first is a temple consecrated to the sun, chiefly excavated in the solid rock, and having its entrance toward the east. On the archway of the entrance are carved representations of the sun and moon. Hieroglyphics are found in the interior. Besides the sculptured bassi relievi, these stones bear hieroglyphics painted with a kind of red varnish which remains unimpaired. The second is a great stone slab covered with inscriptions or hieroglyphics. The third is the figure of a wild animal sculptured on a rock or stone, of 
“great size.”


The remains of ancient cities are abundant in the settled portion of Yucatan, which lies north of the great forest. Charnay found “the country covered with them from north to south.” Stephens states, in the Preface to his work on Yucatan, that he visited “forty-four ruined cities or places” in which such remains are still found, most of which were unknown to white men, even to those inhabiting the country; and he adds that “time and the elements are hastening them to utter destruction.”
Previous to the Spanish Conquest, the region known to us as Yucatan was called Maya. It is still called Maya by the natives among themselves, and this is the true name of the country. Why the Spaniards called it Yucatan is unknown, but the name is wholly arbitrary and without reason. It is said to have arisen from an odd mistake like that which occasioned the name given to one of the capes by Hernandez de Cordova. Being on the coast in 1517, he met some of the natives. Their cacique said to him, “Conèx cotoch,” meaning “Come to our town.” The Spaniard, supposing he had mentioned the name of the place, immediately named the projecting point of land “Cape Cotoche,” and it is called so still.
At that time the country was occupied by the people still known as Mayas. They all spoke the same language, which was one of a closely related family of tongues spoken in Guatemala, Chiapas, Western Hondu[126]ras, and in some other districts of Central America and Mexico. Yucatan was then much more populous than at present. The people had more civilization, more regular industry, and more wealth. They were much more highly skilled in the arts of civilized life. They had cities and large towns; and dwelling-houses, built of timber and covered with thatch, like those common in England, were scattered over all the rural districts. Some of the cities now found in ruins were then inhabited. This peninsula had been the seat of an important feudal monarchy, which arose probably after the Toltecs overthrew the very ancient kingdom of Xibalba. It was broken up by a rebellion of the feudal lords about a hundred years previous to the arrival of the Spaniards. According to the Maya chronicles, its downfall occurred in the year 1420. Mayapan, the capital of this kingdom, was destroyed at that time, and never afterward inhabited.
Merida, the present capital of Yucatan, was built on the site of an ancient Maya city called Tihoo. It is stated in the old Spanish accounts of Merida that it was built on that site because there was in the ruins an abundance of building material. There is mention of two “mounds” which furnished a vast amount of hewn stone. Mr. Stephens noticed in some of the edifices stones with “sculptured figures, from the ruins of ancient buildings;” and he mentions that a portion of an ancient building, including an arch in the Maya style, was retained in the construction of the Franciscan convent.


View of unexcavated structureFig. 34.—Great Mound at Mayapan.
We shall notice only some of the principal ruins in Yucatan, beginning with Mayapan, the ancient capital. The remains of this city are situated about ten leagues, in a southern direction, from Merida. They are spread over an extensive plain, and overgrown by trees and other vegetation. The most prominent object seen by[128] the approaching explorer is a great mound, 60 feet high and 100 feet square at the base. It is an imposing structure, seen through the trees, and is itself overgrown like a wooded hill. Figure 34 shows one view of this. Four stairways, in a ruinous condition, 25 feet wide, lead up to an esplanade within 6 feet of the top, which is reached by a smaller stairway. The summit is a plain stone platform 15 feet square. This, of course, was a temple. Sculptured stones are scattered around the base, and within the mound subterranean chambers have been discovered.
