Convocation Address

By: J. Eric S. Thompson

Originally Published in 1962

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At a special Convocation held in the Irvine Auditorium of the University of Pennsylvania on January 20, 1962, in observance of the 75th Anniversary of the University Museum, Dr. Gaylord P. Harnwell, President of the University, conferred the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters on John Eric Sidney Thompson in recognition of his archaeological work and study of the contemporary Indian cultures of Guatemala and British Honduras; Henry Francis du Pont, founder of Winterthur, a living museum of our country’s civilization and heritage; and Ahmed Fakhry, Egyptian archaeologist and official representative of the Egyptian Government in the United States during the showing of the Tutankhamun Treasures. He also conferred the degree of Doctor of Laws on John Frederick Lewis, Jr., admiralty lawyer, civic leader, independent thinker, member of the Board of Managers of the University Museum; Percy Childs Madeira, Jr., who, as its president, has helped to shape the policies and purposes of the University Museum for almost a third of a century; and Adolfo Molina-Orantes who, as chief coordinator of the Museum’s training program in the field and at the University of San Carlos, will bring the Tikal Project, to which he has already contributed immensely, under the aegis of Guatemalans trained in Guatemala. Immediately after the conferring of degrees, Dr. Thompson delivered this address.

On that same day, the University Museum awarded Dr. Thompson its Lucy Wharton Drexel Medal. This award, which was established in 1902, is given “for the best archaeological investigation, or for the best publication based on archaeological excavation, by an English speaking scholar within the previous five years.” It was given to Dr. Thompson for “long and distinguished achievement in Maya archaeology, especially in the exhaustive study and publication of calendrical and non-calendrical hieroglyphs.”

Soon after the University Museum came into being, an important address was given by a great Maya scholar, Dr. Daniel Garrison Brinton, Professor of American Linguistics and Archaeology at this University.

Dr. Brinton had an extraordinary breadth of knowledge. He wrote on such subjects as the archaeology of North Africa, early man in Spain, the Etruscans, Easter Island, western Asia, the Philippines, and Pennsylvania folklore, in addition to his innumerable studies on the linguistics, mythology, and archaeology of the American Indians. He found time to write, in the shadow–I was going to say within sound–of the Liberty Bell a book entitled The Pursuit of Happiness, and even published on the poetry of Walt Whitman and Robert Browning.

Brinton was typical of his age–a man of broad interests, and doubtlessly in his address he covered a wide field. Today, alas, the situation is very different. The expansion of knowledge has been so vast that we are all, perforce, specialists now in narrow fields with very little knowledge beyond our restricted interests. I certainly cannot claim immunity from the infection; I started with all Latin America from the Rio Grande to Tierra del Fuego as my field. Now I can hardly cover a twentieth of that area.

Our plight is rather like that of a solitary crocodile I observed many years ago at Uaxactun, a Maya site a few miles north of Tikal, where the University Museum is now excavating. He was lord and master of a tiny water hole, the only water supply for miles around. Whenever the dry season was unduly prolonged, the pool dried up and he dug himself into the drying mud, and, so I was told, stayed there in a sort of inverted deep freeze, awaiting the return of the rains. He must have shed many a tear, of the ordinary, not the crocodile, kind over his exceedingly lonely life without companionship or any mental stimulus. All of us today are in our little water holes with our snouts just poking out of the hardening mud.

Incidentally, crocodiles are long-lived. He is probably still there. One wonders whether the Tikal budget might not carry a small appropriation for transporting this lone, lorn creature to the great swamp of Tikal, where he could have companionship, physical and mental. It would be a kind deed and the tale of his translation might discourage mental isolation among your young student helpers.

The first field work in the Maya area of the University Museum was the aerial expedition over the Maya lowlands in 1930, with Percy C. Madeira, Jr., Philadelphia’s great Maya aficionado, as leader and Alden Mason as archaeologist. In those days such a survey was a distinct novelty.

