Morley, Sylvanus Griswold (1883–1948)

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Morley, Sylvanus Griswold (1883–1948)

The American archaeologist Sylvanus Griswold Morley was an expert in Maya hieroglyphic writing and the public face of Maya studies from the 1920s to late 1940s. Born in Chester, Pennsylvania, on June 7, 1883, Morley earned a BA (1907) and MA (1908) from Harvard and later an honorary doctorate from the Pennsylvania Military College. While still an undergraduate, he undertook archaeological fieldwork in the U.S. Southwest, under the supervision of Edgar L. Hewett. Shortly after finishing his graduate degree, Morley moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, and accepted a position at the newly founded School of American Archaeology (later the School of American Research). In 1914 he joined the staff of the Carnegie Institution of Washington as the head of a new research program focusing on the ancient Maya. In 1923 he began the Chichén Itzá Project (1924–1940), which excavated and reconstructed many important structures at that ruined city in Yucatan. Until 1929 Morley directed the entire Carnegie Maya program, with archaeological projects at Uaxactún, Guatemala, and elsewhere in Mexico and Central America. A great majority of Maya archaeologists in the first half of the twentieth century trained under Morley and at Carnegie projects.

Morley was the foremost world expert in Maya hieroglyphic writing in the first half of the twentieth century. Although he wrote a still-useful introduction to ancient Maya writing (1915), his scholarly legacy rests upon his great compendia of the inscriptions at Copan, Honduras (1920), and of the Petén, Guatemala (1937–1938). Morley lived and wrote in a time when even the experts thought that the ancient Maya used their writing to record nothing beyond dates and astronomical events, and more than anything, these works are excellent guides to the archaeological sites described and to the chronology of the thousands of Maya inscriptions then known. In an earlier paper on the Lunar Series in Maya dates (1916), Morley proposed a technique of analyzing texts using substitution patterns that decades later became one of the keys to the phonetic decipherment of Maya hieroglyphic writing.

Every fall for forty years, Morley presented public lectures about the ancient Maya to audiences in the United States, Europe, and Latin America. He also wrote much for general audiences, with articles in the National Geographic Magazine and a classic book, The Ancient Maya (1946), that is still in print. Morley also collaborated on an English-language version (1950) of Adrian Recinos's Spanish translation of the Quiché Maya epic the Popol Vuh. And in 1944 he was the impetus behind the monumental English translation of Bernardino de Sahagún's Florentine Codex, completed by Arthur J. O. Anderson and Charles E. Dibble (1950–1982), Morley died on September 2, 1948.

See alsoArchaeology; Maya, The; Mayan Epigraphy; Popol Vuh.


Primary Works

An Introduction to the Study of the Maya Hieroglyphs. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1915.

"The Supplementary Series in the Maya Inscriptions." In Holmes Anniversary Volume, 366-396. Washington, DC: J. W. Bryan Press, 1916.

The Inscriptions at Copan. Washington, DC: Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1920.

The Inscriptions of Petén. 5 vols. Washington, DC: Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1937–1938.

With Delia Goetz and Adrián Recinos. Popol Vuh: The Sacred Book of the Quiché Maya. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1950.

Secondary Works

Brunhouse, Robert L. Sylvanus G. Morley and the World of the Ancient Maya. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971.

Harris, Charles H., III, and Louis R. Sadler. The Archaeologist Was a Spy: Sylvanus G. Morley and the Office of Naval Intelligence. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2003.

Kidder, Alfred Vincent. "Sylvanus Griswold Morley, 1883–1948." El Palacio 55, no. 9 (1948): 267-274.

Thompson, J. Eric S. "Sylvanus Griswold Morley, 1883–1948." American Anthropologist 51, no. 2 (1949): 293-297.

                               Khristaan D. Villela

                                     Eugene V. Thaw

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Morley, Sylvanus Griswold (1883–1948)

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