J. Eric S. Thompson

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For other persons named Eric Thompson, see Eric Thompson (disambiguation).

Sir John Eric Sidney Thompson (31 December 1898 – 9 September 1975) was a leading English Mesoamerican archaeologist, ethnohistorian, and epigrapher. While working in the United States, he dominated Maya studies and particularly the study of the Maya script until well into the sixties of the 20th century.


Early life[edit]

Thompson was born on 31 December 1898 to father George Thompson, a distinguished surgeon and fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of England. Thompson was raised in the family home on Harley Street in London.[1] At the age of 14 he was sent to Winchester College to receive an independent education.

In 1915, at the beginning of WWI, Thompson used the assumed name Neil Winslow to join the British Army while underage. A year into service he was wounded and sent home to recover, first in Huddersfield then Seaford. He continued to serve in the Coldstream Guards until the end of the war, ending his service at the rank of officer.

After the war Thompson left for Argentina to work as a gaucho on a family cattle farm. When he returned to England in the early 1920s Thompson published his first article on his experience in Argentina, titled A Cowboy's Experience: Cattle Branding in the Argentine in the Southwark Diocesan Gazette.


Thompson first considered a medical or political career however he later decided to study anthropology at the Fitzwilliam House at Cambridge University under A.C. Haddon. With the completion of his degree in 1925, Thompson wrote to Sylvanus G Morley, the head of the Carnegie Institution's project at Chichen Itza, to ask for a job, inquiring about a field position.[2] Morley accepted Thompson, most likely due to the fact that Thompson had previously taught himself to read Maya hieroglyphic dates, an accomplishment that was highly valued by Morley who also had a passion for Maya hieroglyphics.

Early career[edit]

In 1926 Thompson arrived in the Yucatan of Mexico under the direction of Morley to work at Chichen Itza. Here he started working on the friezes of the Temple of the Warriors. In his autobiography, Maya Archaeologist (1936), Thompson referred to the friezes as "a sort of giant jigsaw puzzle made worse by the fact the stones had been carved before being placed in position" accurately describing his first field experience.[2]

Later that year Morley sent Thompson to report on the site of Coba, located to the east of Chichen Itza. During the first field season at Coba, Thompson deciphered the dates on the Macanxoc stela. Morley, the foremost epigrapher, did not originally agree with the readings of the dates. It was not until a return trip to Coba that Morley was persuaded by Thompson's readings, marking his emergence as a prominent scholar in the field of Maya epigraphy.[3] Within the next year, Thompson took post as the Assistant Curator at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. He would work there until 1935 when he left for a position at the Carnegie Institution in Washington, D.C.

In 1926, while employed by the Field Museum, Thompson, under the supervision of Thomas A. Joyce and the British Museum, took part in an expedition to Lubaantun in British Honduras. It was the fieldwork at Lubaantun that lead Thompson to disagree with Joyce's argument for the early "megalith" and "in-and-out" style of architectural stratigraphy. Thompson argued that the "in-and-out" constructions were due to root action.[1] This root action disturbed the construction by pushing the rocks out in the fashion of the "in-and out" construction that invalidated Joyce's argument.

Field work[edit]

Toward the end of the first season at Lubaantun, the site of Pusilha was discovered and Thompson was sent to investigate with his guide, Faustino Bol. Thompson's subsequent interactions with his guide, who was a Mopan Maya, would later shed light on how Thompson viewed the ancient Maya and their culture. As a result of their long conversations, Thompson concluded that is "was clear that archaeological excavations were not the only means of learning about the ancient ways." This led to his first monograph, Ethnology of the Mayas of Southern and Central British Honduras(1930) which gave insight into the problems of Maya archaeological and epigraphic through the use of ethnographic and ethno-historic data.

In 1931, Thompson and Gann teamed up to publish The History of the Maya from the Earliest Times to the Present Day. Additionally, Thompson started on a new field project at the site of San Jose in Belize. Here his research was focused at an "average" Maya center in which the stratigraphy produced a ceramic sequence from the Preclassic Period to the Terminal Classic Period. The field report, published in 1939, contained Anna O. Shepard's appendix on the temporal changes in ceramic material, which was the first use of "archaeological sciences".[1]

Thompson was able to produce ceramic sequences at the sites of Tzimin Kax, San Jose, and Xunantunich. These sequences allowed for sites which lacked inscribed monuments traditionally used for dating, to produce a tentative date. The patterns presented by the data from the Petén region and Uaxactun allowed for these sites to fit within the cultural development of the Maya lowlands. In 1938, Thompson added to ceramic sequence, the discovery of the site of La Milpa. This sequence would hold strong until Gordon Willey's research at Barton Ramie, which would lead to a sequence. The field season at La Milpa would be one of the last ones for Thompson, though he was not aware of this at the time of his publication of Maya Archaeologist.

Professional career[edit]

While Thompson continued to publish on chronology, during the 1940s his main goal was to decipher the non-calendric hieroglyphs which composed the majority of the unread texts. Of the eight papers he published in 1943, half were on epigraphic research. Thompson's particular epigraphic focus was on the fish symbol and directional glyphs. Additionally, outside of epigraphy, Thompson investigated tattooing and tobacco use by the ancient Maya.

