Tag Archives: Sylvanus Morley

Sylvanus Morley…Undercurrents

Dealing with the most famous of the two source pre Indiana Jones Joneses has not left is without other contenders.  I am sure there are even more than managed to make my list. But these are the ones I am familiar with, and can give the best account of, or advice for reading about.  The third individual on our quest to find the source was different from his two predecessors by one chief enterprise: he was actually a trained archaeologist. Sylvanus Morley was, in fact, a Mayanist. He studied at length in Latin American and published several books, and many papers on the Mayan iconography among other things.  He also published his diaries, a huge effort of 39 volumes running the gamut of his active years (1905-1947) trying to unravel the mysteries of the Maya of Mexico and Central America.  Little is known or discussed about Dr. Morley outside of individuals who actually study the Maya presently. In fact, there are a few who do not know the history of their own field, save some disdain, or unkind words for their predecessors. But all that changed (or has it?) in 2009 when Charles Harris and Louis Sadler published The Archaeologist was a Spy: Sylvanus G. Morley and the Office of Naval Intelligence.  Aside from being one of the books that helped solidify my desire to study the history of science (namely the people at the forefront and/or the births of their respected fields), it revealed to me that many people who work in fields today have no idea where their intellectual infrastructure comes from. Others, can specifically name a mentor, or a grandmentor (that would be their mentor’s mentor for you folks playing along at home) but most cannot trace influence back more than a few academic generations.

         Of course in that count we can always save those poor bedeviled people who hate all the squandered treasures, pillage, plunder and general disdain for local culture. They can always point out who opened a tomb or pyramid first and how unethically they did it. Aside from being generally correct, their self assurance that they are doing it better is quite irritating at times. One must always remember that the archaeologist hipster is a very, VERY annoying conversation mate. But, back to Vay as his friends called him. The indigenous people that he worked with in Mexico and Central America knew him as Sylvano, or Doctor. (Good heavens, could Morley have been the inspiration for Doctor Who as well as Indiana Jones?–the cosmos could not stand it.) The brilliant young archaeologist was called upon by his government, during wartime, to carry out surveillance for the war effort.  He had access to areas that were unmapped and unknown to American military leaders. So, taking his time and efforts Morley folded spy work into his day job of archaeology. His main job was to map the coastline looking for German ports, and deciding whether any coves, cayes, or similar areas could harbor a secret German U-boat facility. There was, he concluded, neither. Problems did arise when he and his chosen team of other archaeologist, each of whom held a speciality within certain geographic areas,  were accused of spying. They all fervently denied such allegations, and went on about their work, both archaeological and governmentally sanctioned. Morley oversaw the Carnegie Institutions Department of Anthropology’s first project. The rebuilding, renovation, and explorations of Chichen Itza.  The department was created in 1912 and accepted Morley’s proposal to work at the site. Tensions from the Mexican Revolution slowed progress, and the First World War postponed it further.  Morley’s work on the Yucatan Peninsula did not begin until the 1923-24 field season.

Sylvanus Morley should be remembered for his work at Chichen Itza, for his early papers on Maya hieroglyphs, and his years at the Carnegie Institution. Instead thanks to Franz Boas, who is undeniably is “the father of anthropology” as he is called, Morley and his team were “exposed” for the spies they were. Boas even said that people like that “prostituted science.” All accolades aside, Boas seems to have a perpetual bur in his saddle. Having recently been passed over for the directorship of the field museum Boas slight was especially raw. To add insult to injury the man hired by the Field Museum was W. H. Holmes, of whom Morley was protege. Perhaps that was part of the bouquet of feathers that never left Boas’ ass. Regardless, his “look what they did” campaign backfired.  Holmes wrote letters complaining of Boas “Hun regime” and “Prussian control of anthropology.” The letters, paired with American anti-German sentiment (probably anti-Jewish sentiment as well since that always seems to fall into play somewhere), led to the AAA censuring Boas for his tirade. Boas may have genuinely felt that the prostitution of science by spying put anthropologist working everywhere at risk of suspicion, the official censure letter stated that his exposing or Morley did just that.

      I am of the opinion that it Boas did more harm than good at that point.  Boas censure was not rescinded until 2005 when the world stepped out into it’s let’s all be friends attitude and sold its backbone down the river in order to make as many people happy (read rich and prominent) as they can. I think the rescind should be rescinded and that every time Boas is mentioned, he should be called in all his facilities and mention should be made of the wonder that a man could have such a long and successful life with so feathers of conceit up his ass. It is little wonder he died of a stroke. Boas did much good for the fight against racism and pseudoscience in the field, but on this particular issue he shut his hand in the door.  Either way the latest thing about Morley to hit press was about his “spy ring.” (segue: There is another instance in science were accusation led to an international issue, Don Johanson of

Franz Boas
(So you know what he looks like)

Lucy fame alerted authorites that a rival scientist was in fact spying for the U. S.. The latter and his team of grad students were escorted from the country unceremoniously (at gunpoint.) There will be a full post on Jon Kalb’s Adventures in the Bone Trade later.) Concluding a third contender for the mark of Indiana Jones’ outline, Sylvanus Morley may have been more a retro inspiration. The fourth movie revealed Jonesy had worked as a spy during World War II, maybe that’s Morley maybe not. (Maybe that makes Oxley W. H. Holmes?)  Either way, Morley and his work should be known more widely than those that currently study the Maya.