the Yucatan & Casa Hamaca
The Ups and Downs of Living in the Yucatan... 
What Pyramids and Cenotes Have In Common

I was born in North Dakota and raised in Montana, so I am used to being able to see a big sky…and flat land. When driving through eastern North Dakota, I used to joke as we crossed an overpass that “This is the highest point in North Dakota”. It certainly seemed that way; you could see all the way to the unbroken horizon. Almost like being on the ocean, the expanse was so vast it seemed to go on forever. The very- low rolling hills flattened out with distance so that North Dakota seemed flat as a pancake.

When I first visited the Yucatan, I felt the same…I even made the same jokes as we drove an overpass…”This must be the highest point in the Yucatan”.

View from the summit of the main pyramid at Cobá

The view from the top of a pyramid is even more impressive. Flat. Absolutely flat! Without a hill or even a ripple. So flat that when it rains there is no “down hill” for the water to run, so the water sits in large puddles until it slowly drains into the earth or evaporates from the blazing sun. When walking through pre-Hispanic ruins, almost every time the very same revelation strikes me (I’m a slow learner, after all). That mound over there covered with trees and shrubs and looks like a hill is NOT a hill. There are no hills here. Dah! That is an as-yet unexcavated Mayan ruin.

What go me to thinking about the flatness of the Yucatan was all of the climbing that I have recently been doing. Climbing up and then returning down; climbing down and then back up. I’ve had some recent visitors that I took sightseeing. And almost all of the sights involve climbing both up and down (pyramids) or down and up (cenotes or caves) steps or stairs or ladders or ramps or paths.

The main pyramid at Cobá

Doesn't look like such a big deal, does it?
Let's add some people in to give it some perspective.

The main pyramid at Cobá with people

Pyramids are obvious. They stick up out of the ground and you can make an estimate of how high they are, how steep they are, how many steps have to be climbed (both up and then back down). Most people can make a semi-informed guesstimate, based upon past experiences, if they make it up and back down without a helicopter being called in to extract them from the top of a pyramid. The main pyramids of both Uxmal and Chichen Itza are now off-limits to climbing (and probably will remain that way). So, if you have already climbed one of them, you will have bragging rights with your grandchildren someday. If you’ve climbed both, you can start your bragging immediately.

But the main pyramids at both Ek Balam and Cobá are still open to climbers. The largest Ek Balam pyramid is higher than the Castillo at Chichen Itza, has a narrower width of steps than the Castillo and has no safety rope. I’m not sure of the pitch of the steps, but it seems to me that Ek Balam is steeper than the Castillo as well. The lack of the safety rope (or guide rope) is not bad going up. After all, your eyes are looking directly at the steps that your feet will be on in just a few seconds.

Guide Rope at Cobá

Just before my first ascent of a pyramid, some kind soul told me to walk up (and down) in a zigzag pattern. Because the treads are generally narrower (less deep) than the code-approved steps that most of us are used to in the gringo north AND because the risers (the vertical distance between the steps) are so much higher than those to which we are accustomed, walking up or down using a zig-zag pattern allows us almost our normal gait or stride. Don’t believe me? Try it.

I have asked a couple of professional archaeologists why the Maya, who are generally shorter in stature, constructed their steps in this manner. The best answer I received was this method produced the tallest structure with the least amount of stone (read: work). That made sense to me. The reason to build the structures in the first place was to re-create a mountain top where you (or the priest) could be closer to God, Dios, Chac or whom/whatever other divinity you might be searching for. The height was the main objective…not the comfort level of the steps. So it made great economic sense for them to build as high as possible with the least amount of work possible. On the other hand, the steps leading to the viewing area at the main ball court at Cobá are built for people to actually use without any major strain. The risers are almost a standard height and the treads are spacious.

Coming back down from the top of a pyramid is another story. At least for me it is, and from my observations of other climbers over the years, a fair number of other people as well. At Chichen Itza’s Castillo, most people just walked up, sometimes using their hands to reach up a few steps to help pull themselves up as they got closer to the top. Some people needed the guide rope to get up. Watching people come down was almost like viewing an old slapstick silent-film. Some of the younger ones ran down the steps (without the zigzag pattern), others strode majestically down, hardly ever looking at their feet. Still others cautiously advanced the same foot forward and downward, sometimes with the use of one or both hands to steady themselves. Some slide down on their butts, bump by bump. Many used the guide rope bisecting the steps. Some walked down, lightly staying in contact with the rope. Others came down backward holding on to the rope for dear-life. Yesterday I was at the main pyramid of Cobá. I had just descended and was sitting on a bench at the bottom waiting for a friend when the skies opened up with a brief, but drenching, rain shower. The stone steps suddenly became slick with the moisture and very slippery. The people caught on the steps hurried down as fast as they were able without their feet sliding out from under them. Not a good place to be caught if lightning started.


