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Murky Waters: Revisiting the Looting of the Sacred Cenote of Chichén Itzá, Yucatán

Adam Sellen, Centro Peninsular en Humanidades y Ciencias Sociales, UNAM, México, Summer Fellow 2010/11

The U.S. Consul Edward H. Thompson's looting of the Sacred Cenote of Chichen Itza at the beginning of the twentieth century is well known to Mesoamerican scholars. Although its story has been told from many perspectives—including Thompson's own unapologetic imperialism and the understandable resentment of Mexicans outraged at the looting of their archaeological heritage—its outlines are widely accepted. However, nowhere in the archaeological or historical literature is there an in-depth study of the role of the Mexican government in the loss of the artifacts, despite ample documentation preserved in Mexican archives both in Yucatan, and in Mexico City. Using documents from a diversity of archival sources that bear on Thompson's dredging of the Sacred Cenote and the Mexican government's role in the affair, I have used my fellowship period at Dumbarton Oaks to create a true chronology of the facts and an extended analysis of the implications of the controversial case.

In particular, I have analyzed the role of the archaeological inspector in Yucatan at the time, whose responsibility it was to protect national monuments from precisely this kind of depredation. The official, Santiago Bolio, is typically accused of having been bribed by Thompson to keep word of the looting from leaking out, and on the surface the Consul's own letters record such payments. (A research visit to the archives of the Peabody Museum during my stay brought these documents into closer focus.) But Bolio's official reports on Thompson's activities—sent directly to Mexico's powerful Minister for Public Instruction—afford an entirely different view of their interactions and of the government's role in the case. They suggest a complicated relationship between nations that reflected broader geopolitical interests. These interests ultimately overrode concerns for the integrity of this particular archaeological site. The unmatched resources of the Dumbarton Oaks library have been invaluable in allowing me to compare the archival materials with the published texts relating to the case, and to place them in the fullest context possible.

Photograph of Edward H. Thompson and his Mayan Guide, from the pamphlet 'Yucatan Lectures by 'Thompson of Yucatan,'' Published J.B. Bond Lyceum Bureau, New York, 1911Photograph of Edward H. Thompson and his Mayan Guide, from the pamphlet Yucatan Lectures by Thompson of Yucatan, Published J.B. Bond Lyceum Bureau, New York, 1911

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