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George Byron Gordon Central America expedition records


This is a finding aid. It is a description of archival material held at the University of Pennsylvania. Unless otherwise noted, the materials described below are physically available in our reading room, and not digitally available through the web.

Summary Information

University of Pennsylvania: Penn Museum Archives
Gordon, G. B. (George Byron), 1870-1927
George Byron Gordon Central America expedition records
Date [bulk]:
Date [inclusive]:
Call Number:
0.35 linear foot (The collection is housed in ten folders in an archival box)
George Byron Gordon led expeditions to Copan at the end of the nineteenth century and, with his brother MacLaren Gordon, to Alaska in 1905 and 1907. As Professor at the University of Pennsylvania and as Director of the Museum, Gordon was first to conduct regular lectures to undergraduate and graduate students in Anthropology and oversaw one of the the largest periods of Museum growth. The G.B. Gordon Central America collection includes diaries, surveying notes, reports and stories from the Copan Expeditions and the Yucatan Expedition in 1910, original stories, articles, and book reviews written by Dr. Gordon, communication with The British Museum about Maya site excavation, Gordon's introductions composed for speakers for the Saturday Afternoon Lecture Series, speeches to professional organizations, and class lectures.
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[Item name]. Box [Box number]. George Byron Gordon Central America expedition records. Penn Museum Archives. Accessed [Date accessed].
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George Byron Gordon, explorer in Central America and Alaska, and first to teach undergraduate and graduate courses in Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, was born in New Perth, Prince Edward Island, Canada on August 4,1870. He was the son of James Gordon and Jane MacLaren Gordon, one of six children. Gordon attended the University of South Carolina for one year in 1888 then completed his degree at Harvard University. Selected as an assistant to John G. Owens in 1892, Gordon accompanied Owens on the Harvard-sponsored excavation at Copan, Honduras. When Owens died in the field, Gordon was given the leadership to close down that portion of the work and then continued as Director of the next six sessions in Copan, until 1900. While performing these duties, Gordon attained his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1894.

Gordon joined the Free Museum of Science and Art(later the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology)in 1903 as Assistant Curator in the Section of General Ethnology. He led two expeditions to Alaska, in 1905 and 1907 with his brother MacLaren Gordon. The Gordons chose a new approach to exploration of the region. They descended the Yukon River to Tanana, then followed the Tanana south reaching formerly unknown Lake Minchumina, the source of the Kuskokwim River. Gordon named the hitherto unknown aboriginal tribe from this area as "Kuskwagamutes." His trip laid the groundwork for future exploration in the area and was described in Gordon's book, In the Alaskan Wilderness(Philadelphia:John C.Winston Company,1917).

While selected courses in Anthropology had been offered in the field at the University of Pennsylvania by Daniel Garrison Brinton, George Gordon was first to teach a regular schedule of undergraduate and graduate courses from 1907 through 1915. During this time, the Department of Anthropology was established by Frank G. Speck. Gordon was appointed Director of the Free Museum of Science and Art in 1910 and oversaw one of the largest periods of growth in its collection and prestige. He established the Museum Journal which later became the Museum Bulletin. Gordon is also known for his keen eye as a collector, purchasing the finest of antiquities and driving a hard bargain to obtain them. He oversaw additions to the Museum's collection of treasures from Mesopotamia, Palestine, Egypt, and the American Continent. Gordon's most lasting gift is the Museum's Chinese collection.

Gordon was a voracious reader and writer of both scholarly works and those in the literary vein. He wrote on the history of London in, Rambles in Old London(Philadelphia:George W. Jacobs& Co.,1924) and the collection contains examples of his attempts to publish more popular material.

In 1926, the University of Pennsylvania conferred the honorary degree of Doctor of Science on George Byron Gordon. Gordon died, following an accident at the Philadelphia Racquet Club, on January 30, 1927. At the time of his death, Gordon was Director of expeditions conducted by field staff in Beisan (Bet Sh'ean)in the area then known as Mesopotamia(Israel) and at Ur(Iraq).

Gordon was a member of the American Philosophical Society, the Franklin Inn Club, the Lenape Club, the Rittenhouse Club, the Explorer's Club of New York, the American Anthropological Association, the American Ethnological Society, and the Authors Club of London. He was also a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

Scope and Contents

George Byron Gordon was born in New Perth, Prince Edward Island, on August 4, 1870. Educated at the University of South Carolina and Harvard University, he was chosen to accompany John G. Owens on the first Copan Expedition in Honduras sponsored by Harvard. Owens died during this expedition and Gordon was named to close down the trip and subsequently, to head six additional trips to Copan lasting until 1900. Gordon also traveled to Alaska with his brother, MacLaren Gordon. They discovered Lake Minchumina, the source of the Kuskokwim River.