It is probable that the principal edifices at Mayapan were not all built wholly of stone, for they have mostly disappeared. Only one remains, a circular stone building 25 feet in diameter, which stands on a pyramidal foundation 35 feet high. This is represented in Figure 35. On the southwest side of it, on a terrace projecting from the mound, was a double row of columns without capitals, 8 feet apart. There are indications that this city was old, and that the buildings had been more than once renewed. Brasseur de Bourbourg classes some of the foundations at Mayapan with the oldest seen at Palenque and Copan. This point, however, can not be determined with sufficient accuracy to remove all doubt. Mayapan may have stood upon the foundations of a very ancient city which was several times rebuilt, but the city destroyed in 1420 could not have been as old as either Palenque or Copan.
View of the observatory at MayapanFig. 35.—Circular Edifice at Mayapan.


The ruins of Uxmal have been regarded as the most important in Yucatan, partly on account of the edifices that remain standing, but chiefly because they have been more visited and explored than the others. It is supposed, and circumstantial evidence appears to warrant the supposition, that this city had not been wholly deserted at the time of the Spanish Conquest, although it had previously begun to be a ruin. It was wholly a ruin in 1673. The area covered by its remains is extensive. Charnay makes it a league or more in diameter; but most of the structures have fallen, and exist now only in fragments scattered over the ground. It may be that many of them were not built wholly of hewn stone, and had not “Egyptian solidity” with their other characteristics.
The most important of those remaining was named “Casa del Gobernador” by the Spaniards. It is 320 feet long, and was built of hewn stone laid in mortar or cement. The faces of the walls are smooth up to the cornice. Then follows, on all the four sides, “one solid mass of rich, complicated, and elaborately sculptured ornaments, forming a sort of arabesque.” Figure 36 gives a view of the south end of this edifice, but no engraving can show all the details of the ornamentation.
View of south side of the Casa del Gobernador, UxmalFig. 36.—Casa del Gobernador, Uxmal.
This building has eleven doorways in front, and one at each end, all having wooden lintels, which have fallen. The two principal rooms are 60 feet long, and from 11 to 13 feet wide. This structure is long and narrow[132] The arrangement and number of the rooms are shown in the following ground plan of the building (Figure 37):
Plan of Casa del GobernadorFig. 37.—Ground Plan of Casa del Gobernador
Double-headed jaguar in front of the Casa del Gobernador, UxmalFig. 38.—Double-headed Figure, Casa del Gobernador.
Detail of stone mosaic architectural sculpture, Casa del Gobernador, UxmalFig. 39.—Decorations over Doorway, Casa del Gobernador.
[135]It stands on the summit of one of the grandest of the terraced foundations. This foundation, like all the others, is pyramidal. It has three terraces. The lowest is 3 feet high, 15 wide, and 575 long; the second is 20 feet high, 275 wide, and 545 long; the third, 19 feet high, 30 wide, and 360 long. Structures formerly existed on the second terrace, remains of which are visible. At the northwest corner one of them still shows its dilapidated walls, portions of them being sufficiently complete to show what they were. This edifice was 94 feet long and 34 wide. It seems to have been finely finished in a style more simple than that of the great “casa” on the upper terrace. The figures of turtles sculptured along the upper edge of the cornice have given it the current designation, “House of the Turtles.” Sculptured monuments have been found buried in the soil of the second terrace. The opening of a small, low mound situated on it brought to view the double-headed figure shown in No. 38Figure 39 shows part of the sculptured decoration over the centre doorway of Casa del Gobernador.
Another important edifice at Uxmal has been named “Casa de las Monjas,” House of the Nuns. It stands on a terraced foundation, and is arranged around a quadrangular court-yard 258 feet one way and 214 the other. The front structure is 279 feet long, and has a gateway in the centre 10 feet 8 inches wide leading into the court, and four doors on each side of it. The outer face of the wall, above the cornice, is ornamented with sculptures. The terrace without and within the inclosure was found covered with a very dense growth of vegeta[136]tion, which it was necessary to clear away before the walls could be carefully examined. All the doorways, save those in front, open on the court. Mr. Stephens found the four great façades fronting the court-yard “ornamented from one end to the other with the richest and most intricate carving known to the builders of Uxmal, presenting a scene of strange magnificence which surpasses any other now seen among its ruins.” The[137] long outer structure, on the side facing the entrance, had high turret-like elevations over each of its thirteen doorways, all covered with sculptured ornaments. This building appears to have inclosed another of older date. Figure 40 shows the ground plan of “Las Monjas.”
