Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Sunday, November 20, 2022

Sylvanus Morley: Archeologist & World War I Espionage Agent 53

Sylvanus Morley on the Yucatán Peninsula

Sylvanus Morley (1883–1948) may best be known for his excavations at Chichén Itzá, the discovery of the Temple of the Warriors and his study of the pre-Columbian Maya civilization. He also is known as Agent No. 53 for his work as a spy for the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) during World War I.

Colonel Benjamin F. Morley, was a professor of chemistry, mathematics and tactics at the now-defunct Pennsylvania Military College,  located at Chester, PA. Although the family had moved to Colorado, the colonel encouraged his son to study engineering. Morley enrolled at PMC and graduated at the top of his class, receiving a degree in civil engineering. He then promptly enrolled at Harvard and began his study of archaeology, his lifelong passion.

Morley in His Cadet Days

After several years at the museum-affiliated School of American Archaeology in Santa Fe, NM, Morley was appointed research associate for the Carnegie Institute. This permitted him to lead a series of expeditions to Central America.

In March 1917, Morley approached ONI and suggested that specialists, including himself, in Mexico and Central America were willing to become intelligence agents using their professional activities as cover. In April, with only basic instructions from ONI and no training, he was sent to Guatemala City. His mission for ONI was to search for secret German submarine bases and build an intelligence network in Central America while conducting an “archeological reconnaissance” for the Carnegie Institute. For the next two years, he traveled more than 2,000 miles along the coastline of Latin America. As he traveled through Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico, he recruited an extensive network of agents who kept watch on the activities of German nationals.

Shortly after the war several of Morley's contemporaries voiced their misgivings over the duplicitous nature of the espionage work that Morley and several of his colleagues had been suspected of. One notable critic, the famous anthropologist Franz Boas, published a letter of protest in the 20 December 1919 edition of The Nation. Without naming the suspected archaeologists, Boas's letter denounced these Central American operatives who had "prostituted science by using it as a cover for their activities as spies." Ten days after the letter was published, the American Anthropological Association censured Boas for this action in a 21-to-10 formal vote on a resolution distancing the AAA from Boas's views.

Sylvanus Morley at Chichén Itzá, Mexico

Morley’s career as a spy ended in 1919. During that time he proved to be a remarkable gatherer of intelligence providing over 10,000 pages of  reports to ONI. Once it became clear that there were no German submarine bases, he provided useful economic and political intelligence.

Sources:  Pennsylvania Military College Website; Wikipedia


  1. PMC became Widener College (now a university) in 1972.

  2. Fascinating story, especially in the context of the Zimmerman affair.

  3. As an archeology student between 1965-70 I quickly became familiar with Sylvanus Morley. Living in Honduras in the late 1990s, I concentrated my studies on the Maya and read every publication by Morley, Schele and Coe. Of course, I knew nothing of his activities with OSI. I would love to find out if he had any connection to the Zimmerman affair.