Monday, March 17, 2008


Edward Herbert Thompson, not to be confused with the Englishman, Sir Eric J., with whom he shares the same last name, has gone down, deservedly, in the chronicles of Maya archaeology as a problematic figure. He celebrated his own archeological exploits in the autobiographical People of the Serpent, and was championed by the eccentric battery fortune heir (and enthusiast for all things Maya) T.A. Willard in his popular treatment The City of the Sacred Well, but today his role is inevitably linked with the folly documented in this photograph of Pedro Guerra.1 Thompson is, in fact, emblematic of North American archeology’s (more openly) acquisitive age, where excavation went hand in hand with looting, spying, and imperialism. His is the archaeology of Manifest Destiny, where the scientist might function as scout for the military incursion that would follow, and where the aim of fieldwork is not knowledge so much as booty.
Like John Lloyd Stephens, Ephraim George Squier, Porter Bliss and Louis J. Aymé before him, Thompson’s used diplomacy as a vehicle to pursue his archeological interests. In 1885, at the age of 25, with the aid of Massachusetts Senator George Hoar and the encouragement of Stephen Salisbury III and Charles P. Bowditch, both of the American Antiquarian Society, President Grover Cleveland appointed him the US consul in the Yucatan. His young Yankee wife soon returned to New England, but he remained in Yucatan, studying the Maya. He took his self-defined archeological and anthropological duties much more seriously than his appointed diplomatic ones. He was initiated into a syncretic Maya religious sect, took a Maya wife and fathered a mestizo family. When charged by the Peabody Museum’s Frederick Putnam to provide exhibition materials for the 1893 Columbian Exposition, he exported plaster casts of ancient architectural highlights of Uxmal and Labna to the display on Chicago’s Midway. At Chichén Itzá however Thompson did not simply make casts and dig; he bought the site, pyramid, cenote, and all. The exhibition in Chicago had piqued the interest of heiress Allison Armour, who financed Thompson’s purchase of the ruins. There he lived for the next several decades.
Though the bulk of the Guerra archive consists of portraiture, there are also many photographs--typically straight-faced documents devoid of any editorial commentary--of some of the newsworthy events that took place on the peninsula during the period the studio was active. Of these events one of the more infamous is Edward Thompson’s dredging of the sacred cenote of Chichén Itzá, the activity that has subsequently come to define Thompson’s career as an archeologist. Thompson had read Diego de Landa’s account of sacrifices as the cenote in Relación de las cosas de Yucatán, a manuscript that had been rediscovered in a Spanish archive and reprinted by the Abbé Brasseur de Bourbourg in 1883. Bishop de Landa’s account of human sacrifices at the cenote drew Thompson’s attention to the prospect of treasures lurking below the water’s surface. It was a site that provided many challenges to the prospective underwater archeologist so many years before the self-contained breathing apparatus. Though the cenote is not especially deep, the bottom is rich with centuries of silt. Many objects of archeological value, Thompson figured, would be mixed into that thick organic deposit at the well’s bottom. Thompson contemplated using windmills to pump the water out of the well, but abandoned this plan. To access the bottom he contracted a pair of Greek sponge divers, and dove himself into the low-visibility silt. He also brought in the winch and the two and a half cubic foot “orange-peel bucket” dredge represented here. The winch was used for repeated dredgings between 1904 and 1911.2 His technique was a simple one, relying on invasive force and industrial age technology, seemingly oblivious to the fragility of the artifacts sought from below:

I doubt if anybody can realize the thrill I felt when, with four men at the winch handles and one at the brake, the dredge, with its steel jaws agape, swung from the platform, hung poised for a brief moment in midair over the dark pit and then, with a long swift glide downward, entered the still, dark waters and sake smoothly on its quest. A few moments of waiting to allow the sharp-pointed teeth to bite into the deposit, and then the forms of the workmen bent over the winch handles and muscles under dark brown skin began to play like quicksilver as the steel cables tautened under the strain of the upcoming burden.3

Needless to say, the process could smash fragile ceramics and other artifacts. Thompson’s wrote: “most of the objects brought up were in fragments. Probably they were votive offerings broken before being thrown into the well, as a ritualistic act performed by the priests.”4 The human bones recovered during the dredging set his imagination in action. Of the female remains, Thompson told Willard that:

The sympathetic imagination without effort clothed the naked bones with flesh and substance, so that one saw instantly the graceful, lovely, high-bred maiden and the last solemn act that had stilled the poor girlish clad in all its finery and left to sink into the ooze at the bottom of this terrible pit.5

The male bones, he believed, revealed a different sort of breeding:

Some are relatively large, thick-walled, with protuberant surfaces, receding foreheads, and prognathic jaws. Evidently their possessors were ferocious, primitive, almost gorilla-like—not the same race that bred the girl-brides of the Rain God. Again this tallies with the tradition that the warriors sacrificed were captives.6