Plan of the Nunnery Group, Uxmal.Fig. 40.—Ground Plan of Las Monjas, Uxmal.
Other less important edifices in the ruins of Uxmal have been described by explorers, some of which stand on high pyramidal mounds; and inscriptions are found here, but they are not so abundant as at Palenque and Copan.


The ruins known as Kabah are on the site of what must have been one of the most imposing and important of the more ancient cities. Here the most conspicuous object is a stone-faced mound 180 feet square at the base, with a range of ruined apartments at the bottom. Three or four hundred yards from this mound is a terraced foundation 20 feet high and 200 by 142 in extent, on which stand the remains of a great edifice. At the right of the esplanade before it is a “high range of ruined structures overgrown with trees, with an immense back wall on the outer line of the esplanade perpendicular to the bottom of the terrace.” On the left is another range of ruined buildings, and in the centre a stone inclosure 27 feet square and 7 feet high, with sculptures and inscriptions around the base. Some of the ornamentation of this building has been described in the strongest terms of admiration. Mr. Stephens said of it, “The cornice running over the doorways, tried by the severest rules of[138] art recognized among us, would embellish the architecture of any known era.” At Uxmal the walls were smooth below the cornice; here they are covered with decorations from top to bottom.
This field of ruins is extensive, and only a portion of it has been examined. It is so overgrown that exploration is very difficult. The buildings and mounds are much decayed, and they seem to be very old. It is believed that ruined edifices of which nothing is known are hidden among the trees in places which no explorer has approached. Mr. Stephens gave the first account of Kabah, and described three other important edifices besides that already named. One of these he thought was, when entire, the most imposing structure at Kabah. It was 147 feet long by 106 wide, and had three distinct stories, each successive story being smaller than that below it. Another, standing on the upper terrace of an elevated foundation 170 feet long by 110 broad, was 164 feet in length, and comparatively narrow. It is mentioned as a peculiarity of this edifice that it had pillars in its doorways, used as supports. The other, found standing on a terrace, is also long and narrow, and has a comparatively plain front.
Remains of other buildings are visible, but in all cases they are so completely in ruins as to be little more than heaps of débris. Some of the ruins in the woods beyond that part of the field which is most accessible, are visible from the great mound described. A resolute attempt to penetrate the forest brought the explorers in view of great edifices standing on an elevated terrace estimated[139] to be 800 feet long by 100 feet wide. The decorations seemed to have been abundant and very rich, but the structures were in a sad state of dilapidation. One remarkable monument found at Kabah resembles a triumphal arch. It stands by itself on a ruined mound apart from the other structures. It is described as a “lonely arch, having a span of 14 feet,” rising on the field of ruins “in solitary grandeur.” Figure 41 gives a view of it.
View of the Arch at Kabah.Fig. 41.—Ruined Arch at Kabah.
[140]Kabah was an ancient city. The ruins are old, and the city may have belonged to the first age of the Maya period.


The ruins of Chichen-Itza are situated east of Mayapan, about half way between the eastern and western coasts of the peninsula of Yucatan. A public road runs through the space of ground over which they are spread. The area covered by them is something less than a mile in diameter. The general character of the ruined structures found here is in every respect like that shown by ruins already described.
One of the great buildings at this place has a rude, unornamental exterior, and does not stand on an artificial terrace, although the ground before it was excavated so as to give the appearance of an elevated foundation. It is one hundred and forty-nine feet long by forty-eight deep. Its special peculiarity consists of a stone lintel, in a very dark inner room, which has an inscription and a sculptured figure on the under side. The writing closely resembles that seen at Palenque and Copan. Was this sculptured stone made originally for the place it now occupies, or was it taken from the ruins of some older city which flourished and went to decay before Chichen-Itza was built?
