Compared with giants of the recent past like Sylvanus Morley, today’s practitioners of New World archaeology seem like a pretty tame lot. Professionalism and the dead hand of social anthropology have taken away much of the fun that was had by our predecessors, but it must be admitted that much of their work now looks slipshod and ill-designed by modern standards.
The joy of exploring (often with considerable personal risk), discovering, and living a full life was clearly Morley’s outstanding trait, as brought out in this fine biography of the great Mayanist. Born in 1883, Morley attended Harvard where he almost haphazardly slipped into archaeology; eventually he became one of A. M. Tozzer’s earliest students. He soon was in the vanguard of the Maya field. For me, the most exciting episode in the book concerns the famous competition of 1912, in which Morley, W. H. R. Rivers, and Albert E. Jenks presented rival proposals for the new anthropology program which the Carnegie Institution of Washington had just set up. Although Rivers’ outline for a comprehensive study of the peoples of Oceania was (and still is) the best of the three on anthropological grounds, Morley’s incredible enthusiasm for his Chichón Itzá project won the day.
The several decades of archaeological work at Chichén Itzá, the great Toltec-Maya capital of Yucatán, point up both the strength and weakness of Morley as a scholar. He was a leader of men, recruiting such outstanding figures as Karl Ruppert, J. Eric S. Thompson, Gustav Stromsvik, Harry E. D. Pollock, and many others who would soon become famous in the Maya field. He commanded loyalty and affection to an extraordinary degree. His warm friendships among Americans, British, Mexicans, and Guatemalans were legendary. On the debit side, the Chichén Itzá project must be judged a failure of sorts. No final report has ever appeared on the site. The pottery and artifacts remain undescribed, except in the most truncated form in George Brainerd’s Archaeological Ceramics of Yucatán. Only a handful of stratigraphic sections and descriptions have been printed. The Carnegie map of Chichén Itzá omits house mounds, so that we still have no idea whether the site was a ceremonial center, a city, or what. As Brunhouse makes clear, the high officials of Carnegie grew increasingly skeptical of Morley’s capability to direct scientific research; it was not until A. V. Kidder was made head of a new historical division that studies in the Maya area were put on a scholarly basis.
Morley was first and foremost an epigrapher. His most important publications were the monumental Inscriptions of Copán and Inscriptions of the Petén. There has been much criticism (justified, in my opinion) in recent years of his work in epigraphy, since he was almost exclusively pre-occupied with the calendrical part of the hieroglyphic texts. But this accusation can be leveled at the Carnegie Maya program in general, for while Carnegie archaeologists were in a unique position to provide a real corpus of all known Maya inscriptions to their non-Carnegie colleagues, they never did so, not even during the Kidder years. As a consequence, the solution to the all-important questions of the ultimate meaning of these texts and possible methods for their decipherment have been seriously deferred.
Perhaps Morley’s greatest contribution was not his own research but his amazingly successful book, The Ancient Maya. I cherish the first edition (1946) of this justly popular book, since it contains so much of the infectious enthusiasm which inspired his colleagues and kindled the public’s interest in, and support of, New World archaeology. Morley was an advocate, not a coolly judicious scholar like Kidder, and a really great popularizer. He must have been a wonderful person to know.
I derived pleasure and instruction from reading Brunhouse’s biography of this outstanding man. My only quibble would be in the author’s treatment of certain persons in or near the Morley orbit, which strike me as somewhat unfair. In particular, his characterization of Karl Ruppert does not do justice to that kind, humorous, and civilized man. I lay these lapses to the possibility that Mr. Brunhouse, like most biographers, was not personally acquainted with many of the dramatis personae who appear on his stage.