Sylvanus Morley

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Archaeology

Photo taken c. 1912 of Sylvanus G. Morley at the Maya site of Copán, in Honduras
Photo taken c. 1912 of Sylvanus G. Morley at the Maya site of Copán, in Honduras

Sylvanus Griswold Morley ( June 7, 1883– September 2, 1948) was an American archaeologist, epigrapher and Mayanist scholar who made significant contributions towards the study of the pre-Columbian Maya civilization in the early 20th century. He is particularly noted for his extensive excavations of the Maya site of Chichen Itza. He also published several large compilations and treatises on Maya hieroglyphic writing, and wrote popular accounts on the Maya for a general audience. To his contemporaries he was one of the leading Mesoamerican archaeologists of his day; although more recent developments in the field have resulted in a re-evaluation of his theories and works, his publications (particularly on calendric inscriptions) are still cited. In his directorship of various projects sponsored by the Carnegie Institution he oversaw and encouraged a good many others who would go on to establish notable careers in their own right. Overall, his commitment and enthusiasm for Maya studies would generate the interest and win the necessary sponsorship and backing to finance projects which would ultimately reveal much about the Maya of former times.

His involvement in clandestine espionage activities at the behest of the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence was another, surprising, aspect of his career, which came to light only well after his death.

Early life

Sylvanus G. Morley was born in Chester, Pennsylvania. After first studying civil engineering, he went on to attend Harvard University as an undergraduate. Whilst there his interest in archaeology was sparked by the arrival in 1904 at the University of a collection of Maya artefacts which had been recovered by Edward Herbert Thompson from a cenote near the then little-explored Maya site of Chichen Itza. His interest in the Maya may have been stirred even earlier than this; according to his later colleague A.V. Kidder, H. Rider Haggard's novel Heart of the World which was based on tales of the "lost cities" of Central America was a particular favourite of the young Morley.

Morley switched to the study of antiquities, and as part of his researches went to Santa Fe, New Mexico, to study the sites and architecture of the ancient Pueblo peoples (Anasazi). His contemporaries in this work included the noted artist Georgia O'Keeffe. Morley made some significant contributions to the defining of a particular "Santa Fe" style of pre-Columbian architecture.

First expeditions and espionage work

Morley graduated from Harvard in 1908. The next six years he spent travelling through Central America and Mexico, engaged in fieldwork with the School of American Archaeology.

This period coincided with the First World War, and Morley's activities in the region now appear to have been largely a cover for the gathering of intelligence and reporting on the movements of German operatives in the region, which might have been of interest to the U.S. Government. According to recent investigations, Morley was one of several ONI operatives working in the region under the guise of conducting scholarly research. Their mission was to search out evidence for pro-German and anti-American agitation in the Mexico-Central American region, and to look for secret German submarine bases (which turned out to be non-existent). The cover of an archaeologist provided Morley with a ready excuse to be travelling the countryside armed with photographic equipment. Several times Morley needed to convince suspicious soldiers of his bona fides, and was almost unmasked on occasion.

Morley was to produce extensive analyses (he filed over 10,000 pages of reports) on many issues and observations of the region, including detailed coastline charting and identifying political and social attitudes that could be seen to be "threatening" to U.S. interests. Some of these reports bordered on economic spying, relaying the activities of the local competitors and opponents of large U.S. companies present in the region, such as the United Fruit Company and International Harvester.

As the output of his later work was to prove, Morley was also a genuine scholar and archaeologist with an abiding interest in the region. However, his research activities in this period seem to have largely played a secondary role to his espionage duties. The authors of the research into his spying claim Morley to have been "the best secret agent the United States produced during World War I". However, a number of archaeologists and others share some misgivings about the ethical nature of some of this work, and the suspicion it throws upon others engaged in fieldwork today (particularly, those who work or seek to work in "sensitive" government-controlled areas).

Morley did, however, publish his first major work drawn from these field trips, An Introduction to the Study of Maya Hieroglyphs, in 1915.

Carnegie Institution and Chichen Itza proposal

el Castillo; one of the larger structures at the Chichen Itza site. The excavation and restoration of this important Maya site were largely due to Morley; two sides of the building shown here were rebuilt under his direction.
el Castillo; one of the larger structures at the Chichen Itza site. The excavation and restoration of this important Maya site were largely due to Morley; two sides of the building shown here were rebuilt under his direction.