Another structure seen here closely resembles Las Monjas at Uxmal, and bears the same name, but it differs somewhat from the Uxmal Monjas in arrangement. In the descriptions, special mention is made of “the richness and beauty” of its ornaments.
[141]A noticeable edifice connected with the Monjas, called the “Church,” is 26 feet long, 14 deep, 31 high, and has three cornices, the spaces between them being covered with carved ornaments. There is but one room in it. One of the most picturesque ruins at Chichen-Itza is circular in form, and stands on the upper level of a double-terraced platform. It is 22 feet in diameter, and has four doors, which face the cardinal points. Above the cornice it slopes gradually almost to a point, and the top is about 60 feet above the ground. The grand staircase of 20 steps, leading up to this building, is 45 feet wide, and has a sort of balustrade formed of the entwined bodies of huge serpents. At some distance from this is the ruined structure known as the “Casa Colorada,” or Red House. This is shown in Figure 42.
View of the Casa Colorada.Fig. 42.—Casa Colorada.
[142]It is 43 feet long by 23 deep, and stands on a platform 62 feet long by 55 wide. It was ornamented above the cornice, but the decorations are much defaced by decay. A stone tablet extending the whole length of the back wall, inside, is covered by an inscription.
A remarkable structure is found at this place, which Mr. Stephens called the “Gymnasium, or Tennis Court.” It consists of two immense parallel walls 274 feet long, 30 thick, and 120 apart. On elevations facing the two ends of the open space between them, 100 feet from the ends of the walls, stand two edifices much ruined, but showing, in their remains, that they were richly ornamented. Midway in the length of the walls, facing each other, and 20 feet above the ground, are two massive stone rings or circles 4 feet in diameter, each having in the centre a hole 1 foot and 7 inches in diameter. On the borders around these holes two entwined serpents are sculptured, as seen in Figure 43.
There was a similar structure in the old city of Mexico, and remains of one like it are found at Mayapan. They were, probably, used for games of some kind. Among the other ruins at Chichen-Itza are the remains of a lofty edifice which has two high ranges or stories. On the outside the ornamentation is simple and tasteful, but the walls of its chambers are very elaborately decorated, mostly with sculptured designs, which seem to have been painted. In one of the upper rooms Mr. Stephens found a beam of sapote wood used as a lintel, which was covered with very elegantly carved decorations. The walls of this room were covered, from the[143] bottom to the top of the arched ceiling, with painted designs similar to those seen in the Mexican “picture writing.” Decay had mutilated these “pictures,” but the colors were still bright. There are indications that painting was generally used by the aboriginal builders, even on their sculptures. The colors seen in this room were green, red, yellow, blue, and reddish-brown. Another edifice, standing on a high mound, is reached by means of the usual great stairway, which begins at the bottom, with a sort of balustrade on each side, the ends of which are stone figures of heads of immense serpents.
Ball-court ring, Chichen ItzaFig. 43.—Great Stone Ring.
[144]Not far from this is a singular ruin, consisting of groups of small columns standing in rows five abreast, the tallest being not more than six feet high. Many of them have fallen. It is impossible to determine how they were used, or what they mean.


Izamal, Labna, Zayi, and some of the other ruins are sufficiently important for special notice; but they present every where the same characteristics, differing a little in the style or method of ornamentation. At Labna there is among the ruins an ancient gateway, beautiful in design and construction, a view of which is given in the Frontispiece. The best account of some of the other ruins on this peninsula can be found in the volumes of Mr. Stephens, entitled “Incidents of Travel in Yucatan.” At Zayi there is a singular building, which, as seen at a distance by Mr. Stephens, “had the appearance of a New England factory.” But what seemed to be a “factory” is, in fact, nothing more than a massive wall with oblong openings, which runs along the middle of the roof, and rises thirty feet above it. The building was below this wall, but the front part of it had fallen. Among the remains at Xcoch is the great mound represented in Figure 44.
