Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Cloak and Trowel Volume 56 Number 5, September/October 2003
by David Price

Should archaeologists double as spies?

In the fall of 1917, the American Mayanist Sylvanus Morley was about to photograph an old Spanish fort along the Honduran coast when soldiers emerged from it to stop him. Morley complained bitterly to the troops' commanding officer, explaining that he was an archaeologist, but the official was unimpressed. Indignant, Morely asked the mayor to intervene--to no avail. Finally, after some bureaucratic wrangling, he produced a letter of introduction by President Francisco Bertrand and was reluctantly granted permission to photograph the old fort.

There's some irony in Morley's protests. While he had indeed been touring archaeological sites scattered throughout the area, the true purpose of his trip was espionage. Morley was using his position as an archaeologist to cloak his real mission to identify possible German agents and to hunt for covert German shortwave broadcast stations and clandestine submarine bases. His archaeological credentials provided a great cover, and some historians have called Morley "arguably the best secret agent the United States produced during World War I."

Because the connections between spies and archaeology are seldom discussed in public, they form a shadowy history that raises serious ethical questions. There are concerns that archaeologist-spies violate ethical standards established at the Nuremberg Trials that require scientists to fully disclose their agendas to research subjects. But archaeologists conducting espionage also endanger the lives and careers of their colleagues, and scholars mixing political trickery with scientific inquiry risk the legitimacy of both their science and their politics.

During World War I, Sylvanus Morley was only one of many American archaeologists who used their profession as cover for gathering intelligence on Germany's presence in Central America. Morley traveled over 2,000 miles of Central American coastline hunting for evidence of German submarines while claiming to conduct archaeological surveys; other archaeologists carried out similar missions on smaller scales.

Some contemporaries of these archaeologist-spies' viewed their duplicity as a betrayal of the principles of open science and as a threat to future research. In a 1919 letter to the editor published in The Nation, Franz Boas, the father of academic anthropology in America, complained that unnamed archaeologists had "prostituted science by using it as a cover for their activities as spies" in Central America. A few weeks after the publication of Boas' complaint he was censured by the American Anthropological Association (AAA) in a vote dominated by the scholars he accused of spying and their cohorts.

Whether or not one accepts Boas' ethical position that combining science and espionage is wrong, the dangers presented to fieldworkers in a world mixing archaeology and espionage cannot be easily dismissed. With time, the memory of Boas' censure faded, but the issues he raised did not go away.

David Price is associate professor of anthropology at Saint Martin's College in Lacey, Washington. He is the author of the forthcoming Threatening Anthropology: McCarthyism and the FBI's Surveillance of Activist Anthropologists (Duke University Press).

Further Reading

* Listen to author David Price discuss espionage and archaeology with Neal Conan, host of NPR's Talk of the Nation.

© 2003 by the Archaeological Institute of America