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 The Great Ruins at the South

(This is taken from John D. Baldwin's Ancient America, originally published in 1871.)

Arch of Las Monjas



To find the chief seats and most abundant remains of the most remarkable civilization of this old American race, we must go still farther south into Central America and some of the more southern states of Mexico. Here ruins of many ancient cities have been discovered, cities which must have been deserted and left to decay in ages previous to the beginning of the Aztec supremacy. Most of these ruins were found buried in dense forests, where, at the time of the Spanish Conquest, they had been long hidden from observation.

The ruins known as Palenque, for instance, seem to have been entirely unknown to both natives and Spaniards until about the year 1750. Cortez and some of his companions went through the open region near the forest in which these ruins are situated without hearing of them or suspecting their existence. The great ruins known as Copan were in like manner unknown in the time of Cortez. The Spaniards assaulted and captured a native town not far from the forest that covered them, but heard nothing of the ruins. The captured town, called Copan, afterward gave its name to the remains of this nameless ancient city, which were first discovered in 1576, and described by the Spanish licentiate Palacios. This was little more than forty years after the native town was captured; but, although Palacios tried, “in all possible ways,” to get from the older and more intelligent natives some account of the origin and history of the ruined city, they could tell him nothing about it. To them the ruins were entirely mythical and mysterious. With the facts so accessible, and the antiquity of the ruins so manifest, it is very singular that Mr. Stephens fell into the mistake of confounding this ruined city, situated in an old forest that was almost impenetrable, with the town captured by the Spaniards. The ruins here were discovered accidentally; and to approach them it was necessary, as at Palenque, to cut paths through the dense tropical undergrowth of the forest.

To understand the situation of most of the old ruins in Central America, one must know something of the wild condition of the country. Mr. Squier says:

“By far the greater proportion of the country is in its primeval state, and covered with dense, tangled, and almost impenetrable tropical forests, rendering fruitless all attempts at systematic investigation. There are vast tracts untrodden by human feet, or traversed only by Indians who have a superstitious reverence for the moss-covered and crumbling monuments hidden in the depths of the wilderness. * * * For these and other reasons, it will be long before the treasures of the past, in Central America, can become fully known.”

A great forest of this character covers the southern-half of Yucatan, and extends far into Guatemala, which is half covered by it. It extends also into Chiapa and Tabasco, and reaches into Honduras. The ruins known as Copan and Palenque are in this forest, not far from its southern edge. Its vast depths have never been much explored. There are ruins in it which none but wandering natives have ever seen, and some, perhaps, which no human foot has approached for ages. It is believed that ruins exist in nearly every part of this vast wilderness.

According to the old Central American books and traditions, some of the principal seats of the earliest civilization, that of the “Colhuas,” was in this forest-covered region. In their time the whole was cultivated and filled with inhabitants. Here was a populous and important part of the Colhuan kingdom of “Xibalba,” which, after a long existence, was broken up by the Toltecs, and which had a relation, in time, to the Aztec dominion of Montezuma, much like that of the old monarchy of Egypt to the kingdom of the Ptolemies.

In the time of the Spaniards there was in the forest at Lake Peten a solitary native town, founded nearly a century previous to their time by a Maya prince of Itza, who, with a portion of his people, fled from Yucatan to that lonely region to escape from the disorder and bloodshed of a civil war. This was the civil war which destroyed Mayapan, and broke up the Maya kingdom of Yucatan. In 1695, Don Martin Ursua, a Spanish official, built a road from Yucatan to Lake Peten, captured the town, and destroyed it. He reported that the builders of this road found evidence that “wrecks of ancient cities lie buried in this wilderness.” All along the route they discovered vestiges of ruins, and special mention is made of “remains of edifices on raised terraces, deserted and overgrown, and apparently very ancient.”


Should you visit the ruins of one of these mysterious old cities, you would see scattered over a large area great edifices in different stages of decay, which were erected on the level summits of low pyramidal mounds or platforms. The summits of these mounds are usually of sufficient extent to furnish space for extensive terraces or “grounds,” as well as room for the buildings. The edifices were built of hewn stone laid in a mortar of lime and sand, the masonry being admirable, and the ornamentation, in most cases, very abundant. The pyramid-foundations of earth were faced with hewn stone, and provided with great stone stairways. These, we may suppose, were the most important buildings in the old city. The ordinary dwellings, and all the other less important structures, must have been made chiefly of wood or some other material, which had perished entirely long ago and left no trace, for at present their remains are no more visible than those of the forest leaves which grew five hundred years ago.