There is a remarkable ruin at Ake, at the south, which deserves mention. Here, on the summit of a great mound, very level, and 225 feet by 50 in extent, stand 36 shafts or columns, in three parallel rows. The columns are about 15 feet high and 4 feet square. The[145] ruins of Ake, which cover a great space, are ruder and more massive than most of the others. The island of Cozumel and the adjacent coast of Yucatan were populous when the Spaniards first went there, but the great towns then inhabited are now in ruins.
View of unexcavated structureFig. 44.—Great Mound at Xcoch.
Water is scarce on this peninsula, and a sufficient supply is not obtained without considerable difficulty. The ancient inhabitants provided for this lack of water by constructing aguadas or artificial ponds. These, or many of them, doubtless, are as old as the oldest of the ruined[146] cities. Intelligence, much skill in masonry, and much labor were required to construct them. They were paved with several courses of stone laid in cement, and in their bottoms wells or cavities were constructed. More than forty such wells were found in the bottom of one of these aguadas at Galal, which has been repaired and restored to use. A section of the bottom of this aguada is shown in Figure 45. In some places long subterranean passages lead down to pools of water, which are used in the dry season. One of these subterranean reservoirs, and the cavernous passage leading to it, are shown inFigure 46. The reservoir is 450 feet below the surface of the ground, and the passage leading to it is about 1400 feet long. Branching passages, not shown, lead to two or three other basins of water.
Section showing wells and chultuns below an aguadaFig. 45.—Bottom of an Aguada.
Section of X'tacumbil Xunaam caveFig. 46.—Subterranean Reservoir.
The wooden lintels, which are common in Yucatan,[147] do not appear in the other ruins, and there is a difference in the style of ornamentation between those at Palenque or Copan, for instance, and those at Uxmal, but every where the architecture is regulated by the same idea, the differences indicating nothing more than[148] different periods and different phases of development in the history of the same people.
Plan of Tulum, showing wall surrounding structures in the center of the siteFig. 47.—Plan of the Walls at Tuloom.
Some of the great edifices in these old ruins, such as the “Palace” at Palenque, and the “Casa del Gobernador” at Uxmal, remind us of the “communal buildings” of the Pueblos, and yet there is a wide difference between them. They are not alike either in character or purpose, although such great buildings as the “Palace” may have been designed for the occupation of several families. There is no indication that “communal” residences were ever common in this part of the country. At the time of the Conquest the houses of the people were ordinary family dwellings, made of wood, and we may reasonably suppose this fashion of building was handed down from the earlier ages. Herrera, who supposed, mistakenly, that all the great stone edifices were[149] temples, said, in his account of Yucatan, “There were so many and such stately stone buildings that it was amazing; and the greatest wonder was that, having no use of any metal, they were able to raise such structures, which seem to have been temples; for their houses were all of timber, and thatched.” But they had the use of metals, and they had the art of making some of them admirable for use in cutting stone and carving wood.
View of structure at TulumFig. 48.—Watch-tower at Tuloom.
[150]Among the buildings of later date are some of those on the western coast, which were still inhabited three hundred and fifty years ago. The city of Tuloom was inhabited then.Figure 47 shows a ground plan of the walls of this city, with the position of some of the ruined monuments.
Within the walls are remains of finely constructed buildings on elevated foundations, none of them, however, very large. One of them had a wooden roof, and timber seems to have been considerably used here. The walls still standing were made of hewn stone. Remains of stone edifices exist all along this coast, but the whole region is now covered by a dense growth of trees and other vegetation. Tuloom was seen in 1518 by Grijalva, who sailed along the coast. At that time the island of Cozumel, where noteworthy ruins are found, was inhabited by many people. Figure 48 shows one of the watch-towers on the walls of Tuloom.


The Mexican and Central American ruins make it certain that in ancient times an important civilization existed in that part of the continent, which must have begun at a remote period in the past. If they have any significance, this must be accepted as an ascertained fact. A large proportion of them had been forgotten in the forests, or become mythical and mysterious, long before the arrival of the Spaniards.