It's a long way down!

Heights do strange things to people. At Ek Balam, I watched a man, on his way back down; freeze about ten feet from the top of the pyramid. He could not move. His wife could not help him in any way. There was no guide rope to aid him. He sat there for at least 15 minutes before working up his courage enough to make his way down a few steps using a technique somewhere between the butt-sliding method and a hands-behind-the-back crab-walking one. I had to leave before he made his next move, but I am sure that it took him a long, long time to make his descent.

I watched him because I knew how close I had been many times to the same paralyzing fear. The fear starts at the bottom of the ascent…because I realize then that I will have to come back down. The fear grows are I ascend. The higher I go, the greater the fear until I reach the top. Then I must go as far away as possible from any edge, preferably with my back against some solid structure. I check out the view but I cannot really enjoy it, as others seem to because all I can concentrate on is the descent. Because many of the pyramids are so steep, you cannot actually see the steps until you are very close to the edge. The lack of visual clues such as a banister or railing doesn’t help either. Looking down, my stomach lurches and sweat breaks out over my entire body. There is nothing I can do about it, the fear has been there my entire life and will remain with me to my dying day. That first step down, almost always a side step, seems endless. A lifetime until my toe touches the top of that first step. The already overly high riser seems even higher than it actually is. I must stretch to reach the next step. If I look straight out, all I see is jungle. And if I look down, all I see is myself falling, bouncing, and rolling down the steps only to end up dead and spread-eagled on the ground at the base of the pyramid. Somehow I get down, vowing never to subject myself to the same humiliation again. Vowing to never again climb another pyramid, never go on the roof of my house, never even climb another ladder.

But then, I go and do it again.

Cenote Zaci in Valladolid

Balankanche Caves

The sightseeing adventures over the past few days have included three cenotes and one cave. All underground. All with long (and sometimes steep and slippery) descents. All had some sort of guide rope or handrail. Two of the cenotes and the cave (obviously, otherwise they would call it something else) had artificial lights of some kind. The third cenote was partially open to the sky and had ample natural light. Here the descents were less difficult. I often could not actually see the bottom of the stairs since they faded into darkness as well as sometimes twisted and turned around a bend. If I looked straight ahead, I was looking into a solid rock faces, sometimes inches from my eyes. I had to be careful not to bump my head on the uneven rock surface of the ceiling during the descent. And I could use my hands, both to grip the rope as well as to guide me down by following the rock walls by touch. A very tactile experience. Because of the touch I felt connected with the earth and, even though the steps were as steep (sometimes steeper) than those of a pyramid and the vertical distances were almost exactly the same (plus or minus 30 meters above ground level and below ground level…I wonder if anyone has studied the relative heights of pyramids vs. cenotes as a basis for their thesis? After all, the ceiba tree has roots as deep as the branches are tall, verdad?), I did not experience the vertigo that I experience while descending a pyramid. I had the concern of slipping on moist stone steps, but not the fear of falling to the bottom.


Underground Ceremonial Site at the Balankanche Caves

In the cave where the only source of light was artificial, I experienced momentary claustrophobia, thinking of the tons of rock above my head…and seeing the broken fragments of rock that had already fallen from the ceiling of the cave. How would I ever find my way out if the lights went out? I cursed myself for not bringing a pocket flashlight. And I thought of the miners in Utah and in China who, at the time this was written, were trapped in mine cave-ins, perhaps struggling for their lives at that very moment. Perhaps already dead.


And again was able to put my life and my fears in perspective.

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The toe bone’s connected to the foot bone….. 

There’s more to dirt than meets the eye…CSI in the Yucatan

A few weeks ago I touched on the rumor that my property might have been inhabited before the Spanish colonials showed up. Because of it location on a high piece of ground, there might have been a dwelling or even a more permanent site of some sort. Perhaps a clue showed up yesterday.

