Old School Mayanists:
Sylvanus G. Morley and J. Eric S. Thompson
Until at least the 1960s, twentieth-century Maya studies were dominated by two figures of unparalleled influence, Sylvanus Morley (1893-1948) and Eric Thompson (1898-1975). Morley (shown at right at Copan, Honduras, in 1912) was born in Chester, Pennsylvania, studied at Harvard, and did much of his work under the auspices of the Carnegie Institute in Washington. He was largely responsible for excavations and restoration at Chichen Itza (in the beginning privately owned, having been purchased for US$70), and he wrote popular books synthesizing Maya-related research, especially The Ancient Maya, which went through many revisions and reprintings (a franchise continued under Robert J. Sharer). He (re)discovered the site of Uaxactun in the Peten, and helped to illuminate the workings of the Maya calendar.
Thompson was born in London and educated at Cambridge. Like Morley’s, much of his work was done under the auspices of the Carnegie Institute, but he was also sponsored by Chicago's Field Museum, which houses a collection bearing his name. Thompson worked under Morley at Chichen Itza, excavated Maya sites in Belice, and was one of the first to explore the site of Coba in the southern Yucatan. He extended Morley's calendrical work by working out a correlation between the Maya calendar and the Gregorian calendar. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth shortly before his death in 1975. His popular books such as The Civilization of the Mayas, The Rise and Fall of Maya Civilization, and Maya Archaeologist made him the most prominent Mayanist of the middle of the twentieth century.
Morley and Thompson were men of great vigor and passion, who had a real love for Mesoamerica and the Maya people. They helped to establish the outlines of Maya studies and to convey the romance of Maya civilization to a public hungry for tales of magnificence and mystery. Together they formulated and promoted an integrated vision of Maya civilization that became widely accepted.
A vast amount of what they believed was completely wrong.
There is little point to attacking these pioneering Mayanists now, but, sadly, it must be admitted that in some respects their highly speculative approach, in which imaginative elaborations were difficult to distinguish from real discoveries, held back Maya studies nearly as much as they advanced them. Seduced by spectacular temples and palaces, the old school archaeologists' style was to dump most of the results of their digs in unsorted heaps in their quest to ferret out museum-quality objects originally fashioned for the ruling elite (today dig materials are meticulously sifted for even small fragments of significant items, and the results are collected in detailed databases that can be analyzed to determine aspects of the social system). In those early years, archaeology that focused on economic and social life got short shrift.
I remember that when I first read about the Maya many years ago the Morley/Thompson vision still colored much of the writing. Some of the components of that vision, which have proven to have been unfounded, include:
- In contrast to the militaristic cultures of central Mexico, the Maya were one of the world’s least warlike people. We know now that warfare was, as Michael D. Coe says, an “obsession” for the Maya, and one that probably contributed to the collapse of many of the classic Maya sites of the sourthern lowlands
- The great Maya sites are the remains of ceremonial gathering places, not cities where people lived. In recent decades archaeologists have established that these were indeed urban centers, with populations among the world’s highest of their time.
- Slash and burn agriculture was the only agricultural system known to the Maya. This reinforced the argument that the great sites were not urban centers, because of calculations that slash-and-burn agriculture could not support substantial populations. Recent studies suggest that intensive methods of agricultural production were also employed.
- Maya inscriptions address grand issues of time, spirituality, and the universe and do not stoop to address the current affairs of mortals. Insistence on this point, along with resistance to any thought that the hieroglyphs could contain a phonetic component, delayed the deciphering of Mayan hieroglyphs, which often address key events and members of kingly lineages whose names and dates are now known.
- The Postclassic Maya were a people whose culture had deteriorated to an appalling level. This attitude reinforced the notion of a sudden cataclysmic collapse. In fact the Maya society continued to evolve during the Postclassic. The fact that the period produced fewer museum-quality objects and more mass-produced works reflects a political evolution toward more complex political structures and away from more rigid hierarchies controlled by a small royal caste. Mass-production can be seen as a sign that more goods were being made for comparatively lower social classes.
- And more. The old-school archaeology conveyed an impression of a monolithic Maya culture, whereas more recent research suggests more diversity; of a society that had only limited exchange with other cultures, whereas there are now signs of a greater give-and-take with central Mexicans and others; of a Preclassic and pre-Maya period that was primitive and contributed little to the Classic civilization, whereas more and more antecedents of later developments are now being discovered; and so on.
The new thinking about the Maya that has emerged in the past half century has turned the old views on their head. Perhaps this was inevitable, since the pioneers started from a point at which so little was known. After the long period when basic misunderstandings were the accepted view, it is heartening to see the ongoing refinement in our view of this civilization that is now taking place with each passing year.