In 1520, three hundred and fifty years ago, the forest which so largely covers Yucatan, Guatemala, and Chiapa was growing as it grows now; yes, four hundred and fifty years ago, for it was there a century previous to this date, when, the Maya kingdom being broken up, one of its princes fled into this forest with a portion of his people, the Itzas, and settled at Lake Peten. It was the same then as now. How many additional centuries it had existed no one can tell. If its age could be told, it would still be necessary to consider that the ruins hidden in it are much older than the forest, and that the period of civilization they represent closed long before it was established.
In the ages previous to the beginning of this immense forest, the region it covers was the seat of a civilization[152] which grew up to a high degree of development, flourished a long time, and finally declined, until its cities were deserted, and its cultivated fields left to the wild influences of nature. It may be safely assumed that both the forest-covered ruins and the forest itself are far older than the Aztec period; but who can tell how much older? Copan, first discovered and described three hundred years ago, was then as strange to the natives dwelling near it as the old Chaldean ruins are to the Arabs who wander over the wasted plains of Lower Mesopotamia. Native tradition had forgotten its history and become silent in regard to it. How long had ruined Copan been in this condition? No one can tell. Manifestly it was forgotten, left buried in the forest without recollection of its history, long before Montezuma’s people, the Aztecs, rose to power; and it is easily understood that this old city had an important history previous to that unknown time in the past when war, revolution, or some other agency of destruction put an end to its career and left it to become what it is now.
Moreover, these old ruins, in all cases, show us only the cities last occupied in the periods to which they belong. Doubtless others still older preceded them; and, besides, it can be seen that some of the ruined cities which can now be traced were several times renewed by reconstructions. We must consider, also, that building magnificent cities is not the first work of an original civilization. The development was necessarily gradual. Its first period was more or less rude. The art of building and ornamenting such edifices arose slowly. Many[153] ages must have been required to develop such admirable skill in masonry and ornamentation. Therefore the period between the beginning of this mysterious development of civilized life and the first builders who used cut stone laid in mortar and cement, and covered their work with beautifully sculptured ornaments and inscriptions, must have been very long.
We have no measure of the time, no clew to the old dates, nothing whatever, beyond such considerations as I have stated, to warrant even a vague hypothesis. It can be seen clearly that the beginning of this old civilization was much older than the earliest great cities, and, also, that these were much more ancient than the time when any of the later built or reconstructed cities whose relics still exist, were left to decay. If we suppose Palenque to have been deserted some six hundred years previous to the Spanish Conquest, this date will carry us back only to the last days of its history as an inhabited city. Beyond it, in the distant past, is a vast period, in which the civilization represented by Palenque was developed, made capable of building such cities, and then carried on through the many ages during which cities became numerous, flourished, grew old, and gave place to others, until the long history of Palenque itself began.
Those who have sought to discredit what is told of the Aztec civilization and the empire of Montezuma have never failed to admit fully the significance of Copan, Palenque, and Mitla. One or two writers, pursuing the assumption that the barbarous tribes at the north and[154] the old Mexicans were of the same race, and substantially the same people, have undertaken to give us the history of Montezuma’s empire “entirely rewritten,” and show that his people were “Mexican savages.” In their hands Montezuma is transformed into a barbarous Indian chief, and the city of Mexico becomes a rude Indian village, situated among the islands and lagoons of an everglade which afforded unusual facilities “for fishing and snaring birds.” One goes so far as to maintain this with considerable vehemence and amusing unconsciousness of absurdity. He is sure that Montezuma was nothing more than the principal chief of a parcel of wild Indian tribes, and that the Pueblos are wild Indians changed to their present condition by Spanish influence. There is something in this akin to lunacy.
But this topic will receive more attention in another place. I bring it to view here because those who maintain so strangely that the Aztecs were Indian savages, admit all that is claimed for the wonderful ruins at the south, and give them a very great antiquity. They maintain, however, that the civilization represented by these ruins was brought to this continent in remote pre-historic times by the people known as Phœnicians, and their method of finding the Phœnicians at Palenque, Copan, and every where else, is similar in character and value to that by which they transform the Aztec empire into a rude confederacy of wild Indians.