Gordon joined the staff of the Free Museum of Science and Art(later the Penn Museum) in 1903 as assistant Curator of the Section of General Ethnology. He was first to establish regular courses in Anthropology at the University and taught graduate and undergraduate students from 1907 to 1915. During this time, Gordon was named Director of the Museum. He oversaw a period of tremendous growth in both the collection and prestige of the Museum. Gordon established the Museum Journal and purchased items from Mesopotamia, Palestine, Egypt, the American Continent, and, most notably, China, for the collection.

Gordon died in an accident in January 1927. At the time he was supervising the field work in Bet Sh'ean and Ur.

The George Gordon Central America collection fills ten folders in an archival box. The collection consists of diaries, surveying notes, reports and stories from the Copan Expeditions and the Yucatan Expedition in 1910, original stories, articles, and book reviews written by Dr. Gordon, communication with The British Museum about Maya site excavation, Gordon's introductions composed for speakers for the Saturday Afternoon Lecture Series, speeches to professional organizations, and class lectures.

The first four folders deal with the Copan Expeditions. Folder one holds Gordon's diary from the fourth Expedition, 1894 to 1895, identified by Elin C. Danien in 1982. A smaller book from the expedition is in very fragile condition. It bears the signature of C.P. Bowditch, Boston, Massachusetts and contains written entries, small pictures and maps, dated from March 15 to June 29 but no year is specified. A letter from the law firm of Lowell, Stimson and Lowell dated 2/25/1893 instructs Gordon in the steps he is to take to close down the expedition following the death of John G. Owens. This letter is signed by Charles P. Bowditch and Francis C. Lowell.

Folder two contains a bound book also from the first expedition. Dated January 6, 1893, pages seven to twenty-six are full of surveying data and drawings.

Folder three has three manuscripts from the Copan Expedition. The first is titled "Report of Explorations in Central America in the Year 1896." This paper is accompanied by another titled "The Maya Culture and the Ruins of Copan" that is twenty-nine pages in length. The third paper bears a note from J. Alden Mason dated 10/2/56 in which Mason indicates the work, "In the Haunts of the Quetzal", was "probably intended for publication in the Museum Journal." Portions of an additional manuscript on "Travels in Honduras, 1897" are in fragile condition. Only a few numbered pages have survived.

Two stories, probably based on Copan legends and written by Gordon, are in folder four. They are typewritten and titled, "Am I a Witch? or The Alcalde of Copan" and "La Nina Chica". Much of the text of the two stories appears to be the same although they differ in length by eleven pages.

Folder five contains data related to the Trip to Yucatan in 1910. A small diary which begins on 9/18/1910 is written in tiny script and is only ten pages in length. There is a list of "Photos from Yucatan" in very fragile condition. Numbered from one to twenty, the list gives a description of each monument. Another list, in Spanish by Teobert Maler, details photos from the Yucatan and Guatemala, including Peten, Sayil, El Seibal, Xlabpak de Santa Rosa, Piedras Negras and Stelae I through VII. A drawing depicts the "right shore of Usumasintla, Guatemala."

Folder six centers on Maya Archaeology Notes and Reports. The correspondence of 6/23/24 between Gordon and Sir Frederick Kenyon, Director of The British Museum concerns a disputed footnote in the "Guide to the Maudsley Collection" relating to excavation of the Hieroglyphic Stairway at Copan. A reply from the British Museum, Department of Ceramics and Ethnology apologizes to Gordon. A copy of Gordon's book review of "The British Museum Guide to the Maudsley Collection of Maya Sculpture from Central America" is present which suggests in its final quote that Gordon was not accepting the apology, "Maudsley rendered good service to American Archaeology. The Guide to his collection renders but indifferent service to him."

This folder also contains two pages of hand-written Maya text on Museum stationary. There are two pages taken from the "Memoirs" of The Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, which indicate that contributions numbered one, four, five, and six in the referenced volume are written by Dr. Gordon. Gordon's contributions concern Copan, the Uloa Valley, and the Hieroglyphic Stairway. A manuscript is also with this material, dealing with "An Unpublished Inscription from Quirigua."

