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Ancient Monuments

Mystic Places

Rebuilding Ancient Monuments in Mesoamerica

Most visitors to ancient sites of Mesoamerica are unaware that what they are seeing very often is the result of extensive restoration efforts. In most cases the results are very impressive, however some of these efforts are questionable (as far as accuracy is concerned) and push the boundary between restoration and "creative" re-construction.

Teotihuacán - Early Documentation and Excavations

Teotihuacan arose as a new religious center in the Mexican Highland, around the time of Christ. Although its incipient period (the first two centuries B.C.) is poorly understood, archaeological data show that the next two centuries (Tzacualli to Miccaotli phases; A.D. 1-200) were characterized by monumental construction, during which Teotihuacan quickly became the largest and most populous urban center in the New World. By this time, the city already appears to have expanded to approximately 20 square km, with about 60,000 to 80,000 inhabitants (Millon 1981:221).

Avenue of the Dead with Pyramid of the Moon, Teotihuacán
"Before and After"

Pyramid of the Moon at the end of the Avenue of the Dead, 1905.
Click on the photo to enlarge.


Pyramid of the Moon at the end of the Avenue of the Dead, now.


Pyramid of the Sun, 1832

Avenue of the Dead, 1878


Photographic Documentation by Désiré Charnay (1828-1915)

A traveler, archaeologist, and photographer, Désiré Charnay (1828-1915) was one of the most important early expeditionary photographers. During his tours of Yucatan, Oaxaca, and Chiapas in 1858-1860 and 1880-1886, Charnay became one of the first to use photography in documenting the great Meso-American archaeological sites and to make ethnographic photographs of indigenous Mexicans. His major publications Cités et Ruines Américaines (Paris, 1862) and Les Anciennes Villes du Nouveau Monde (Paris, 1885) are important transitional works to the later scientific archaeology of Alfred Maudslay.

The collection of photographs taken by Desire Charnay are representative of the range of images he took of Meso-American archaeological sites during three tours of Mexico in 1858-1860 and 1880-1886. Although some of the images have suffered an unfortunate degree of fading, they convey the power and fascination that these sites held for Charnay and his contemporaries, and include some of the best early examples of the use of photography in the documentation of Mexican archaeology.
The collection includes 123 images of the sites at Tula, Teotihuacan, Iztaccihuatl, Chichen Itza, Comalcalco, and Palenque, of archaeological specimens held at the Museum of Mexico, and of landscape and villages in Yucatan, Chiapas, and Oaxaca, as well as a series of Lacandon, Mayan, Mixtec, and Yucatec "racial types."

Pyramid of the Sun, Teotihuacán - photo by Charnay, Désiré
 Pyramide du soleil -- Teotihuacan
© American Philosophical Society

Charnay, Désiré, La pyramide du soleil à Teotihuacan
© American Philosophical Society

1880, Charnay, Désiré, Escaliers et pyramide sur la voie des morts à Teotihuacan © American Philosophical Society

Charnay, Désiré, Pyramide de la lune à Teotihuacan
© American Philosophical Society

The photographs are albumen prints, most of which were made from wet plate collodion negatives (for the earlier expedition) or dry plate (in the latter), and are mounted on two different types of mount, a standard white cardboard mount with thin black line bordering and a thinner green board. Each includes and hand-written title on the mount in French, and several are marked in pencil "Charnay." It seems probable that the prints were prepared from the negatives during a relatively narrow period of time, probably in the 1880s, but possibly as late as the turn of the century.

The collection was apparently assembled by the scientist Griffith Evans Abbot (1850-1927), who presented them to the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. The 15 cartes de visite included in the collection, mostly portraits taken in Peru, Chile, and Madeira, bear an uncertain relationship to the Charnay images, and are probably present simply because they were also once owned by Abbot. Although most are simple studio portraits, there are two interesting cartes depicting Hollways Hotel and the "Manner of carrying invalid" in Madeira, and two ethnographic type images, one of natives from Funchal, Madeira, and one of a "Choloe" [sic] type from Peru. One of the cartes from Madeira has an inscription indicating that it was presented by Lt. Frederick Schober, USN, in 1904.


Early XX century photo-documentation of Teotihuacán



Pyramid of the Sun, 1905

Leopoldo Batres (right), 1905 

Avenue of the Dead, 1905

  Temple of Quetzalcoatl, 1918

Temple of Quetzalcoatl, 1918

Temple of Quetzalcoatl, 1921


Quetzalpapalotl Palace 1962

Avenue of the Dead 1963


Restored Teotihuacan

Current view of the Pyramid of the Sun, Teotihuacan

Aerial photo of the Pyramid of the Sun, Teotihuacán.
You can see that many lines are not straight.

Satellite image of the Pyramid of the Sun.
Why is the front platform of the pyramid so crooked?


Chichen Itza

El Castillo

Sometimes called "The Castle", "The Pyramid of Kukulkan", or the "Pyramid of Quetzalcoatl" (another name for Kukulkan from the Toltecs) this is easily the most impressive and widely recognized of the structures in Chichén Itzá or indeed anywhere in the Mayan region. A true masterpiece of the Toltec-Mayan architectural genius. About 60% of it has been restored almost fully from the decaying condition in which it was re-discovered by John L. Stephens in 1841 although the eastern and southern faces are still partially eroded by the forces of time and weather. There are no plans to restore these two faces of the pyramid as those that restored the other portions wish for future generations to see the condition in which it was originally discovered.


El Castillo, Chichen Itza, Illustration by Frederic Catherwood, 1842

1860 Charnay, Désiré, La Castillo à Chichen Itza

Castil4.jpg (73830 bytes)

This photo shows the still ruined eastern and southern faces of El Castillo.

Un-restored Southern side of El Castillo.

Those that restored the other two faces, and the upper temple, left these sides untouched from how they were found in order to show future generations the condition from which it was restored.


El Caracol, the Observatory, Chichen Itza

El Caracol, the Observatory, was dedicated to the study of the movement of the stars and planets and is one of the most beautiful accomplishments of the Maya in Yucatán.
Although partially eroded, the curved roof of the observatory is responsible for the name it carries today. In fact, it is the action of the erosion that gives it this curved appearance similar to a modern observatory. The shape of the original structure was square.

El Caracol, the Observatory, Chichen Itza - "Before and After" images.

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