It is a point of no little interest that these old constructions belong to different periods in the past, and represent somewhat different phases of civilization. Uxmal, which is supposed to have been partly inhabited when the Spaniards arrived in the country, is plainly much more modern than Copan or Palenque. This is easily traced in the ruins. Its edifices were finished in a different style, and show fewer inscriptions. Round pillars, somewhat in the Doric style, are found at Uxmal, but none like the square, richly-carved pillars, bearing inscriptions, discovered in some of the other ruins. Copan and Palenque, and even Kabah, in Yucatan, may have been very old cities, if not already old ruins, when Uxmal was built. Accepting the reports of explorers as correct, there is evidence in the ruins that Quirigua is older than Copan, and that Copan is older than Palenque. The old monuments in Yucatan represent several distinct epochs in the ancient history of that peninsula. Some of them are kindred to those hidden in the great forest, and remind us more of Palenque than of Uxmal. Among those described, the most modern, or most of these, are in Yucatan; they belong to the time when the kingdom of the Mayas flourished. Many of the others belong to ages previous to the rise of this kingdom; and in ages still earlier, ages older than the great forest, there were other cities, doubtless, whose remains have perished utterly, or were long ago removed for use in the later constructions.
[156]The evidence of repeated reconstructions in some of the cities before they were deserted has been pointed out by explorers. I have quoted what Charnay says of it in his description of Mitla. At Palenque, as at Mitla, the oldest work is the most artistic and admirable. Over this feature of the monuments, and the manifest signs of their difference in age, the attention of investigators has lingered in speculation. They find in them a significance which is stated as follows by Brasseur de Bourbourg: “Among the edifices forgotten by time in the forests of Mexico and Central America, we find architectural characteristics so different from each other, that it is as impossible to attribute them all to the same people as to believe they were all built at the same epoch.” In his view, “the substructions at Mayapan, some of those at Tulha, and a great part of those at Palenque,” are among the older remains. These are not the oldest cities whose remains are still visible, but they may have been built, in part, upon the foundations of cities much more ancient.


No well considered theory of these ruins can avoid the conclusion that most of them are very ancient, and that, to find the origin of the civilization they represent, we must go far back into the “deeps of antiquity.” On all the fields of desolation where they exist, every thing perishable has disappeared. Wooden lintels are mentioned, but these can hardly be regarded as constituting an exception when the character of the wood, and the cir[157]cumstances that contributed to their preservation, are considered. Moreover, wooden lintels seem to have been peculiar to Yucatan, where many of the great edifices were constructed in the later times, and some of them of perishable materials. Every where in the older ruins, nothing remains but the artificial mounds and foundations of earth, the stone, the cement, the stucco hard as marble, and other imperishable materials used by the builders.
If the edifices had all been made of wood, there would now be nothing to show us that the older cities had ever existed. Every trace of them would have been obliterated long before our time, and most of them would have disappeared entirely long before the country was seen by the Spaniards. The places where they stood, with no relics save the mounds and pyramidal platforms, would resemble the works of our Mound-Builders, and not a few “sound historical critics” would consider it in the highest degree absurd to suggest that cities with such structures have ever existed there. Under the circumstances supposed, how wisely skepticism could talk against a suggestion of this kind at Copan, Mitla, or Palenque! and how difficult it would be to find a satisfactory answer to its reasonings! Nevertheless, those mysterious structures have not wholly disappeared, and we can easily understand that there was a time when large areas connected with them were covered with buildings of a less durable character.
