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Sylvanus Morley: The Explorer Who Put Chichén-Itzá on the Map
by Jeanine Kitchel



Tales from the Yucat¶n

FLICKR ALBUM: Lessons from Mexico

"Only liars and damn fools say they like the jungle." Anonymous Yucatán Explorer

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, Massachusetts.



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 civilizations.

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 Chichén-Itzá.


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 helmet.

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.


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 or boat.

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.


Jeanine Lee Kitchel writes about Mexico, the Yucatan and the Maya. Her travel memoir Where the Sky is Born: Living in the Land of the Maya, is now available on Kindle from Jeanine is a frequent contributor to Planeta with her series Tales from the Yucatán. Updates on the Planeta Wiki! Contact Jeanine via email.



g Chichén-Itzá
g The Other Side of Chichén-Itzá: Was It the First "Cancún?"
g Explorers: Edward Herbert Thompson



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