Much of the controversy surrounding Thompson’s career focuses on the fate of the masks, knives, bells and other objects that he recovered from the cenote. In spite of the 1823 law restricting the export of archeological objects, Thompson smuggled the objects to Massachusetts, where they joined the collection of Harvard’s Peabody Museum. When, in 1923, Alma Reed published an account of this transgression in the New York Times, it created great indignation. The revelations threatened to jeopardize the on-going negotiations of the Carnegie Institute for permission to conduct excavations and restorations at the site by tarring the reputation of gringo archeologists with a reputation as untrustworthy and acquisitive. The Mexican government, valuing the objects at half a million 1926 dollars, pursued legal action against Thompson. Thompson was acquitted in the end, but the Peabody returned most of the smuggled artifacts in 1957.
Though Thompson is emblematic of the Nineteenth Century school of archeology which Curtis Hinsley has termed an “enterprise of imperial acquisition,”7 his career extended well beyond that era. His dredging of the cenote coincides with Sylvanus Morley’s first visit to the Yucatán in 1907, and Morley perhaps assisted with the surreptitious transport of objects back to Cambridge.8 But by the time Morley took the helm of the Carnegie excavations, another phase of Mexican archeology had begun, one based on binational collaborations rather than individual initiatives. In the later years of his life, Thompson cohabitated with that later generation of archeologists working at Chichén, but he never joined their ranks. His last years at Chichén were characterized by this awkward coexistence, and by several personal setbacks. In 1921, in the chaos of the peninsular Revolution, Thompson’s Casa principal burned by de la Huerta’s troops. The Carnegie financed the repairs, and paid him a US$1200 annual stipend for use of the property. When Thompson’s failure to pay real estate taxes again threatened the continuation of excavations, the Carnegie intervened and paid off his outstanding debt.
Thompson’s dredge was not the last of the heavy-handed archeological machinery to intrude on the god Chac’s sacred well. In 1960 the National Geographic Society and the Club de Exploradores y Desportes Acuáticos de México (CEDAM) collaborated on a project which sucked the water, mud and artifacts up from the bottom of the cenote into a massive archeological geyser, which then sprayed the deposits onto nets designed to catch the dislodged pieces. This gusher of Maya artifacts was proudly documented in National Geographic magazine and a television program entitled "Expedition: Into the Sacred Well".9 Concern for the damage inflicted on fragile artifacts halted this surreal approach. In 1967 CEDAM returned with plans first to drain, and when that proved unsuccessful, to chlorinate, the water in Chichén’s well.10 These are the later day heirs to Thompson’s project, archeologists who quite likely destroyed as much as they brought to light. Thompson plunged in the Maya past with equipment better suited for coal mining than the recovery of centuries-old, often brittle objects. He emerged with tale glorifying himself, to which Guerra’s photographs stands as a mute witness.

1. Edward Herbert Thompson People of the Serpent (New York: Capricorn Books, 1932); T. A. Willard, The City of the Sacred Well (London: William Heinimamm, 1926).

2. More information on this is provided by Luis Ramírez Aznar, El saqueo del cenote sagrado de Chichén Itzá (Mérida: Editorial Dante, 1990); Clemency Coggins and Orrin C. Shane III, Maya Treasures from the Sacred Well at Chichen Itza, (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1984); M. Robert Ewing, A History of Archaeological Activity at Chichen Itza, Yucatán, Mexico (Ann Arbor: UMI, 1972).

3. Thompson, ibid.

4. Thompson, ibid.

5. Willard, ibid., p. 115.

6. Willard, ibid., p. 115.

7. Curtis M. Hinsley, “In Search of the New World Classical,” in Collecting the Pre-Columbian Past, ed. Elizabeth Hill Boone (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 1993), p. 118.

8. This is implied in Robert Brunhaus’s Sylvanus G. Morley and the World of the Ancient Mayas (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971), p. 38.

9. Eusebio Dávalos Hurtado, “Into the Well of Sacrifice: Return to the Sacred Cenote,” National Geographic, vol. 120, no. 4 (October, 1961), 540-549; Bates Littlehales, “Into the Well of Sacrifice: Treasure Hunt in the Deep Past,” National Geographic, vol. 120, no. 4 (October, 1961), 550-561.

10. Donald Ediger, The Well of Sacrifice (New York: Doubleday, 1971).


EJA said...

Hello again, Jesse,

Insightful (inciteful?) article as always. I think you are being too hard on Thompson, but it is the fault of the source material, and not your analysis.

Your paragraph that begins, "Much of the controversy surrounding Thompson’s career ..." contains several of those barnacles of apocrypha that have attached themselves to the Thompson myth, among them:

1) Indignation upon Alma Reed's publishing of Thompson's dredging in 1923. Never happened. Certainly some of those involved with the Carnegie group were concerned about it, but it never materialized. Plus, Reed was not even the first to write about it. For one, The American Egypt (1909), a book you and I have named our Web sites named after, published about Thompson's finds (see page 93, Doubleday and Co. pressing).

2) Peabody returned most of the objects. The Peabody returned the best gold and carved jades, but the bulk of the collection (at one time 2-and-a-half rooms full) is still in Cambridge. I've seen it.

3) Hacienda burned by troops. No troops were involved, but a joint Mexican/American commission later ruled that the government at the time did have some responsibility, apparently for inciting locals to loot plantations or squat there.

While these may seem picayune points, together they point to what I believe is an even more complex portrait of Thompson and his time. It is my conclusion that Thompson dredged the cenote with the approbation (although unofficial) of the Mexican government. Even after the Revolution, Thompson did not become a scourge to Mexico until well into the 1920s. As I believe you know, he was considered a friend of Yucatan's socialist governor Felipe Carrillo Puerto (even giving him a series of copper bells from the Cenote Sagrado that Carrillo gave out to dignitaries and guests, including Alma Reed).

However, none of this is in the current literature. I have you, in part, to thank for starting me on this journey to investigate Thompson and Chichen Itza. Your wonderful film, Ruins, was a big inspiration. I encourage every to see it, as well as The American Egypt.

Drop me a line next time you plan to be in Boston.

-- Evan Albright

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