Major Archaeological Discovery Treasures of Chichen Itza

About the major archaeological discovery the treaures of Chichen Itza in the Yucatan, history of the Mayan ruins and treasure.

Discovery: TREASURES OF CHICHEN ITZA

Year: 1904

Location: 22 mi. west of Valladolid, Yucatan, Mexico

Discoverer: Edward Herbert Thompson

Findings: A flourishing center of Mayan culture as early as the 7th century A.D., Chichen Itza's glory had collapsed prior to the arrival in Mexico of the Spanish conquistadores in the 1500s. In 1839, John Lloyd Stephens, a lawyer-diplomat turned archaeologist, revived interest with fascinating tales of the buried and abandoned cities of Central America. Alfred Maudsley carried on his intensive work among Mayan ruins between 1881 and 1894. Both men inspired Thompson's search at Chichen Itza. There he hoped to prove his theory that the Mayans were the survivors of the legendary Atlantis.

Ignoring Itza's pyramidal temples, strangely reminiscent of Egypt, Thompson focused his efforts on the Well of Sacrifice, a cenote, or watering hole, approximately 300 yd. from the city. He reasoned that if treasures were to be found, they would be in the slimy depths of the well, where human sacrifices had allegedly been cast. To aid in his quest, he brought in a clam-shaped dredge and deep-sea diving equipment.

The choices were wise. The well, 180 ft. in diameter, had been formed when the thin limestone roof of an underground cavern had caved in, perhaps during an earthquake. The foulsmelling water 80 ft. below the vegetation-matted edge of the pit varied in clarity from a Stygian darkness to a seasonal, algae-caused reddish color, not unlike clotted blood. Thompson further learned, during dives, that the well's bottom, 36 ft. beneath the surface, was far from firm. Another 60 ft. of sucking mud, decayed vegetation, and animal bones continually threatened to claim him as the well's next victim.

Undaunted, Thompson explored from 1904 to 1907. He brought up golden bracelets, jade necklaces, copper chisels, numerous statuettes, and a staggering total of Mayan vessels and valuable ornaments. Along with this trove, he recovered skeletal remains of 50 bodies and claimed the bones to be those of beautiful young virgins sacrificed to the gods.

To convey the Itza treasures out of Yucatan and into the possession of his sponsor, the Peabody Museum of Harvard, Edward Thompson secretly and illicitly took advantage of his diplomatic position as consul. Years later, the enraged Mexican government learned that he had used the official U.S. diplomatic pouches, which were immune to customs examination, for concealment of his shipments. In 1959, after years of steady pressure, certain selected gold objects were returned to the Mexican government. The bulk of the collection, however, remains at Harvard.

Mexico's ire was partially appeased by new expeditions sent in 1961-1962 and 1967 with Carnegie Institute funding. During these years, another 2,600 items from the Mayan culture were reclaimed. The jungle site was further restored, and it promptly turned into one of Mexico's most popular tourist attractions.

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