Feature Article

Edward H. Thompson
And the Treasure of the Sacred Well


By Evan J. Albright

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Edward H. Thompson, not long after his arrival in Yucatan, doing his best impersonation of the "great white hunter." His early naivete was soon replaced with an encyclopedic knowledge and grateful appreciation of the Maya, their history and their culture.

Every year more than a million visitors tear themselves away from the sand and surf of Cancun and other resorts along the shore of the Yucatan region of Mexico to visit Chichen Itza, the restored city of the ancient Maya. Tourists from all over the world come to admire "El Castillo," the giant limestone pyramid; "The Great Ball Court," the largest sports facility of its type in the Mayan world; and the mysterious freshwater pool, the "Sacred Cenote." The lure of Chichen Itza as a tourist attraction is owed, in great part, to a Cape Cod man, Edward Herbert Thompson.

"I am an enthusiast by nature and so completely did I give myself to my work in the Yucatan that some of my contemporaries spoke of me as impractical," he wrote in his 1932 memoir, People of the Serpent. "I have squandered my substance in riotous explorations and I am altogether satisfied.".

Thompson was born in 1857, and grew up in Worcester. He spent his summers on Cape Cod in Falmouth, Mass., where, as local legend has it, his father, Josiah, built one of the first vacation cottages. Josiah was in the brick trade and later moved the family s summer residence to West Falmouth, lured by the rich clay deposits he found there. He built a brick kiln and a lofty house.

During one of his summers on the Cape, Thompson fell in love with a ship captain s daughter, Henrietta T. Hamblin. The couple married in 1883 and settled in Falmouth, but that was soon to change.

In 1885, Stephen Salisbury Jr., a Worcester resident and son of one of the richest men in the United States, asked Thompson to join him for dinner. Salisbury had read a magazine article by Thompson in which he theorized that the Mayan ruins were the remains of the civilization that sprang from the lost continent of Atlantis. After the meal, Salisbury made Thompson a startling offer: Would the West Falmouth man be willing to move to the Yucatan to seek out ancient Mayan sites and artifacts and conduct archaeological digs on his behalf? Senator George Frisbie Hoar, who was also at the dinner, promised Thompson a job as American Consul to the Yucatan. A few weeks later, Thompson, Henrietta, and their newborn daughter boarded a ship for the Yucatan, beginning what would become a 40-year adventure, one that would take him to the magical city known as Chichen Itza.

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For reasons unknown today, the Maya abandoned Chichen Itza around 1250, and the city fell into ruin. Four hundred thirty-nine years later the new American Consul, Edward Thompson, visited Chichen Itza. His biographer, T.A. Willard, described how the explorer reached the ruined city in the middle of the night, "in the saddle, dozing over the head of a somnambulant horse." Thompson s Mayan guide woke him and pointed ahead. "I raised my eyes and became electrically, tinglingly awake," Thompson supposedly told Willard, the prose becoming even more purple. "There, high-up, wraith-like, in the waning moonlight, loomed what seemed a Grecian temple of colossal proportions atop a great steep hill." This was Thompson s first look at the dominant architectural feature of Chichen Itza, the massive pyramid of Kukulcan.

Willard s book, The City of the Sacred Well, was written in 1926, long after that first visit. Thompson claimed that Willard had greatly embellished his tale. The book helped to make Chichen Itza a household name, and Thompson famous. "Oh Lordy, what he makes me say and do," the explorer wrote a colleague shortly after the book came out. ,"May heaven help me." Thompson s instincts proved correct, for Willard s exaggerations would eventually drive him from Mexico.

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Thompson stands next to the dredge that plumbed the depths of the Sacred Cenote.

Thompson devised an ingenious method to get unlimited access for his archaeological investiations: He bought it. In 1894, he purchased for no more than $500 a nearby abandoned plantation that included, as part of the deal, the ruins of Chichen Itza.

The hacienda, like the ancient city, was in ruins. Thompson restored the main casa, and five years later he was the overseer of 45 servants and their respective families (to whom he became known as "Don Eduardo"), 300 cattle, 30 mules, and fields of sugar cane and fruit trees. In his spare time he excavated the ruins of Chichen Itza and made several significant discoveries.

In 1903 Thompson came up with his most audacious archaeological project. The ancient Maya had built Chichen Itza next to a large sink hole filled with water called a cenote. The cenote was believed sacred, a portal to the gods, and according to one early Catholic cleric, Maya from all over Mesoamerica would visit it to throw tributes and human sacrifices. Thompson persuaded Charles Bowditch of Peabody Museum at Harvard and Stephen Salisbury to finance an exploration of the Sacred Cenote.

The Sacred Cenote proved a difficult challenge to explore. This sunken pool was some 80 feet below ground level, and surrounded by steep cliffs. There was no easy way to reach the water's surface, and if one made it there, no way to investigate its depths. Thompson was undeterred. He imported a sturdy crane that supported a cable with a large dredging bucket. "For days the dredge went up and down, up and down, interminably, bringing up muck and rocks, muck and more muck," Thompson recalled years later. Occasionally the bucket would bring up small shards of pottery, but that did little to assuage his growing doubt.

Just when he was about to give up, the dredge brought up two hard, waxen balls, clearly made by human hands. They turned out to be small globes of fragrant resin called pom that, according to ancient legend, were burned to send prayers up to the Maya gods. The discovery of the sacred incense energized Thompson and he redoubled his efforts with the dredge. Soon it was bringing up dozens of ancient artifacts, including many items of low-grade gold, copper and jade. The dredge also recovered several skeletons, which in his mind confirmed that the well had been the scene of human sacrifice.

Thompson knew there had to be small items, probably made of gold or jade, that were slipping through the teeth of the dredge. He hired a professional diver in Boston to teach him how to wear a heavy diving suit and descend into the depths. He shipped two suits and requisite air pumps to Chichen Itza and taught his Mayan workers to operate the equipment. At 50 years of age, Thompson dove more than 60 feet to the bottom of the Sacred Cenote. There was zero visibility, and the only way to explore was by touch, feeling along the bottom. The work was exceedingly dangerous, but Thompson and his crew found even more artifacts. These, too, were shipped to the Peabody. In 1910, after six seasons, Thompson concluded his explorations of the Sacred Cenote.

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In 1923 Don Eduardo revealed to a correspondent from the New York Times that he had made what the reporter later described as "the most important find of archaeological objects ever made in the Americas." .

The New York Times story described the importance of the objects from an archaeological viewpoint, but downplayed their monetary value. Not so the biographer of Thompson, T. A. Willard. In City of the Sacred Well, published in 1926, Willard greatly exaggerated the value of the artifacts. When Mexican officials read the book, the government ordered the hacienda seized, including Chichen Itza, and filed suit for 1.3 million pesos.

Thompson by that time was almost 70 years old, in poor health, and living full-time in West Falmouth. The lawsuit dragged on for years, and Thompson never returned to Yucatan. He died on May 18, 1935. In 1944 the Mexican Supreme Court ruled in favor of his heirs, who promptly sold Chichen Itza to a Yucatecan tourism operator.

The Peabody Museum eventually returned to Mexico all of the gold and much of the jade artifacts recovered from the Sacred Cenote. Some of the items are current exhibited in the museum. The legend of Don Eduardo has faded over the decades. The only "memorial" to Thompson can be found at Chichen Itza next to the washrooms: The bucket he used to dredge the Sacred Cenote.

A longer version of this article appeared in Cape Cod Life magazine.