Sylvanus Morley: The Explorer Who Put Chichén-Itzá on the
by Jeanine Kitchel
"Only liars and
damn fools say they like the jungle." Anonymous Yucatán
Since 1839 adventurers, explorers, and archeologists have attempted
to unveil the mystery of the Maya and their pyramids. Although
each of these maverick archeologists deserves a stellae in the
Maya walk of fame, rising to the top like Venus on a new moon
is Sylvanus Griswold Morley.
Rumored to be Stephen Spielberg's prototype for unforgettable
archeologist Indiana Jones, Morley worked nearly three decades
deciphering Maya hieroglyphs and excavating ruins in Mexico,
Honduras, and Guatemala. He was born in June, 1883, in Baldwinville,
Morley began his studies in civil engineering and then attended
Harvard where he developed an interest in archeology shortly
after Harvard's Peabody Museum received Edward H. Thompson's
treasure trove of artifacts from his dredging the sacred well
at Chichén-Itzá in 1904. This ignited Morley's interest in ancient
His degree along with his involvement in antiquities first
took him to Santa
Fe, New Mexico, where he cut his eye teeth on researching
and exploring Native American cultures. Morley's influence in
Santa Fe was so great that later on, he and a group of his contemporaries,
which included Georgia O'Keefe, would define what has come to
be known as the "Santa Fe" style of architecture.
Between 1909 and 1914 Morley did field work in Central America
and Mexico for the School of American Archeology. During this
period his early archeological expeditions were used as a cover
for espionage activities for U.S. Naval Intelligence during
World War I. According to one source, although his wartime activities
have been largely forgotten, he laid the groundwork for modern
U.S. intelligence efforts.
After the war, Morley became a research associate in 1915 for
the Carnegie Institution of Washington and applied for the position
to head up their explorations in Southern Mexico, Guatemala,
and Honduras. Soon after, he presented Carnegie with a proposal
asking them to fund an unprecedented restoration project at
Morley proposed a 20-year plan to restore Chichén-Itzá, one
of the Maya's greatest ceremonial centers, to its former grandeur
and to invite tourists to become a part of that mix. Morley
believed public interest alone would help fund the project.
He chose Chichén-Itzá because it was close to Merida and easy
to reach, thanks to progressive governor Felipe Carrillo Puerto's
efforts at building a new road that connected Merida with the
soon to be famous tourist site.
Before Morley's excavation the Chichén-Itzá site was merely
clumps of grassy mounds. His determination to unearth and expose
Chichén-Itzá's early days of glory is well documented by the
site's lavish restoration viewable today.
Morley would labor at excavation on Chichén-Itzá for 18 years,
until 1940. Shortly after his work there was complete, he published
his famous book The Ancient Maya in 1946, which was the first
comprehensive account of the Maya civilization.
The rain forest held no romantic glamour for Morley, nor did
spending the night in a flea-infested palapa, eating canned
goods, fighting insects, fearing snakes, taking water from a
filthy water bag, nor running the risk of contracting serious
tropical infection or disease. He often said he detested the
jungle, but endured it all for the sake of finding those hieroglyphs.
Nicknamed the little hummingbird by Native Americans on one
of his first expeditions to the southwest,
Morley always dressed the part of the archeologist, looking
more like Bill Gates than Harrison Ford, complete with pith
He hated the jungle, he said, because he dearly enjoyed the
comforts of civilization. But even the ill health that plagued
him over the years in no way diminished his enthusiasm for advancing
the knowledge of the Maya. His biography by Robert Brunhouse
details how, at every turn, his good health was sabotaged by
every malady known to man. Seasickness seized him on entering
a boat, and in the early years of his explorations, he contracted
malaria, threw it off for several decades, then contracted it
again. He was continuously in and out of hospitals for tests
and sometimes for recoveries. He suffered colitis during a European
trip in 1924.
The following year amoebic dysentery forced him to leave Chichén-Itzá and spend weeks in a New Orleans hospital. On returning
to Chichén-Itzá he felt his energy was too great for his emaciated
109-pound body, and was quoted as saying he had a Rolls Royce
engine in a Ford Motor body.
MAYA TIES THAT BIND
Later on, after he had established himself at Chichén-Itzá,
Maya leaders asked him to help in convincing Queen Victoria
to form an alliance with the Maya to drive the Mexicans out
of the Yucatán once and for all. (This was before the final
truce had been signed for the Caste War of the Yucatán). After
explaining that Queen Victoria was long dead, he became the
unofficial spokesman for the Yucatec Maya from 1923 until his
death in 1948.
In the 1930s he discovered he had heart trouble, but continued
to travel; by this time it was by plane rather than by mule
Inauguration of the Chichén-Itzá project was his greatest contribution
to Middle America archeology. Financed fully by the Carnegie
Institution, he continued hard at it until 1940, on a project
he started so modestly in 1924. His overall emphasis soon expanded
into a vast multi disciplinary study of the entire Maya area.
At Chichén-Itzá his work opened up a new chapter in the history
of American archeology. On completion of his project in 1940,
when he departed from Chichén-Itzá, he said he would never return,
and he never did. But his love affair with the Maya culture
lasted a lifetime.
He was scholar, explorer, informal diplomat, secret agent, planner
and educator. His explorations and excavations put Chichén-Itzá,
and the Maya, on the map.