If you’ve bothered to read my previous posts, you will have read that I have found shards in many, many places in north, south and central America. And I’m not the only one. I had a friend with whom I attended the School of Visual Arts in New York City. During the 1960s he and his family moved to the state of Puebla in Mexico. He lived and painted there for over 9 years before returning to the US. When he returned, he told me that virtually every time someone dug a well or excavated for a house foundation they came across clay shards and figurines. He showed me a cigar box full of clay figures, heads and small animals.

A friend of mine from Argentina, knowing that I have an interest in pre-Hispanic cultures gave me a painted clay object that had been found on her family’s ranch in NW Argentina. I’m not at all sure what it is…kind of looks like a bottle stopper to me. Perhaps that is what it was…a stopper for a ceramic jug or jar.

I was in Peru, just south of Lima and still on the coast. A friend was showing me an ancient adobe city that was almost completely eroded. An archaeological dig was going on right along-side the road, at a low area. My driver stopped the car and hunkered down in the shade of the car to wait for us at least 10 meters away from the dig. I wandered over to the dig and begin to question the man in charge. I’m not quite sure how I knew he was the man in charge, but he was. I was asking and he was answering in Spanish…not great Spanish on either side. He looked Asian and since there are many Asians in the Lima area I just assumed he was Japanese. When I finally asked him where he was from and he replied Southern Illinois University, we both laughed and switched to English as it was more comfortable for both of us. After a brief chat, I returned to the car and as we dove off, the driver showed me what he had found in the dirt near the car. Two kernels of corn…one almost black, the other yellow, both very dry. A shell. And a broken piece of bone about 4 inches long…it looked to me to be a human rib bone. All of this just lying there in the dirt.

When I was a boy in Montana, I often found Indian arrowheads and traces of early European settlers.. The point being that anywhere people have been before us, they might have left traces of themselves.

Yesterday as my workers and I were sitting down to lunch, one of the workers pointed out an object sitting on the window ledge and asked me what it was. I had never seen it before. Nor had anyone else, except Sofia, the housekeeper. She said that it had been in the same place since she had been working for us. There had been a lot of changeover in the workers around the property over the past three or four months so no one said “I found it and put it there”.

One of the workers identified it as a tooth, but when I looked at it, I thought not. It looked more like a bone to me. A finger bone! At lunch we joked about where the object came from. Everyone showed their spread fingers to demonstrate all their fingers were intact and it was not their bone. After lunch I referenced my copy of Frank Netter’s Atlas of Human Anatomy. I first looked up the finger bones and then the toe bones. And there on Plate 505 was a match. The Proximal Phalange of the right big toe or the biggest bone in the big toe. Now, I’m not an anatomist nor a pathologist nor a surgeon, but the match looked right to me. But I’m certainly open to correction if someone can identify it.

Then the questions arose, whose toe was it? Where did it come from? How old is it? Mayan or Spanish? Did an animal bring the bone here from a burial site? Or is this the burial site itself? Did someone chop off a toe with a machete while cutting wood? Is there a tomb on the property? A relic from the Caste War?

Obviously more questions than answers. Anyone with any thoughts about this?

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Apocalypto, Mel Gibson and the Yucatan 

Last night I read a number of reviews of the film Apocalypto, directed by Mel Gibson, on iTunes. There were over 250 reviews (some of which I skimmed and some of which I read every word) of the movie. The dialogue of the movie is entirely in Yucatec Maya…the language of the entire northern portion of the peninsula of Yucatan. And that is unique. The reviews ranged from “it ok movie but Mel Gibson is semistic (sic) so it ruins the movie” to many who said that it was the best movie of 2006. Many people commented on Mel Gibson rather than on the movie. Many took one side or the other on historical accuracy. So I felt I had to get my two cents in.

I live in Valladolid, Yucatan, less than 25 miles from the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza. I eat Mayan food every day. And I hear Yucatec Mayan spoken every day. So that must make me an expert on all things Mayan, right? OK listen up!

First of all, I found a copy of the original shooting script for Apocalypto. Here it is.

“The top of the Sacrificatorio is broken and ruined, but there is no doubt that it once supported an altar for those sacrifices of human victims which struck even the Spanish with horror. It was barely large enough for the altar and officiating priests, and the idol to whom the sacrifice was offered. The whole was in full view of the people at the foot.