Thompson's focus on the non-calendric hieroglyphs produced the monumental Carnegie monograph Maya Hieroglyphic Writing: Introduction.[1] Thompson did groundbreaking work in the deciphering of Maya hieroglyphics. Notably, his contributions to the field of Maya epigraphic studies included advancements in our understanding of the calendar and astronomy, the identification of new nouns, and the development of a numerical cataloguing system for the glyphs (the T-number system), which are still used today.[citation needed] His attempted decipherments were based on ideographic rather than linguistic principles, and he was a staunch critic of all attempts to propose phonetic readings.[4] In his later years, he resisted the notion that the glyphs have a phonetic component, as put forward by Russian linguist Yuri Knorozov. Thompson forcefully criticised Knorozov's research, which discouraged the majority of the field from taking the latter's work seriously.[5]

Thompson supported Morley's contention that the inscriptions were purely esoteric and religious texts, with no elements of history or politics, until the early 1960s, when the work of Tatiana Proskouriakoff on the inscriptions of Piedras Negras made him realise that his view had been "completely mistaken."[1][2]

Thompson continued to work with epigraphic and ethnohistoric problems until the end of his career. As he himself noted, he belonged to the last generation of "generalists", engaging in activities ranging from finding and mapping new sites and excavation to the study of Maya ceramics, art, iconography, epigraphy, and ethnology (on the side). Thompson sought to present the Maya to the general public with publications such as the Rise and fall of the Maya Civilization (1954) and Maya Hieroglyphs without Tears (1972). His writing was structured in a manner that presented the data without obtuse language use which allowed scholars and lay-persons alike to understand his work.[citation needed]

Post-professional life[edit]

Thompson's grave at Ashdon, Essex.

Thompson was awarded four honorary doctorates in three different countries, along with being awarded the Order of Isabel la Catolica by Spain, the Aztec Eagle by Mexico in 1965 and the Order of the Quetzal by Guatemala during his last trip to the Maya lands with the Queen of England in 1975. Thompson was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1975 a few days after his 76th birthday, becoming the first New World archaeologist to receive this honoured distinction. He died nine months later on 9 September 1975 in Cambridge, and was laid to rest in Ashdon, Essex, England. Although parts of his legacy are now outdated, Thompson undoubtedly belongs to the greatest Mayanists of the 20th century.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e Norman Hammond 1977
  2. ^ a b c J Eric Thompson 1963
  3. ^ Michael D. Coe 1992
  4. ^ Houston, Stephen D.; Chinchilla Mazariegos, Oswaldo Fernando; Stuart, David (2001). The Decipherment of Ancient Maya Writing. University of Oklahoma Press. 
  5. ^ John Ferguson Harris, Stephen K. Stearns. 1997. Understanding Maya Inscriptions: A Hieroglyph Handbook. UPenn Museum of Archaeology, p. 9-10


Coe, Michael D. (1992). Breaking the Maya Code. London: Thames & Hudson. ISBN 0-500-05061-9. OCLC 26605966. 
Coe, Michael D. (1999). The Maya. Ancient peoples and places series (6th edition, fully revised and expanded ed.). London and New York: Thames & Hudson. ISBN 0-500-28066-5. OCLC 59432778. 
Coe, Michael D.; Mark van Stone (2005). Reading the Maya Glyphs (2nd ed.). London: Thames & Hudson. ISBN 978-0-500-28553-4. OCLC 60532227. 
Freidel, David A.; Linda Schele; Joy Parker (1993). Maya Cosmos: Three Thousand Years on the Shaman's Path. New York: William Morrow & Co. ISBN 0-688-10081-3. OCLC 27430287. 
Hammond, Norman (1977). Social process in Maya prehistory : studies in honour of Sir Eric Thompson. London and New York: Academic Press. ISBN 0-12-322050-5. 
Harris, John F.; Stephen K. Stearns (1997). Understanding Maya Inscriptions: A Hieroglyph Handbook (2nd ed.). Philadelphia: University Museum Publications, University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. ISBN 0-924171-41-3. OCLC 34077021. 
Houston, Stephen D. (1989). Reading the Past: Maya Glyphs. London: British Museum Publications. ISBN 0-7141-8069-6. OCLC 18814390. 
Houston, Stephen D. (1992). "Classic Maya Politics". In Elin C. Danien and Robert J. Sharer (eds.). New Theories on the Ancient Maya. University Museum Monograph series, no. 77. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. pp. 65–70. ISBN 0-924171-13-8. OCLC 25510312. 
Houston, Stephen D.; David Stuart; Karl Taube (2006). The Memory of Bones: Body, Being, and Experience Among the Classic Maya. Austin: University of Texas Press. ISBN 978-0-292-71294-2. OCLC 61660268. 
Kipfer, Barbara Ann (2000). Encyclopedic Dictionary of Archaeology. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers. ISBN 0-306-46158-7. OCLC 42692203. 
Schele, Linda; David Freidel (1992). A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya (pbk reprint ed.). New York: Harper Perennial. ISBN 0-688-11204-8. OCLC 145324300. 
Sharer, Robert J.; Loa P. Traxler (2006). The Ancient Maya (6th edition (fully revised) ed.). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. ISBN 0-8047-4816-0. OCLC 28067148. 
Stuart, George E. (1992). "Quest for Decipherment: A Historical and Biographical Survey of Maya Hieroglyphic Investigation". In Elin C. Danien and Robert J. Sharer (eds.). New Theories on the Ancient Maya. University Museum Monograph series, no. 77. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. pp. 1–64. ISBN 0-924171-13-8. OCLC 25510312. 
Stuart, George E. (1994). "The end of the beginning in Maya scholarship.". Antiquity (University of York) 68 (261): 867. ISSN 0003-598X. 
Roberts, David; Wolfgang Kaehler, Anne Bolen. (July 2004). "Secrets of the Maya: Deciphering Tikal". Smithsonian (Smithsonian Magazine) 35 (4): 42–48. ISSN 0037-7333. 
Thompson, J. Eric S. (1963). Maya Archaeologist. USA: University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 0-8061-1206-9. 

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