Sylvanus Morley: The Real-Life Archaeologist Who Inspired Indiana Jones
Many of us are familiar with the legendary Indiana Jones, the adventurous archaeologist portrayed in a series of films directed by Steven Spielberg and played by Harrison Ford. However, the character of Indiana Jones drew inspiration from a real-life figure, the American archaeologist Sylvanus Morley. Morley, who was also an epigrapher specializing in deciphering hieroglyphics and a scholar of Maya culture, led an extraordinary life that included reconstructing one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient and modern world and even working as a spy during World War I to monitor the activities of German Nazis in Mexico.
Indiana Jones made his big-screen debut in 1981 with “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” almost a century after the birth of Sylvanus Morley in Pennsylvania in 1883. Morley’s contributions to archaeology and adventure rival those of the fictional Indiana Jones, also known as Henry Walton Jones Jr.
Morley, an epigrapher and scholar of Maya culture, is credited with the reconstruction of one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world, Chichén Itzá. During World War I, he was recruited by the United States Naval Intelligence to investigate the movements of German Nazis in Mexico, making him a real-life spy.
Sylvanus Morley’s Remarkable Journey
Morley’s reputation as an archaeologist was built upon his discovery of “lost cities” in Central America. His fascination with ancient civilizations began when he learned to read and encountered the first books about the ancient Maya culture. At the urging of his father, Sylvanus initially pursued a degree in engineering but later followed his true passion to Harvard, where he studied archaeology.
Morley’s archaeological journey took him to Yucatán, Mexico, where he put his knowledge to the test. He also participated in excavations in various Mexican regions, including Coba, and traveled to Guatemala and Honduras. His ultimate goal was to explore the location of the city of Chichén Itzá. However, his research remained a dream until 1923 due to the outbreak of World War I and his recruitment by the United States Naval Intelligence.
As a spy, Morley’s activities raised concerns among his peers, with Franz Boas arguing that his role as an informant brought discredit to the profession of archaeology. Nevertheless, Morley eventually gained access to Chichén Itzá, just as the Mexican government was engaged in the restoration of El Castillo, also known as the Temple of Kukulcán. This iconic monument, now recognized as one of the Seven Wonders, is a pre-Hispanic structure constructed by the Mayas Itzaes in the 12th century AD.
Under the leadership of Sylvanus Morley and the Carnegie Institution of Washington, significant discoveries were made throughout the 1940s, including the Temple of the Thousand Columns and the Temple of the Warriors.
Morley’s most notable theoretical contribution was his study of the Mayan calendar. His adventurous spirit, the significance of his discoveries, and his dual role as a spy during World War I make Sylvanus Morley a fitting model for the creation of a character as iconic as Indiana Jones in the history of cinema.