At the end of the War in 1918, Morley was made an associate of the Carnegie Institution of Washington. He soon came to them with a plan to excavate and restore the large Maya site of Chichen Itza. Morley's vision was for an ambitious 20-year plan of seasonal investigations and restorative work for the site, which had actually been (perhaps contentiously) purchased by Edward H. Thompson in 1895 for the sum of 75 United States dollars. To fund the restoration work, Morley proposed a scheme whereby contributions drawn from public subscriptions would be used, with a further view to develop the site for tourism. Indeed, one of the factors which encouraged Morley in selecting this site was its proximity to the major Yucatán centre of Mérida, whose Governor supported the construction of a road to the site. The Carnegie board looked favourably upon Morley's proposals, and the work soon began in earnest with Morley as the director.

Fieldwork in Mexico and Central America

Morley was to devote the next 18 years working in the Maya region, overseeing the seasonal archaeological digs and restoration projects, returning to the United States in the off-season to give a series of lectures on his finds. Although primarily involved with the work at Chichen Itza, Morley also took on responsibilities which extended Carnegie-sponsored fieldwork to other Maya sites, such as Yaxchilan, Coba, Copán, Quiriguá, Uxmal, Naranjo, Seibal and Uaxactun. Morley is credited as having rediscovered the last of these sites (located in the Petén region of Guatemala, to the north of Tikal). Believing that there must be many more as-yet unknown ancient Maya sites in the area, Morley advertised a "bounty" in return for news of such sites to the local chicleros, who ranged through the jungles seeking exploitable sources of natural gum; in due course he was rewarded with the information which led to its rediscovery. He also bestowed its name, uaxactun, from the Mayan languages, after a stela inscription he found there which recorded a Maya Long Count Calendar date in the 8th cycle (i.e., "8-tuns"; the name could also literally mean "eight stones", and its pronunciation is also perhaps a pun on "Washington", the home of his sponsoring institute).

During this time, Morley established a trustworthy reputation with the local Yucatec Maya around Mérida, who were still suffering from the depredations of the Caste War of Yucatán against the Mexican government. Over the years he was to act almost as their representative in several matters, although he was equally careful not to upset the Mexican and U.S. governments.

His directorship over all of the Institute's activities in the Maya region was soon to run into difficulty. In 1926, a dispute arose with the Mexican government over the ownership of the plantation in which Chichen Itza was situated; however, the digs and reconstruction effort were able to continue after some interruptions. The Carnegie board had also begun to form the opinion that managing multiple projects was perhaps not Morley's forté, with cost and schedule overruns becoming compounded with criticisms levelled at the quality of some of the research produced. In 1929 the overall directorship of the programme was passed to A.V. Kidder, and Morley was left to concentrate on Chichen Itza.

Slightly built and not noted for possessing a strong constitution, Morley's health would suffer and deteriorate over the years spent labouring in the Central American jungles under often-adverse conditions. Several times, he was incapacitated by recurring bouts of malaria, and he had to be hospitalised after separately contracting colitis and then amoebic dysentery the following year. During the 1930s it also became evident that he had developed cardiac difficulties, which would plague him for the remainder of his life. Nevertheless, although he "detested" the jungle conditions he persevered in his work with evident enthusiasm.

In between overseeing the projects and arising from his own researches, Morley published several treatises on Maya hieroglyphics and his interpretations on their meaning. These include a survey of inscriptions at Copán (1920) and a larger study (a massive tome, over 2,000 pages in five volumes) encompassing many of the sites he had investigated in the Petén region (1932–38).

Influences on other scholars

Many a Maya scholar and archaeologist were to be given their first opportunity and employment under Morley's tutelage, working on the various Carnegie projects. Of these, perhaps the two most notable were J. Eric S. Thompson and Tatiana Proskouriakoff. Thompson would shortly become the field's most dominant figure and its uncontested expert; together with Morley, he would be most responsible for promulgating the view of the ancient Maya as peaceable astronomers, obsessed with time and calendric observations. This view would become the prevailing one for the next several decades. Proskouriakoff would also go on to establish a stellar career and a lifelong association with the Carnegie Institution; however, her researches would ultimately provide the primary convincing evidence which was to later disprove much of what had been maintained by Thompson and Morley.