“The barbarous ministers carried up the victim entirely naked, pointed out the idol to which the sacrifice was made, that people might pay their adorations, and then extended him upon the altar. This had a convex surface, and the body of the victim lay arched, with the trunk elevated and the head and feet depressed. Four priests held the legs and arms, and another kept his head firm with a wooden instrument made in the form of a coiled serpent, so that he was prevented from making the least movement. The head priest then approached, and with a knife made of flint cut an aperture in the breast, and tore out the heart, which, yet palpitating, he offered to the sun, and then threw it at the feet of the idol.

… “If the victim was a prisoner of war, as soon as he was sacrificed they cut off his head to preserve the scull (sic), and threw the body down the steps, where it was taken up by the officer or soldier to whom the prisoner belonged, and carried to his house to be dressed and served up as entertainment for his friends”

This was written by John L. Stephens in his book, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan, Vol. II, Dover Edition, Copyright 1969, about the ruins at Santa Cruz del Quiché in Guatemala, originally written in 1840 and first published in 1841.

Secondly, I thought it was great that the film was shot in Yucatec Maya (even though most of the actors, if not all of them, had to learn their lines in Mayan). I showed the film to Sofia, a Mayan friend who only speaks Spanish with gringos like me; at home, in the streets or at the market she speaks Yucatec Maya (as do approximately one and one half million other people on the Yucatan peninsula). She had trouble understanding the movie. I’m not sure if it was because the actors didn’t do such a great job, if they had bad accents or if Sofia just wasn’t used to hearing the Mayan language coming out of speakers.

Almost all of the people with whom I am in contact on any given day are Maya and speak Mayan. Many still live in houses like the ones shown in the village scenes. If you want to experience the Mayan culture, come on down. It still exists. The descendents of the people who built the pyramids are still alive and well.

Most of Mexico was quickly conquered by the Spanish and their Indian allies. But they never really conquered the Mayans. The last Mayan Rebellion (War of the Castes) was not officially over until 1913. And I have heard skirmishes still occurred into the 1930s. But now the Mayans are friendly and welcoming. Climbing one of their pyramids after seeing the film puts a whole new light on things. As does cutting through their jungle with a steel machete.

I can’t comment on the accuracy of any part of the film except for one thing: If the sighting of the Spanish ship was supposed to be the first interaction between the Spanish and the mainland Amerindians, there was a slight problem with geography. The first recorded meeting took place in the Yucatan (in what is now the state of Quintana Roo). The Yucatan peninsula is, for the most part, flat as a pancake. There are no hills, no mountains, no rivers and no waterfalls. One would have to go a long way south to Belize or southwest to Chiapas or Guatemala to find such terrain. Far enough away so that, even if you ran really, really hard, you couldn’t make it back in time to save you wife and children from drowning. Other than that, I thought everything was immensely interesting and detailed.

Bottom line: I liked the movie and I am sure that I will see it numerous times.
I gave it 5 Stars.

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What's Past is Present (Part III) 

In almost every place I have lived or traveled to, a rock was just a rock. In Montana the rock might have a bit of agate or quartz in it. In North Carolina, perhaps, a bit of mica. In Yellowstone Park there was obsidian. But basically they were just rocks. Something to skim across a pond. Or shoot with a slingshot. Or throw at a target. But, still just a rock. Without age or character or interest. A few times I accompanied my father on fieldwork in Montana where he was collecting various types of rock for a geology class. I never thought to look for fossils during these outings. Although some of the places we went later turned out to be full of interesting fossils.

I’ve been around gravel pits and sand pits and rock quarries in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York and never paid any attention to the rocks themselves. I’ve lived in New Hampshire and in Switzerland where rocks seem to be everywhere, but didn’t notice them except when they were in my way.

The only times that rocks had any age or dynamics seemed to be places where they were still growing. Did I really mean to say, “Rocks were growing?” Yes, I did. In Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, in Lewis and Clark Caverns in Montana and in Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, you could see the stalactites and the stalagmites growing millimeter by millimeter as drops of mineral-laden water fell from them or unto them. You couldn’t actually see them grow, but you could feel them growing, you could sense the change and the growth. The other place I saw rocks growing was on the Big Island of Hawaii. We rented a small airplane to fly near the volcanoes and to see the red-hot lava falling into the ocean, instantly vaporizing water into steam and changing from liquid lava into solid stone. I had a similar experience/feeling when I explored Pompeii. I could picture the ash being compressed into stone over time.