That was a preliminary to the Eldridge R. Johnson excavations at Piedras Negras, the first dig in that great and strategically important Usumacinta Valley or in the whole southern lowlands for that matter. The work continued for eight seasons, under the leadership first of Dr. Mason and then of Dr. Linton Satterthwaite, with Mary Butler in charge of pottery, Tatiana Proskouriakoff as assistant archaeologist, and Mrs. Satterthwaite as a youthful camp mother. The results were of outstanding importance, particularly in the amount of material on architectural sequences, largely the work of Dr. Satterthwaite. The beautiful Stela 14 in the Maya hall, brought here through the enterprise of Dr. Mason, is a tangible witness of the work at Piedras Negras. Later, the work of Dr. Satterthwaite at Caracol, in British Honduras, added more fine sculptures.

I should like to mention here two people directly and indirectly involved in the museum’s work–Miss M. Louis Baker and Robert Burkitt. Miss Baker made those magnificent watercolors of Maya pottery published by the University Museum. I met her first in Guatemala City in 1931 while she was busy painting the famous Initial Series vase found at Uaxactun. There had been a series of minor earth tremors, which, it was thought, might be the prelude to a major earthquake. Miss Baker, a good Pennsylvania Quaker, wasn’t phased; she showed me how each evening she placed the vase under a sort of plywood packing case and that in turn beneath a table so flimsy that it would have collapsed if sat on. Her complete confidence in her safety measures charmed care each night from her pillow; luckily no earthquake came to disillusion her.

Burkitt was a strange Irishman. It was credibly reported that arriving at a coffee plantation in the northern highlands of Guatemala, he was invited to stay the night. He accepted the invitation and stayed for thirty years. It was a trifle hard on his host and hostess, but of considerable benefit to Maya research. He acquired an amazing knowledge of the language, customs, and religion of the Kekchi branch of the Maya. The only trouble was that he insisted on his reports being published in his own brand of simplified spelling which would have made the late Colonel MacCormack and the staff of the Chicago Tribune green with envy. Have a look at back numbers of the Museum Journal; you’ll get an eyeful.

With the inauguration of work at Tikal, greatest of all Maya centers, and the abrupt  liquidation of the work of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, the University Museum has become far and away the most important influence in shaping our thinking on Maya problems. What fruits that work has borne is well known to you. Most spectacular of those was the discovery, two seasons ago, of the earliest dated monument ever found in the Maya area–and how my old colleague Sylvanus Morley, who so encouraged the work of the University Museum in the Maya area, would have rejoiced at that find. Such finds of new texts he used to call “bringing home the epigraphic bacon.” That piece of hieroglyphic bacon is certainly overripe with age, but its savor is very sweet in archaeological nostrils. However, less spectacular finds have been more important: the early Stela 31, for example, with its long early inscription in almost mint condition, with many hitherto unknown hieroglyphs, and the murals in the early tomb.

Legible texts in the Peten are scarce because of the weathering of the poor quality limestone on which they are recorded, so the growing number of new stelae unearthed at Tikal are particularly valuable. Naturally, the more good texts there are, the better are the chances of deciphering the writing.

Of outstanding importance is the dating of wooden beams of Tikal Temples by the Carbon-14 method, a grand piece of collaboration in research between Dr. Satterthwaite and Miss Ralph, of the University’s Carbon-14 laboratory, which has re-established the so-called 11.16 correlation of Maya dates with our calendar. This was particularly gratifying to me as a proponent for many years of that system of converting Maya to Christian dates. Earlier datings of Tikal beams, when the Carbon-14 method was in its infancy and lacked present-day refinements, had supported a rival correlation which made all Maya dates 260 years earlier in our calendar, and there was a rush of those with a limited knowledge of the subject to accept the earlier dates. I was almost like the hero of the poem– “The boy stood on the burning deck whence all but he had fled.” One archaeological newsletter carried the cheerful comment: “Everyone now accepts the early system except Thompson who is too stubborn to change.” There were really two cabin boys on the burning deck, for Dr. Satterthwaite, also knowing the immensely strong case for the later 11.16 system, was equally stubborn. Still, as the poet James Thomson wrote, “Each night since first the world was made hath had a sequent day to laugh it down the skies,” and the University Museum’s work at Tikal created that day for Satterthwaite and myself. As to supporters of the earlier dates there are two lines in Paradise Lost not inappropriate in view of the carbon factor. They “with hateful disrelish writhed their jaws with soot and cinders filled.”