Eric Thompson

In 1925 a young English Cambridge anthropology student named John Eric Sidney Thompson wrote to Morley seeking employment with the Carnegie programme on digs in Central America. Thompson had studied Morley's 1915 work, and from that taught himself Maya calendrics, which were a particular passion for Morley. Thompson was accordingly hired by the Carnegie Institution at Morley's urging, and he soon found himself at work in Chichen Itza, involved with its architectural reconstruction (for which task Thompson had no particular qualifications). During the 1925–26 season, Thompson became well-acquainted with Morley, the two of them along with their wives (the newly married Thompson was in fact on his honeymoon) making several side-trips together.

However, at the end of the 1926 season Thompson left Carnegie's employ to take up a post offered by Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History. This post offered Thompson far greater freedom and diversity for his research. Thompson and Morley were to remain close and like-minded colleagues in spite of this move.

Tatiana Proskouriakoff

Towards the end of the Chichen Itza project, Morley came across the drawings of a young artist and draftsperson, Tatiana Proskouriakoff, who as an unpaid excavator had accompanied a 1936–37 University of Pennsylvania Museum expedition to the Maya site of Piedras Negras. The quality of her reconstructive panorama drawings (depicting what the site "might have looked like" when in use) so impressed Morley that he determined to enrol her onto the Carnegie staff. However, this was in the midst of the Great Depression and funds for hiring were scarce; it was also not clear whether Morley had the appropriate authority to do so. After several entreaties, Morley again came up with an innovative funding scheme whereby he devised two campaigns to raise money by subscription to send Proskouriakoff to Copán and the Yucatán. These were successful, and in 1939, Proskouriakoff transferred onto the Carnegie payroll, and was duly dispatched to Copán to gather data for reconstructive drawings of that site. Morley's support of Proskouriakoff was to prove fortuitous to Maya scholarship, as she would go on to a lengthy and successful career with the Carnegie Institution and to be lauded as one of the foremost Maya scholars of her time.

Excavations at Chichen Itza


A Chac Mool statue, first identified by le Plongeon but later extensively documented by Morley's Chichen Itza excavations. This type of statue (whose purpose remains unclear, presumed to be related to ritual sacrifice) is also characteristic of Toltec sites, and thus provided a linkage between Chichen Itza and Central Mexico.
A Chac Mool statue, first identified by le Plongeon but later extensively documented by Morley's Chichen Itza excavations. This type of statue (whose purpose remains unclear, presumed to be related to ritual sacrifice) is also characteristic of Toltec sites, and thus provided a linkage between Chichen Itza and Central Mexico.

When Morley and his team first arrived in 1924 to commence their excavations, Chichen Itza was an abandoned and sprawling complex of several large ruined buildings and many smaller ones, most of which lay concealed under mounds of earth and vegetation. Some areas of the site had previously been surveyed, photographed and documented independently in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by highly-regarded authorities such as Teoberto Maler, Alfred Maudslay and Eduard Seler, who although they had meticulously recorded their findings, had not done much in the way of extensive digging. An earlier attempt at excavation, carried out by the amateur (and somewhat eccentric) enthusiast Augustus Le Plongeon and his wife, Alice Dixon had been poor and yielded little of value (le Plongeon did however recover and name a type of statue he called a " chacmool", which would become one of the site's most famous motifs). Despite the interesting results of these prior investigations, the bulk of the site looked much as it did when it was first visited in 1842 by the explorers John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood, whose detailed travel reports had first re-ignited interest in the general area.

The site itself is located about 120 km (75 miles) east of Mérida, on the inland plains of north-central Yucatán. It had been known to Europeans since the first recorded visits by the 16th century conquistadores. During the conquest of Yucatán, the Spanish attempted to gain a foothold over the fiercely-resisting locals by setting up an encampment in the site in the early 1530s, as a base for their attacks on the inland region. They were however dissuaded from this enterprise after several months of protracted fighting, and abandoned it (having caused some further, but not extensive, damage). When they returned to the area in 1542 they finally succeeded in establishing a capital at Mérida, which they built upon another (still-inhabited) Maya city called T'ho (or Tiho).

