Friday, August 28, 2015

Sylvanus Morley

 Sólo los mentirosos y tontos aman la selva

There are some things that are dangerous for young people to read as they cause them to dream of places far away, close to the edges of reality, where logic and fact are replaced by imagination and whimsy.  Some of them, so inspired, spend their adult lives in pursuit of that fleeting "otherness" in exploration and misadventure.  Some even realize their pursuit.

For example, when he was a child, Heinrich Schliemann read and re-read Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, inspiring him to one day discover the location of the city of Troy, until that moment thought to be a myth.  Lawrence read Charles Montagu Doughty's Travels in Arabia Deserta , a work that animated  his own walking tour of The Levant and his work with the Arab tribes during World War I.

Even for the less physically adventurous, Alan Watts, the scholar and teacher of Eastern religion and philosophy, found his interest in Orientalism piqued through reading the "Dr. Fu Manchu" books of Sax Rohmer, an unlikely source, perhaps, but evocative of how much power adventurous stories can hold on the imagination.

While as a child and young man I was a fan of Homer, Doughty, and Rohmer, not to mention the writings of Schliemann, Lawrence, and Watts, those of my era also had their imaginations stoked by movies such as "Valley of the Kings" with Robert Taylor and "Secrets of the Incas" with Charlton Heston.


Sylvanus Morley was no different.  As a child, he read the novel Heart of the World, by H. Rider Haggard, the author of King's Solomon's Mines and She, that detailed adventures among the "lost cities" of Central America.  It was then that he knew that his adult energies would concentrate on those mythical cities in those humid jungles.

Of course, he first had to convince his father.  As Morley was a child of his age, he was born in 1883, and was the dutiful son of a military officer/chemistry professor, he knew that he would never be able to convince the old man that archaeology was a viable vocation, so he graduated from what is now Widener University, where his father taught, as an engineering student in 1904.  Having satisfied familial expectation, he then earned a second degree from Harvard University in American Research and, immediately after earning his degree, began field work in the Yucatan, studying at a variety of sites, particularly Uxmal and Chichen Itza.


Chichen Itza, with The Coracle's editor, in his archaeological days, on top of the Kukulcan pyramid

Morley was invited to spend some time at the latter site, including the chance to pore through the artifacts that had been salvaged from the cenote [water-filled sinkhole] that had been used, apparently, for the disposal of the victims of human sacrifice.  Many of these artifacts were brought back to the States by Morley may be viewed today at the Peabody Museum.

Because of his enthusiasm, and no small ability in beginning to successfully translate the Mayan language, the Carnegie Institution hired Morley to begin a comprehensive study and restoration of Chichen Itza, starting in the winter of 1913.  Unfortunately, as is often the case with archaeological field study, world events caused complications and postponements.  With the Mexican Revolution still active, securing government permission and reasonable safety were slow to realize and, once those obstacles were removed, the First World War began.  Not to be left idle, while his work was delayed, Morley repaired to the nearest library and completed the first comprehensive translation of Mayan, one that remains the primary text to this day.

When I first became interested in archaeology, shortly after discovering a pocket of buried arrowheads in our backyard when I was nine, I thought that Egypt and the Middle East were the places that would claim my attention.  Then I came upon a battered copy of An Introduction to the Study of Maya Hieroglyphs by Morley.  His definitive study of Mayan language included descriptions of the flora, fauna, and relics to be found in central Mexico and, as it happened, caused me to switch my field of inquiry if for no other reason than to abide in those exotic places that he measured with such pursuit.

In the spirit of both the age and the unique circumstance of being an archaeologist working in an unstable country, Morely was also, like many before and after, a spy.  Since archaeologists work in small groups with maps, cameras, and making detailed drawings, and since they often roam about rather freely, they have been rather good intelligence agents.  So good, that in our contemporary era, the excitable miscreants of ISIS/ISIL have been imprisoning and executing archaeologists in their area of malicious influence.

Morely, given license by the Mexican government, at that time more likely to ally itself with Germany than with the United States [look up "The Zimmerman Note" if that episode escaped your historical tutelage], began to freely explore that landscape, and used his time to not only to scout for Mayan ruins, but to search for German submarine bases or collections of German sailors, marines, or soldiers.  He had many adventures that required subterfuge and quick thinking, all of which would be inspirational to future archaeologist/adventurers, including some Hollywood writers and directors.  Really, just add a fedora and whip and suddenly one has a movie franchise.

[A fun book, The Archaeologist Was A Spy, is worth reading if one is interested.]

After the war, and with the increased, if transient, wealth of the 1920's, Morley was able to initiate his work at Chichen Itza, this time with a ten-year license from the Ministerio de Folklore.  In 1924, Morley and his team made significant discoveries when several rows of columns were uncovered, free-standing and completely different from any other example of Mayan architecture yet discovered. To this day, they remain a bit of an enigma, as the entire site is singular as it does not easily match the construction of other Mayan sites sprinkled throughout Mexico and Belize.

The Carnegie Institute, under Morley's leadership, would conclude its mission in 1940, creating more questions that it answered, as it turned out.  It is still undergoing study and excavation, although it can be easily visited through organized tours from Cancun and Playa del Carmen, as the work depends not only on educational grants, but tourist dollars.

Morley between two of his "checkbooks" at Chichen Itza

After living on site for twenty years, Morely would become the director of the Museum of New Mexico in Sante Fe, where he and his wife would be significant members of the social set [they were good friends with Georgia O'Keefe and other artists].  He would spend these days on his magnum opus, The Ancient Maya, published in 1946.  Morely died two years later, at the age of 65.

Of all the pre-Columbian peoples, the Maya are still the most studied, and with reason.  The culture is elusive and every definitive theory of their life has been appraised and re-appraised to the point that, as with Chichen Itza itself, we remain puzzled at their existence and their sudden disappearance as a culture.  Given modern technological advances and continued excavation, using Morely's work as a firm and sure foundation, it is only a matter of time until a clearer cultural picture emerges.  Well, that's what I'm supposed to say, anyway.  Personally, I hope that the Maya and Chichen Itza remain just as mysterious as ever.  While archaeology is a science, it still needs a touch of romance if it is to continue to attract people such as Morely and others.

The Ancient Maya is still in print, now in its 6th edition, as is the introduction to Mayan hieroglyphs and a couple of other specialized works by Morely.  As mentioned, Chichen Itza remains a viable source of both archaeological study and tourist activity and, as during the time of Morely and earlier, seemingly defiant of changes and caprices in government and society.

The pyramid at Chichen Itza as it would have first appeared to Sylvanus Morely

The post-restoration pyramid