I have referred to a writer who maintains, with more vehemence than candor, that the Aztecs, and all the oth[158]er people found in the country, were “savages” not greatly different from the wild Indians farther north, while he admits the significance and great antiquity of these ruins. His conception of their antiquity is somewhat extreme, for he says they must have existed “for thousands of years” when the Spaniards arrived. If he had maintained that civilized communities were there “thousands of years” previous to that time, developing the skill in architecture, decoration, and writing, to which the monuments bear witness, it might be possible to agree with him. Some of us, however, would probably stipulate that he should not count too many “thousands,” nor claim a similar antiquity for the ruins now visible. It is not easy to suppose that any of these old monuments, with their well-preserved sculptures and inscriptions, represent the first period of the ancient history they suggest, nor that they have existed as ruins many “thousands of years,” for the climate of Mexico and Central America does not preserve such remains like that of Egypt.
Nevertheless, some of them must be very old. The forest established since the ruin began, the entire disappearance of every thing more perishable than stone, the utter oblivion which veiled their history in the time of Montezuma, and probably long previous to his time, all these facts bear witness to their great antiquity. In many of them, as at Quirigua and Kabah, the stone structures have become masses of débris; and even at Copan, Palenque, and Mitla, only a few of them are 
 well preserved to show us what they were in the[159] great days of their history. Meanwhile, keep in mind that the ruined cities did not begin their present condition until the civilization that created them had declined; and, also, that if we could determine exactly the date when they were deserted and left to decay, we should only reach that point in the past where their history as inhabited cities was brought to a close.
Take Copan, for instance. This city may have become a ruin during the time of the Toltecs, which began long before the Christian era, and ended some five or six centuries probably before the country was invaded by Cortez. It was built before their time, for the style of writing, and many features of the architecture and ornamentation, show the workmanship of their predecessors, judging by the historical intimations found in the old books and traditions. We may suppose it to have been an old city at the time of the Toltec invasion, although not one of the first cities built by that more ancient and more cultivated people by whom this old American civilization was originated. The present condition of the monuments at Quirigua is still more suggestive of great age.


Some investigators, who have given much study to the antiquities, traditions, old books, and probable geological history of Mexico and Central America, believe that the first civilization the world ever saw appeared in this part of Ancient America, or was immediately connected with it. They hold that the human race first rose to civilized[160] life in America, which is, geologically, the oldest of the continents; and that, ages ago, the portion of this continent on which the first civilizers appeared was sunk beneath the waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Usually the ingulfing of this portion of the land is supposed to have been effected by some tremendous convulsion of nature; and there is appeal to recollections of such a catastrophe, said to have been preserved in the old books of Central America, and also in those of Egypt, from which Solon received an account of the lost Atlantis.
According to this hypothesis, the American continent formerly extended from Mexico, Central America, and New Granada far into the Atlantic Ocean toward Europe and Africa, covering all the space now occupied by the Caribbean Sea, the Gulf of Mexico, and the West India islands, and going far beyond them toward the east and northeast. This lost portion of the continent was the Atlantis of which the old annals of Egypt told so much in the time of Solon, as we learn from Plato; and it was the original seat of the first human civilization, which, after the great cataclysm, was renewed and perpetuated in the region where we now trace the mysterious remains of ancient cities. Those desiring to know what can be said in support of this view of Ancient America must read the later volumes of Brasseur de Bourbourg, especially his “Quatre Lettres sur le Mexique,” and his “Sources de l’Histoire Primitive du Mexique,” etc. He is not a perspicuous writer; he uses but little system in treating the subject, and he introduces many fanciful speculations which do more to embarrass[161] than to help the discussion; but those who read the books patiently can find and bring together all that relates to the point in question, and consider it in their own way. They can also find it set forth and defended in a small volume by George Catlin, entitled “The Lifted and Subsided Rocks of America,” published in London, not long since, by Trübner and Company.
I shall give more attention to this theory in the next chapter. I refer to it here on account of the very great antiquity it claims for the ancient American civilization. It represents that the advanced human development whose crumbling monuments are studied at Copan, Mitla, and Palenque antedates every thing else in the human period of our globe, excepting, perhaps, an earlier time of barbarism and pastoral simplicity; that its history goes back through all the misty ages of pre-historic time to an unknown date previous to the beginning of such civilization in any part of the Old World. It is hardly possible to make it more ancient.