Chichen Itza had evidently been functionally abandoned long before the Spanish first came, although the local indigenous Yucatec Maya still lived in settlements nearby, and even within its former boundaries (but in recently-built wooden huts, not the stone buildings themselves). The name "Chichen Itza" is known from the earliest recorded Spanish accounts —such as Diego de Landa's— of these local inhabitants, for whom the site had long been a place of pilgrimage and ceremony. The name (chich'en itza in modern Yukatek orthography) means roughly "mouth of the well of the Itza", the "well" being the nearby sacred cenote (water-filled sinkhole) and "Itza" being the name of the people who were reputed to be its former inhabitants. Over the next three centuries after the Conquest, the site remained relatively undisturbed until the arrival of Stephens and Catherwood, although several plantations were established nearby.

At the time its full extent was not at all clear, but today it is recognised as one of the largest Maya sites in the Yucatán region. How long ago the site had been functionally abandoned (not including the ongoing presence of local Maya farmers) was not immediately apparent, although it appeared to have been recently, in comparison with the seemingly older abandoned sites of the central and southern Maya region.

Major finds

The "Temple of the Warriors", excavated by Morley's team. The rows of the "Thousand Columns" can be seen in its foreground, and extending off to the right.
The "Temple of the Warriors", excavated by Morley's team. The rows of the "Thousand Columns" can be seen in its foreground, and extending off to the right.

In 1924, armed with a renewable ten-year digging concession from the Mexican government, Morley, his field director Earl H. Morris, artists Ann Axtel Morris and Jean Charlot, and several others began their first explorations. They selected an area within what appeared to be the central plaza of the site, where the capitals of some columns lay exposed. Much to their surprise they uncovered row upon row of free-standing columns- surprising, since such columns hardly ever figured in Classic Maya architecture. This complex (now called the "Complex of a Thousand Columns", although there are not actually as many), un-Maya-like in both execution and arrangement, added confirmation to earlier speculations that Chichen Itza was something of an enigma. This arrangement had much more in common with the architectural styles of civilizations in central Mexico (more than a thousand kilometres away) than that of the Classic or Pre-Classic Maya. In particular, this complex and some others which were gradually revealed appeared to have much in common with structures built at Tula, believed to be the capital of the Toltecs and which was located about 100 km north of present-day Mexico City.

Over the next few seasons the team expanded their digs, recovering other anomalous structures from the earthen mounds, such as the Temple of the Jaguar and the Temple of the Warriors. In 1927 they discovered an older structure underneath this latter, which they called the "Temple of the Chacmool" after a further example found of this distinctive statuary. These structures had frescoes which again exhibited a non-Maya style, or at least a hybrid of Maya and non-Maya. They also worked on the reconstruction of el Caracol, a unique circular building believed (and later confirmed) to be an observatory. A separate archaeological dig, this one under the Mexican government, had also commenced working the site; the two projects divided up the areas to excavate, continuing side-by-side for several years, in a somewhat guarded but nonetheless cordial fashion.

While Morris oversaw day-to-day operations, and Charlot sketched the murals, Morley occupied himself with copying all the inscriptions he could find, particularly the date portions. Since most of these inscription dates at the site were recorded in an abbreviated form known as the "Short Count", which only identified an event within a span of about 260 years, it was difficult to pin down in which particular span an event referred to in the inscriptions occurred. Towards the end of the project Morley's work on these was to be superseded somewhat by a more-comprehensive analysis made by Hermann Beyer in 1937. In this work, Beyer would note:

I frequently have differed with the opinions of Dr. Sylvanus G. Morley. This is easily explained by the fact that he is one of the few archaeologists who have studied the hieroglyphs of Chichen Itza. While I agree with his results on the inscriptions of the Old Empire cities which contain many dates and time periods, I find that his method of dealing solely with calendrical matter fails at Chichen Itza, since there are but few hieroglyphs of that nature.

The later years of the project would increasingly concentrate on completing the restorative work on the principal structures, for Morley always had an eye on the dual purpose of the project: to research, but also rebuild to generate the promised revenue from tourism.