One explorer of Palenque says: “For five days did I wander up and down among these crumbling monuments of a city which, I hazard little in saying, must have been one of the largest ever seen.” There is, however, nothing to show us certainly the actual size of any of these ancient cities. It is manifest that some of them were very large; but, as only the great structures made of stone remain to be examined, the actual extent of the areas covered by the other buildings can not be determined.

The chief peculiarity of these ruins, that which especially invites attention, is the evidence they furnish that their builders had remarkable skill in architecture and architectural ornamentation. All who have visited them bear witness that the workmanship was of a high order. The rooms and corridors in these edifices were finely and often elaborately finished, plaster, stucco, and sculpture being used. In one room of a great building at Uxmal Mr. Stephens says “the walls were coated with a very fine plaster of Paris, equal to the best seen on walls in this country.” Speaking of the construction of this edifice, he says, “throughout, the laying and polishing of the stones are as perfect as under the rules of the best modern masonry.” All the ruins explored have masonry of the same character. The floors, especially of the courts and corridors, were made sometimes of flat stones admirably wrought and finely polished, and sometimes of cement, which is now “as hard as stone.” Mr. Stephens, describing corridors of the “Palace” at Palenque, says “the floors are of cement, as hard as the best seen in the remains of Roman baths and cisterns.”

The ornamentation is no less remarkable than the masonry and architectural finish. It is found on the walls within and without, and appears in elaborate designs on the heavy cornices. The exterior ornamentation is generally carved or sculptured on the smooth surface of the stone, and must have required a vast amount of time and labor, as well as skillful artists. In some of the ruins inscriptions are abundant, being found on walls, tablets, and pillars. The general effect of the exterior decoration is thus described by Mr. Stephens in the account of his first view of the ruins at Palenque: “We saw before us a large building richly ornamented with stuccoed figures on pilasters, curious and elegant; trees growing close to it, and their branches entering the doors; the style and effect of structure and ornament unique, extraordinary, and mournfully beautiful.” In a description of the walls around an interior court of a building at Uxmal, we have this tribute to the artistic skill of the decorators: “It would be difficult, in arranging four sides facing a court-yard, to have more variety, and, at the same time, more harmony of ornament.”

In some of the ruins, and especially at Copan, there are clusters of four-sided stone pillars or obelisks varying from twelve to over twenty feet high. These are elaborately sculptured, and show human figures, ornamental designs, and many inscriptions. One or two statues have been discovered, and a statuette twelve inches high is described; “it is made of baked clay, very hard, and the surface is smooth as if coated with enamel.” At Palenque are remains of a well-built aqueduct; and near the ruins, especially in Yucatan, are frequently found the remains of many finely constructed aguadas or artificial lakes. The bottoms of these lakes were made of flat stones laid in cement, several layers deep. In Yucatan traces of a very ancient paved road have been found. This road ran north and south, and probably led to cities in the region now covered by the great wilderness. It was raised above the graded level of the ground, and made very smooth.

These antiquities show that this section of the continent was anciently occupied by a people admirably skilled in the arts of masonry, building, and architectural decoration. Some of their works can not be excelled by the best of our constructors and decorators. They were highly skilled, also, in the appliances of civilized life, and they had the art of writing, a fact placed beyond dispute by their many inscriptions.

A more particular account of some of these ruins will be given in the next chapter. Among the more important works relating to them are those of Stephens and Catherwood, some of the volumes of Mr. Squier, Frederick Waldeck’s work, and a recent French volume by Desiré Charnay, which is accompanied by a folio volume of photographs. Palacios, who described Copan in 1576, may properly be called the first explorer. A brief account of Palenque was prepared by Captain Del Rio in 1787, and published in 1822. Captain Dupaix’s folios, in French, with the drawings of Casteñada, contain the first really important memoir on these ruins. It was prepared in 1807, detained in Mexico during the Mexican Revolution, and finally published at Paris in 1834-5. The volumes of Brasseur de Bourbourg are valuable. They relate chiefly to matters not always understood, and seldom discussed with care, by those who merely visit and describe the monuments, such as the writing, books, and traditions of the ancient Mexican and Central American people. His style is diffuse, sometimes confused, and rather tedious; and some of his theories are very fanciful. But he has discovered the key to the Maya alphabet and translated one of the old Central American books. No careful student of American archæology can afford to neglect what he has written on this subject.








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