In recent years Maya students have broken away from over-preoccupation with establishing chronological frameworks through the changes of pottery types. This was an approach introduced in the mid-twenties from the American Southwest, where the poverty of other aspects made it most rewarding. Such work was badly needed in the Maya area, but it was ill-advised to let it dominate Maya research, as it did for many years, for the plentiful Maya religious sculpture, the murals, the painted scenes on pottery, as well as the inexhaustible mines of information in the writings of Maya colonial antiquaries and interested Spanish writers, could shed far more light on the Maya as a living people than a complete absorption in sequences of pottery and stone artifacts could ever hope to do.

It was as though archaeologists working on the stone age of Kenya had tried to persuade Dr. Fakhry and his fellow Egyptologists to concentrate on stone implements and not to trouble about the information obtainable from tombs, paintings, and sculpture in stone and wood.

Things got so bad that one was looked on askance for admiring a Maya case for its beauty rather than for its chronological value, and I got into trouble for reminding pottery specialists that Job had found yet another use for potsherds, to scrape his boils.

Typical of the break-away from the pottery complex is the work of Tatiana Proskouriakoff, whose first investigations were under the auspices of the University Museum. her studies of Maya sculpture and, more recently, her success in relating sculptural motifs to the accompanying hieroglyphic texts have opened up a vista of Maya dynasties, particularly at Piedras Negras, and have even given us a peep at the family life of the rulers of those far off days, their wives and children. A few years ago no one dreamed that such information would ever be recovered.

Dr. Satterthwaite’s work on the moving and resetting of stelae at Tikal, with all its social and religious implications is breathing new life into the bones of Maya culture.

The work of Coe, Adams, and Shook in establishing a later occupation at Tikal is another great advance. The old theory that the Maya packed up and moved out of the area, bag and baggage, was clearly nonsens; such an abandonment for centuries of a vast fertile area is unknown in human history. Likewise, Dr. Mason’s study of the languages of Middle America is a brilliant revival of Brinton’s wider interests. I only wish we could coax Dr. Rainey from his arctic haunts into the Maya area, but he turns a deaf ear to all suggestions that chili con carne is a tastier dish than eskimo pie.

That great Maya scholar, Ralph Roys, has almost completed a translation of the last, but most important of colonial Maya manuscripts, The Ritual of the Bacabs, a most difficult task because of its many ritualistic terms now obsolete. I have been privileged to see his translation as it advanced; it will unlock a vast treasury of Maya mythology.

New advances are being made in such fields as social and political organization, distribution of settlement in ancient days, agriculture, religion and philosophy, and the cause of the decline of Maya civilization. We are beginning to see the Maya not as an isolated phenomenon but as influencing and being influenced by their contemporary neighbors. Studies of the present-day Maya, largely the work of Guatemalan and Mexican scholars, are of particular consequence, both in their sociological aspects and for the light they throw on the past. The pattern of international cooperation they follow was initiated by the Guatemalan scholar, Antonio Goubaud, a man of whom any country might be proud.

Specialization is here to stay, but its ill-effects are being overcome by the splendid teamwork which characterizes the work at Tikal, and which will carry Maya research far.

In thinking of those from Brinton on who have made the University Museum’s Maya research what it is and will be–and names have been omitted for lack of time–I am reminded of words spoken by Robert Menzies, Prime Minister of Australia: “A man with a deep sense  of continuity sees himself not as an accidental unit doomed to vanish in a few years, but as one of a great human procession, influenced and helped by those who have gone before, responsible in his turn for giving help and encouragement to those who will come after.”

Cite This Article

Thompson, J. Eric S.. "Convocation Address." Expedition Magazine 4, no. 3 (May, 1962): -. Accessed May 29, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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