Result summary

Columnar statues in the form known as "Atlantids", representing Toltec warriors. The examples shown here are from the Toltec site of Tula (Tollan), north of Mexico City; similar examples and styles found at Chichen Itza by Morley provided further evidence of Maya-Mexica cultural contact
Columnar statues in the form known as "Atlantids", representing Toltec warriors. The examples shown here are from the Toltec site of Tula (Tollan), north of Mexico City; similar examples and styles found at Chichen Itza by Morley provided further evidence of Maya-Mexica cultural contact

The net research result of their excavations revealed Chichen Itza to be an unusual mixture of building styles: not only was there a wide variety of Maya styles such as Puuc, Rio Bec and Chenes, but a significant presence of Mexican influences such as El Tajín, but more particularly Toltec. The evidence indicated the site had been inhabited since at least the mid-Classic, but that a particular florescence had occurred in the Post-Classic, when the site was apparently a major power. From their results, that of others and some documented tales of contact-era Maya peoples, a view was formed that Chichen Itza had actually been invaded and conquered sometime in the 10th century by Toltec warriors from the far west, who maintained their hold over the local Maya for another century or so, only in turn to be replaced by a later mixed Maya-Mexica group known as the Itza. Later evidence led to the suggestion that the actual year of this invasion as 987, and identified its leader with a legendary Toltec ruler called Topiltzin Ce Acatl Quetzalcoatl after the Mesoamerican deity Quetzalcoatl ( K'ulk'ulkan in Yucatec).

Morley was in general opposed to ideas that the Maya had been influenced by other external groups, but in this case, since the conquest occurred in the "degenerate" Post-Classic phase he found it acceptable. This view of the Toltec invasion of Yucatán became the one maintained by the majority of Mayanists. However, recent research from the mid-1990s onwards has now questioned this orthodoxy, to the point where many now hold an actual invasion did not take place, but the similarities in style are largely due to cultural diffusion and trade, and that in fact there is evidence that the diffusion in this period flowed in both directions..

The chronology of Chichen Itza continues to be a source of debate, and the hoped-for answers to the mystery of the Classic Maya decline elusive (wholesale "Mexicanisation" by invading forces ruled out by the lack of these indicators in the central and southern sites). However, the Carnegie excavations did add significantly to the corpus of available information, and are notable for their scope alone, if not for fine details and quality of research. The site's reconstruction by Carnegie has proved to be a lasting one, and the site today is among the most visited of pre-Columbian ruins in all of Central America and Mexico, with in excess of a million visitors per year.

Project completion and final years

After almost twenty years, Carnegie's Chichen Itza project wound to a close in 1940, its restorative and investigative work complete and its objectives substantially met. Morley returned to the United States to take up directorships in the School of American Research and the Museum of New Mexico. He also started work on a large-scale work on ancient Maya society, which he completed and published in 1946. This was to be one of his more successful works (outside of his popular writings in magazines), and has been posthumously revised and reprinted several times.

However, Morley would not again return to the region in which he had spent so much time and with whose investigations he had become almost synonymous; Sylvanus Morley died in 1948, aged 65, two years after this last major publication.

Theories and retrospective assessment

An example of one of Sylvanus Morley's drawings of Maya hieroglyphic inscriptions, taken from his 1915 publication. This illustrates the text appearing on a lintel in the Chichen Itza building commonly known as the "Temple of the Initial Series", as it is the only inscription for the site known to show a Maya Long Count Calendar date. The date shown here (starting row 2, ending at A5) is 9 Muluk 7 Sak (equivalent to July 30, 878 CE).
An example of one of Sylvanus Morley's drawings of Maya hieroglyphic inscriptions, taken from his 1915 publication. This illustrates the text appearing on a lintel in the Chichen Itza building commonly known as the "Temple of the Initial Series", as it is the only inscription for the site known to show a Maya Long Count Calendar date. The date shown here (starting row 2, ending at A5) is 9 Muluk 7 Sak (equivalent to July 30, 878 CE).

In his day, Sylvanus Morley was widely regarded as one of the leading figures in Maya scholarship, in authority perhaps second only to Eric Thompson, whose views he mostly shared. From the late 1920s through to perhaps the mid-1970s, the reconstruction of ancient Maya society and history pieced together by Morley, Thompson and others constituted the "standard" interpretation against which competing views had to be measured. However, major advances made in the decipherment of Maya hieroglyphic writing and refinements in archaeological data which have been made since that time have now called into question much of this former "standard" interpretation, overturning key elements and significantly revising the Maya historical account. As far as Morley's own research is concerned, its reputation for soundness and quality has been downgraded somewhat in the light of recent reappraisals; yet he is still regarded as an important contributor to the field.

