Shortly after publication of this instant bestseller in 1843,
the Caste War of the Yucatán broke out (1847) limiting access
to many of the Yucatán's finest ruins. The Caste War closed
Yucatán and Quintana Roo borders to all but indigenous Maya
for nearly 60 years, making travel to the area downright dangerous.
Thompson, appointed archeological consul to the Yucatán in
1895, was one of the first explorers to tread the land after
the Caste War began. Although he never received formal training
in anthropology, geology, nor any other related discipline,
Thompson's work as anthropologist began in 1879 when he published
his thoughts on the Maya culture in a highly unscientific article
he wrote for Popular Science Magazine. Titled "Atlantis:
Not a Myth,"
Thompson attempted to link Socrates' lost continent with the
rediscovered Maya. Although he later disclaimed his theory,
Thompson felt the article gained him the notoriety he needed
to attract the attention of Vice President of the American Antiquarian
Society, Stephen Salisbury, an avid student of Maya culture.
In 1885 Salisbury chose Thompson to become a scientific investigator
of the ruins on the Yucatán Peninsula. One of Salisbury's friends,
a U.S. senator, asked the president to appoint Thompson American
consul to Mexico.
As the youngest consul ever, Thompson's post would be the Mexican
states of Yucatán and Campeche, and he would use this
post as a base from which to explore the ruins. With his wife,
the former Henrietta Hamblin, daughter of a retired whaling
captain, and their two month old daughter, Thompson headed south
He passed his first several months in Yucatán's capital,
where he began the slow process of getting acquainted. Thompson's
approach to learning about the Maya was to befriend them, study
their legends and psychology, and master the language, in which
he succeeded beautifully. He traveled widely in those early
months, trekking to all the known ancient cities and temple
sites (well over 100) to familiarize himself with the ruins
and the lay of the land. Unlike many of his more schooled counterparts,
Thompson learned to travel light and live on what he termed
"Indian food" which gave him a distinct advantage
over those of his colleagues who refused to "go native"
as Thompson had done.
Although Thompson's adventures would leave an indelible physical
mark on the man (an encounter with a poison trap in the jungle
left him lame in one leg) his archeological fame soared. He
was known for two coups -- his first was the purchase of Chichén-Itzá,
through the auspices of Chicago
meat packing magnet Allison Armour. In 1890, Armour made a donation
to Thompson intended for purchasing the ruins at Chichén-Itzá.
With $75 U.S.,Thompson acquired 100 square miles of land on
which the ruins were located along with a Spanish plantation
house which he used as his headquarters. While waiting for the
plantation house to be rebuilt (now Hacienda Chichen Hotel),
Thompson camped out in Chichén-Itzá's Nunnery, using it as bedroom
But the height of Thompson's archeological fame came from his
second coup: dredging the cenote at Chichén-Itzá in 1904. From
his first excursion to Chichén-Itzá, Thompson admitted he had
an uncanny draw to the sacred cenote. In his book People of
the Serpent, published in 1932 just three years before his death,
Thompson wrote that the cenote had beckoned to him when he first
stood atop El Castillo and gazed down at the grove of trees
This initial interest spurred him on to read any and all texts
and documents he could find relating to the Maya. As all but
three Maya codices (paperbark books) had been destroyed by fire
by Bishop Diego De Landa in the early 1500s, little information
on the early Maya existed.
After De Landa destroyed the Mayan's written language along
with countless statues and religious paraphernalia, the King
of Spain ordered the priest to write a history of the Maya people
and their culture. Thompson read the bishop's account of the
cenote at Chichén-Itzá which detailed that during
times of drought or disaster, priests and commoners made pilgrimages
to the cenote to appease the gods they believed lived in the
cenote's depths. De Landa's account stated that maidens and
captive warriors were thrown into the well as human sacrifices.
Afterwards, De Landa wrote, it was customary for the commoners
to throw in ornaments, household items, and gold.
Thompson took De Landa's account as fact and went to great measures
to discover what was in the cenote. To implement his plan, he
realized he would have to develop a diving apparatus. The explorer
headed back to the U.S. and solicited funds from friends, then
went to Boston
where he took deep sea diving lessons for two months. While
in Boston, he adapted a dredging bucket, winch, tackles, steel
cables, a derrick, and a 30-foot swinging boom for his project.
He had it all crated and shipped south.
A few weeks later Thompson was back on Yucatán soil, training
local Mayans to assist him in what everyone considered to be
a maniac's misadventure. After fashioning the materials to fit
his needs, he dredged through thick silt for a month, coming
up empty day after day. Then finally he pulled up an unrecognizable
mucky yellow substance. Instinctually he knew it had worth.
He dried it out and attempted to burn it, discovering it was
Mayan incense, copal.
With this discovery, he knew he was on the brink of a major