Friday, March 22, 2019

The Ancient Cities of the New World by Désiré Charnay

On the trail of the Toltecs
Désiré Charnay, a French archaeologist, made two expeditions to Mexico and Central America to explore the remains of ancient cities of pre-Columbian civilizations. His 1887 book The Ancient Cities of the New World details his second trip to the region in 1880-1883, while also referring briefly to his first expedition there in 1857. This book provides a descriptive overview of many archaeological sites, as well as the towns and people that Charnay encountered along the way. The narrative takes place almost entirely in Mexico, except for a couple chapters towards the end in which Charnay visits Mayan ruins in Guatemala. Charnay took photographs during his travels, which were then copied into engravings for reproduction, resulting in a richly illustrated book.

I have traveled extensively in Mexico and have visited many of the archaeological sites that Charnay describes here, including Teotichuacán, Chichen Itza, Palenque, Mitla, and Monte Alban, as well as cities like Veracruz, Puebla, and Mérida. For a Mexicophile like me, it is a joy to read Charnay’s travelogue and get a glimpse of what Mexico was like over a century and a quarter ago. Back then, many of these ancient cities were just beginning to be uncovered. When Charnay stayed at Chichen Itza, for example, the main pyramid was still mostly covered with vegetation, and he and his crew camped in the temple at the top of the pyramid! The book gives an interesting look into an explorer’s life, even though many of the methods and techniques he used might not be considered scientifically acceptable, ethical, or culturally sensitive today.

Charnay ventured so widely and spent so little time at each site, it is hard to believe he was considered an expert on any of the sites he visited. Wherever he goes, he wants to collect artifacts and send them back to the Trocadéro Museum in Paris. He laments the fact that newly established laws concerning cultural patrimony demand that most of his finds end up in the hands of the Mexican government. As an archaeological treatise, I’m not sure how much of Charnay’s conclusions have held up to the test of time. His oft-repeated thesis is that the Toltecs, as progenitors of all Mexican cultures, were responsible for just about every aspect of North American pre-Columbian civilization, thus lessening the contributions of the Olmecs, Aztecs, Maya, and everyone else. He also argues rightly that many of the sites he visited are not thousands of years old, as previously conjectured, but were occupied shortly before the Spanish conquest.

Though the book may or may not have its scientific shortcomings, as a travel narrative it is certainly an enjoyable read. At times it can get boring when Charnay is rattling of measurements or describing artwork that would be better off depicted outright, but he does flesh out his narrative with interesting bits of local legends and mythology. To be honest, the book is easier to like than the author himself, since Charnay often comes across as a conceited jerk. While he likens the ancient civilizations of the New World to Greece or Rome, he laments the barbaric travel accommodations he has to put up with in modern Mexico. He also expresses an almost lecherous attraction for young Latina women. His pomposity, fortunately, is usually more funny than offensive.

The contents of The Ancient Cities of the New World are probably too arcane for those with a casual interest in Mexican travel, but I would recommend it to readers with a genuine enthusiasm for Mexican history and archaeology, especially if you enjoy reading science history from the 19th century.
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