Views on ancient Maya society

Morley maintained that ancient Maya society was essentially a united theocracy, and one which was almost exclusively devoted to astronomical observations and mystically noting (even "worshipping") the passage of time. These ideas (which Thompson's later work would develop to its fullest extent) are now extensively modified, and although astronomical and calendric observations were clearly important to the Maya, the people themselves are now seen in more historical, realistic terms—concerned also with dynastic succession, political conquests, and the lives and achievements of actual personages.

He also believed that the southern centres such as Copán and Quiriguá had been united in the Classical period under what he termed the "Old Empire". This empire mysteriously collapsed, but the remnants later migrated to the northern sites (such as Chichen Itza) to form a "New Empire". It is now generally accepted that at no time was the Maya region united under a single polity, but rather that individual "city-states" maintained a somewhat independent existence, albeit one with its fluctuating conquests and local subservience to more dominant centres. In support of his view, Morley devised a 4-tier classification system of relative importance, which he ascribed to all of the then-known main Maya sites (about 116); many more sites are now known, and his classification system is now seen as an arbitrary one, contradicted in places by the sites' texts which can now be (substantially) read.

Other ideas Morley put forward include the proposal that the ancient Maya were the first in Mesoamerica to domesticate maize (Zea mays ssp. mays), with the wild variety known as teosinte being its progenitor. Recent genetic studies have shown Morley to be largely correct in this, although the beginnings of its domestication ( 12,000 to 7,500 years ago) pre-dates the establishment of anything resembling Maya society. In general, Morley held that the ancient Maya had been the pre-eminent civilization of Mesoamerica, from which other cultures had drawn their influences. It is now accepted that other societies (such as the Zapotec and Olmec) preceded that of the Maya and the influences—such as development of writing and the Mesoamerican calendars—were rather the other way around; even in the later stages of Maya history, their region came under significant influences drawn from central Mexico, such as the Toltec "invasion". However, the Maya did also exert a widespread influence over neighbouring contemporary cultures, one which was significant and not to be overlooked.

Maya writing

In common with most other Maya scholars, Morley was particularly interested in the mysterious nature of the Maya script. The essentials of the calendric notation and astronomical data had been worked out by the early 20th century, and by the 1930s John E. Teeple had solved (with Morley's encouragement) the glyphs known as the "Supplementary Series", proving that these referred to the lunar cycle and could be used to predict lunar eclipses. However, the bulk of the texts and inscriptions still defied all attempts at decipherment, despite much concerted effort. It was Morley's view, and one which found wide support, that these undeciphered portions would contain only more of the same astronomical, calendric and perhaps religious information, not actual historical data. As he wrote in 1940,

...time, in its various manifestations, the accurate record of its principal phenomena, constitutes the majority of Maya writing.

He also wrote that he doubted that any toponym would be found in the texts. He supposed that the Maya writing system was one based upon ideographic or pictographic principles, without any phonetic components. That is to say, each glyph represented whole ideas and concepts, and how the symbols were depicted bore no relation to the language sounds as spoken by the scribes who had written them.

The convincing evidence which was to overturn this view became known only after Morley's death, starting with Yuri Knorosov's work in the 1950s. Over the next decades other Mayanists such as Proskouriakoff, Michael D. Coe, and David H. Kelley would further expand upon this phonetic line of enquiry, which ran counter to the accepted view but would prove to be ever more fruitful as their work continued. By the mid-1970s, it had become increasingly clear to most that the Maya writing system was a logosyllabic one, a mixture of logograms and phonetic components that included a fully functional syllabary.

These realisations led to the successful decipherment of many of the texts which had been impenetrable (and almost "dismissed") by Morley and the "old school". In retrospect, these breakthroughs could easily have been realised earlier had it not been for Morley's, and later Eric Thompson's, almost in-principle position against the phonetic approach. Consequently, most of Morley's attempts to advance understanding of the Maya script have not stood the test of time, and are now superseded.

Morley's particular passion was the study of the Maya calendar and its related inscriptions, and in this respect, he did make some useful expositions that have withstood later scrutiny. His talent was not so much to make innovations, but rather to publicise and explain the workings of the various systems. He was particularly proficient at recovering calendar dates from well-worn and weathered inscriptions, owing to his great familiarity with the various glyphic styles of the tzolk'in, haab' and Long Count elements. Yet in his focus on calendric details, he would often overlook or even neglect the documentation of other non-calendric aspects of the Maya script; the comprehensiveness of some of his publications suffered much as a result. Some leading figures from a later generation of Mayanists would come to regard his publications as being inferior in detail and scope to that of his predecessors, such as Teoberto Maler and Alfred Maudslay—poorer quality reproductions, omitted texts, sometimes inaccurate drawings.


