Thompson, Edward Herbert, 1860-1935

Alternative names
Birth 1860-09-28
Death 1935-05-11

Biographical notes:

Edward Herbert Thompson was born in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1860, and his family lineage in New England can be traced to colonial times. His paternal grandmother was a favorite niece of General Israel Putnam (or 'Old Put',) who fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill. As a small boy, Thompson's mother, a student of the artist Gladwin, planted the archaeological seed when they would search for arrowheads at the bottom of brooks near their summer home in Athol. At his uncle's farm, he and a friend would find North American artifacts and deposit them at the Worcester County Natural Historic Society.

Following public school, Thompson enrolled in the business college at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in the class of 1879. On February 6, 1883, he married Miss Henrietta T. Hamblin of West Falmouth , Massachusetts. Miss Hamblin was a school teacher and the daughter of a retired whaling captain. It was around this time that Thompson built a log cabin in West Falmouth on the grounds of his vacation home, where he could study and write

In 1879, Thompson wrote an article entitled "Atlantis Not a Myth" in the journal Popular Science Monthly . In this piece, he proposed that the ancient Mayan civilization on the Yucatan peninsula was once part of the lost continent of Atlantis. Luckily, this article caught the attention of Stephen Salisbury, Jr., who at the time, was vice president of the American Antiquarian Society (AAS) and associated with Harvard University. Since he was interested in the Maya, Mr. Salisbury invited E. H. Thompson to dinner in 1885, along with United States Senator George Frisbie Hoar and Reverend Edward Everett Hale, who were also affiliated with the AAS and Harvard University. At the dinner, Mr. Salisbury informed Thompson that the AAS and the Peabody Museum in Cambridge had selected him as a scientific investigator of ancient cultures of the Yucatan. Senator Hoar suggested to the President of the United States that Thompson be appointed the American consul to the Mexican states of Yucatan and Campeche. This appointment would provide greater access for E.H. Thompson, and allow a closer study of the ancient and modern Maya.

As the youngest American Consul in Mexican service, he moved to Chichen with his wife and daughter of two months, and established his home at a vacant hacienda. He served as American Consul for almost twenty-five years, and also held the titles of consul-archaeologist and archaeologist-planter. Even though he was working for the Peabody Museum, he was not trained by F.W. Putnam, and he also did explorations for the Field Museum in Chicago.

For 42 years Thompson studied the Maya civilization at the sites of Chichen Itzá, Uxmal, Mitla, and Palenque. Among his discoveries at Chichen Itzá were the following: the verification of the ancient traditions at the Cenote of Sacrifice, the 'Tomb of the High Priest', and the tablet of the Initial Series. Regardless of such accomplishments, Thompson desired to find a Rosetta Stone of the Mayan language. While living among the modern Maya, he listened to and retained their legends and folklore. During his stay in Mexico, Thompson suffered many maladies, and according to his account, he became slightly deaf as a result of diving into the Sacred Well of Chichen Itzá.

While away in Merida, a radical Socialist uprising resulted in the burning of his plantation home, including his library. Thompson restored the home only to have the Mexican government seize it, along with the Cenote artifacts, altogether valued at 1,300,000 pesos. The Mexican Supreme Court eventually ruled in his favor, and the property was returned to him. Thompson leased his property to the Carnegie Institution of Washington, which sent researchers to restore Chichen Itzá and study the local plants for medicinal value. He had also intended to donate some of his land to the villagers of Pisté for cornfields.

E.H. Thompson published many of his scientific and archaeological findings in those journals issued by the societies for which he did work. In 1932, shortly before his passing, he published a book entitled People of the Serpent: Life and Adventure Among the Mayas. In this book, Thompson recounts memorable experiences from his time in the Yucatan, archaeological highlights, and a history of the Maya.

On May 18, 1935, Edward Herbert Thompson passed away at the age of seventy-five in Plainfield, New Jersey.

Thompson, Edward Herbert. People of the Serpent: Life and Adventure Among the Mayas. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1932. Tozzer, Alfred M. "Notes and News." American Anthropologist 37, New Series, no.4, pt. 1 (Oct.-Dec. 1935): 711-12.

From the guide to the Thompson, Edward Herbert, (1860-1935)., Collection of Negatives, 1888-1931: A Finding Aid, 188-1931, (Peabody Museum Archives, Harvard University)


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Ark ID:


  • Mayas--Antiquities
  • Archeological sites--1870-1889


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  • Yucatan (Mexico) (as recorded)
  • Mexico (as recorded)
  • Yucatán (Mexico : State) (as recorded)
  • Mexico--Yucatan (as recorded)
  • Labná Site (Mexico) (as recorded)
  • Labná Site (Mexico) (as recorded)