Folder seven houses Stories, Articles, and Book Reviews. Three stories authored by Gordon are titled "The Mystery of the Spanish Main", eighteen pages, "London's Loom of Time", twenty-three pages, and "The 'Eathen", five pages in length. A rejection letter from Charles Scribner and Sons for the "London's Loom of Time" story is dated 6/6/22. An additional story, "The Home Coming" is hand-written and tells of the funeral and interment of Edith Cavell, a British nurse executed in 1915 for aiding in the escape of Allied soldiers from occupied Belgium. Another paper dated November, 1917 is titled, "The Empire in the War and After."

Two book reviews written by Gordon are a part of this folder. The first is a review of "The Secret of the Totem" by Andrew Lang. This review is dated 1906. The second is of George Grant McCurdy's "Human Origins" and is hand-written with corrections.

Another hand-written piece recounts activites of the RAF Squadron 52 at Heliopolis. This is not titled or dated and may be unfinished. A few loose pages are contained in this folder that relate to the difficulties encountered in pursuing Archaeology in the Central Americas. Gordon's "Foreward" written for the Museum Journal is present in typewritten and galley formats.

In folder eight are Gordon's mostly typewritten Introductions composed for the speakers for the Saturday Afternoon Lecture Series entitled "A Course of Lectures on The History of Mankind." A total of fourteen introductions, without dates, are in this folder. There is some indication that the series may have run from 1903 to 1904 in the materials. Among the speakers are Professor J.B. Carter, Director of the American School of Classical Studies in Rome; Dr. Edward Sapir, Human Research Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania; composer, Mr. Arthur Harwell; and Mr. Lawrence Binyon, Deputy Keeper of Oriental Arts at The British Museum, along with other experts not as well identified. Six hand-written pages of sentence stems which may have been used as guides by Gordon in making the introductions are contained in folder eight.

Speeches to the American Anthropological Association and the American Folklore Society and Section H of the "British Association" are placed in folder nine. There are two copies of the former speech with hand-written notes. The latter is hand-written on stationary from the Royal Alexander Hotel of the Canadian Pacific Railway.

Folder ten contains Class Lectures apparently given by Dr. Gordon to his classes at the University of Pennsylvania. Some, but not all of the lectures are numbered and there are eleven altogether in this group. The lectures deal with topics such as the linguistic families in America, the physical characteristics of humans, the scope and limitations of Anthropology, the biological development of mankind, diseases of mankind, and the races peculiar to Asia.

Administrative Information

Publication Information

University of Pennsylvania: Penn Museum Archives,  December 2009

Finding Aid Author

Finding aid prepared by Jody Rodgers

Use Restrictions

Although many items from the archives are in the public domain, copyright may be retained by the authors of items in these papers, or their descendants, as stipulated by United States copyright law. The user is fully responsible for compliance with relevant copyright law.

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Controlled Access Headings

  • Faculty papers
  • Field notes
Geographic Name(s)
  • Guatemala
Personal Name(s)
  • Bowditch, Charles P., 1842-1921
  • Cavell, Edith, 1865-1915
  • Gordon, G. B. (George Byron), 1870-1927
  • Archaeological expeditions
  • Archaeological surveying
  • Excavations (Archaeology)
  • Guatemala--Antiquities

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Collection Inventory

Copan expeditions, 1893-1900 (Bulk, 1893-1896) . 0.1 linear foot (Four folders in an archival box relate to this expedition. Materials are diaries, a letter, surveying notes, manuscripts and stories).

Yucatan expedition, 1910 (Bulk, 1910) . 05 linear foot (One folder of material in an archival box concern this expedition, consisting of a diary and photo lists).

Maya archaeology, 1896-1924 (Bulk, 1924) . 05 linear foot (One folder in an archival box is devoted to this material).

Stories, articles, book reviews, 1920-1925 (Bulk, 1920-1925) . 0.1 linear foot (The materials are contained in one folder in an archival box).

Introductions, 1903-1904 (Bulk, 1903-1904) . 0.1 linear foot (The Introductions are contained in one folder in an archival box).

Speeches, 1920-1925 (Bulk, 1920-1925) . 05 linear foot (The speeches are in one folder in an archival box).

Class lectures, 1907-1915 (Bulk, 1907-1915) . 05 linear foot (The class lectures comprise one folder in an archival box).