As a director of archaeological excavation projects, Sylvanus Morley was well-regarded and liked by his colleagues and his Carnegie board employers, his later movement to "lighter duties" notwithstanding. The reconstructions of Chichen Itza and other sites were widely admired; but in terms of the research output and the resulting documentation produced, the legacy of these projects did not quite amount to what might have been expected to come from such a lengthy investigation. For some later Maya researchers, " spite of seventeen years of research at Chichén Itzá by Carnegie, this world-famous city yet remains an archaeological enigma"; it is comparatively little-understood given the amount of work which had gone into it under Morley's direction. Coe also comments that many talented people such as Thompson would spend more time in restoring the site for later tourism than in actual research. Thompson himself would later remark in reference to his time working for Carnegie: my memory it seems that I personally shifted every blessed stone.


Despite the later reassessments which were to dull somewhat the shine of his achievements, Sylvanus Morley remains a notable and respected figure in Maya scholarship. His publications are now generally superseded, except for his calendrical compilations. His epigraphic work which was his personal abiding interest ("bringing home the epigraphic bacon" was a favourite quote of his) is likewise generally outdated, although it was widely supported for several decades after his death. Perhaps the contributions that today remain the most relevant arise from his instigation of the Carnegie research programmes, his enthusiasm and support shown to other scholars, and the undeniable successes in the restorative efforts that have made the Maya sites justly famous. He had particular talents in communicating his fascination for the subject to a wider audience, and in his lifetime became quite widely known as perhaps the quintessential model of an early 20th-century Central American scholar and explorer, complete with his ever-present pith helmet. Some have even speculated that his life and exploits may have provided some of the inspiration for the character of Indiana Jones in the Spielberg films; the Carnegie Institute itself mentions that it might also have been Morley's field director at Chichen Itza, Earl Morris.

Sylvanus Morley was also to be remembered as a spokesman and representative of the Maya peoples, among whom he spent so much of his time, and who otherwise lacked the means to directly address some of their concerns with the wider public.

Major works

Morley's publications include:

  • 1915- An Introduction to the Study of Maya Hieroglyphs
  • 1920- The Inscriptions of Copán
  • 1938- The Inscriptions of Petén (5 vols.)
  • 1946- The Ancient Maya (revised 3rd ed. issued in 1956 by G. W. Brainerd)

In addition to his scholarly work, Morley thought it important to share his enthusiasm for the ancient Maya with the general public. He wrote a popular series of articles about the Maya and various Maya sites in the National Geographic Magazine. Several later archaeologists would recall that their youthful exposure to these articles, "vividly illustrated with a colour rendition of a purported virgin in filmy huipil [a type of clothing] being hurled into the Sacred Cenote", had drawn them into the field in the first place.

The "other" Sylvanus G. Morley

Confusingly, and remarkably, there were actually two Sylvanus Griswold Morleys whose careers were contemporaneous. This second Sylvanus G. Morley was in fact the older maternal cousin to the first, born February 23, 1878, in Baldwinville, Worcester County, Massachusetts. This latter was originally baptised Sylvanus Griswold Small ("Sylvanus Griswold" being a family "heirloom" name), but changed his surname from Small to Morley in his early twenties when his father did likewise. As a result, many biographical references confuse details of the two, such as interchanging their birthplaces.

Sylvanus G. (Small) Morley preceded Sylvanus the archaeologist into Harvard, and he was later to establish a career as a Professor of Spanish at the University of California, Berkeley. In his autobiography, the Spanish professor noted the effect of this name change and subsequent confusion:

However, the person with the most right to complain was my cousin Sylvanus Griswold Morley, the celebrated archaeologist. The move made us homonyms, and gave rise to endless confusion. Look in a Who's Who in America and you will learn the facts. Look in a library catalog, and you will be lucky to learn anything but errors. Sylvanus, a most good-natured soul, never protested. He was an undergraduate at Harvard while I was in the Grad. School. I sometimes received his Univ. bills, and less often, billets doux from his lights of love. I think he has none of mine.

Sylvanus G. (Small) Morley died in 1970; his autobiographical notes were published posthumously by his son Thomas.

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