Sylvanus Griswold Morley

In those days, Mesoamerican archaeology was not for the faint-hearted, and Sylvanus Griswold Morley – ‘physically frail, short of stature, squeaky-voiced and near-sighted’, according to Prudence Rice and Christopher Ward – wasn’t really cut out for it. He suffered stomach complaints, malaria, and dysentery, and one of his ‘huskies’ (as he called his expedition staff) was killed by Guatemalan soldiers. The archaeology was hardly less challenging: on his 1913 visit to the Maya site at Tulum, a lintel had vanished – it had been buried, for its own safety, in the beach nearby.

Sylvanus Griswold Morley, possibly at Copán in Honduras c.1912. Image: courtesy of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, 2004.15.4.5379

But Morley was an exceptional character. Fellow Mayanist J Eric S Thompson captured his contradictions in 1943, writing of his ‘notoriously persuasive tongue’, that he was ‘lovable but at times rather vexatious’, ‘an incurable romantic’. Certainly so: in 1927, for the 20th anniversary of his first visit to Chichen Itza, Morley proposed at the top of the Temple of Kukulcán. He was sociable, fond of high living, a womaniser who described each affair in much the same tone he would a new glyph. Yet colleagues remarked on his stamina, persistence, accuracy, and enthusiasm even for the archaeological chores: his field notes, held by Harvard’s Peabody Museum, run to an expansive 39 volumes.

Inspired by Lew Wallace (author of Ben-Hur) and by H Rider Haggard’s adventure stories, Morley was writing to eminent archaeologist Frederic Ward Putnam by the age of 15. His father denied his initial ambition to become an Egyptologist, but by 1904, when Morley qualified as a civil engineer, his father was dead, so he joined the Archaeological Department at Harvard. In 1907, he was helping Edward Thompson (no relation) to dredge the Sacred Cenote at Chichen Itza, and Morley’s future course was set. Notwithstanding major contributions to the study of Maya Copán (where he was made an honorary citizen in 1919) and the rediscovery of Uaxactun (1916) and Naachtun (1922), Morley made his name at the Yucatán site. First applying to dig there in 1913 – but interrupted by the Mexican Revolution – his perseverance would only pay off on 6 July 1923; he remained director of excavations at Chichen Itza until 1940.

The Temple of Kukulcán, also known as El Castillo, at Chichen Itza. Image: Wikimedia Commons/Manuel de Corselas [CC by SA 3.0]

Morley even squeezed in a second career: as a spy. He was commissioned by the US Office of Naval Intelligence in 1917 to comb Nicaragua and Honduras for German submarine bases. But there were no U-boats to be found.

Ironically, given his reputation as an epigrapher, Morley was almost entirely on the wrong track in insisting Maya glyphs had no significant phonetic meaning. He also argued for a kind of peaceable pan-Maya empire, where modern researchers see rival city-states. But his work as a populariser of Maya studies remains unparalleled, and his stunning reconstructions at Chichen Itza took Maya achievements way beyond the specialists.

Text: Simon Coppock