But, for the most part, rocks were just rocks. Nothing more, nothing less.

But here in the Yucatan, things are different. Rocks are living. Rocks are growing. Rocks have spirits (I’ll write about that later). And at the same time, the rocks are very old...they seem ageless. About nine years ago, I was leaning against a stone fence, separating two properties in Sierra Papacal, a small village near Merida. I was on a volunteer mission project building concrete roofs on houses of people in need and working with Mano Amiga. I was whipped. The day was hot, I was out of shape and I had not been drinking enough water. So I was resting and getting ready to go back to work when I happened to actually look that the stone fence on which I was resting. The stones weren’t huge, but they were a good size…perhaps 10 to 15 kilos each (22 to 33lbs). As I looked at them closer and closer, I saw more and more seashells imbedded into the rock. Fossilized remains of long-dead sea creatures. As I looked closer, I saw that virtually every rock contained fossils of sea dwellers. I remembered enough of my high school earth science course to realize that these were probably sedimentary rocks, built up layer by layer beneath the sea, trapping the seashells and surrounding them. At some point either the sea level dropped or the land rose from the sea and the rock was exposed to air.

This exposed limestone sat patiently for thousands of years waiting for the Mayan builders to utilize the stone for their houses, their temples and their pyramids. The Mayan builders quarried, cut, dressed and carved all of their building blocks without metal tools. That blows me away. Every time I hit a limestone rock with a steel hammer and the hammer bounces off, I wonder how did the Mayans do it and how long did it take them to form all the blocks for even a small pyramid? In modern times, the rock is still quarried for foundations, for exposed-stone walls, for architectural and ornamental carvings and to make decorative tiles. Some of the bathrooms at Casa Hamaca are tiled with natural limestone tiles that expose various kinds and sizes of fossilized seashell. They are natural stone cut to the desired thickness and size and then lightly polished to remove most of the saw marks. Here’s a few photos of the tile at Casa Hamaca; Every one of the seashells is a fossil. That's still amazing to me.

The entire northern portion of the Yucatan peninsula is a limestone shelf that once was underwater. It seems solid enough, but it’s not. It’s dynamic and changing…almost living. The geology of the Yucatan is much like that of Florida. Flat. A flat limestone crust with channels, streams and rivers running under the crust. In Florida, when the alkaline limestone becomes eaten away by the acid in the rains and the crust weakens and eventually collapses, it is called a sinkhole. It seems every year or so there is a news story about a house or an automobile getting gobbled by a quickly forming sinkhole. The same type of thing happens in the Yucatan except here they are called cenotes (but I cannot remember any cenotes gobbling up a car or a house). With the exception of a very few small lakes, there is no surface water in the northern part of the Yucatan. The cenotes were and still are the only constant water supply. They were life giving and villages and cities grew up around the cenotes since they were the source of year-round water.

There are no real lakes, no rivers, no streams in the northern Yucatan. At least on the surface there are none. But beneath the surface of the Yucatan, underneath the limestone shelf, underground rivers flow into underground lakes. The entire Yucatan is honeycombed with them, interconnecting to form a vast underground world. And the surface is riddled with cenotes. There are probably dozens if not hundreds of new cenotes currently forming as the acidic rain leaches away the alkaline limestone. There’s some great graphics on this link: that show the stages of cenote formation. And some simple experiments with chalks that demonstrate how the rock is eaten away.

Some cenotes have a very small opening to the surface with an underground cavern considerably larger hidden underneath the surface, like the cenote at Dzitnup near Valladolid. Some of the cenotes are literally just holes in the ground. The main cenote at Chichen Itza, for instance, has vertical sides and maybe as much as 100 meters (110 yards) across, but is just hole in the ground. Still others are in the transition stage between the two previous examples…like Cenote Zaci in the center of Valladolid. It has partially collapsed, but the enormous slaps of rock that once formed the ceiling of the cenote now lie scattered and shattered many feet below the surface of the ground.

And that’s another place you can see the rock grow. Many of the cenotes, caves and caverns in the Yucatan have stalactites and stalagmites. They are growing drip by drip.

This morning my friend, Ponce, took me to the jungle near Valladolid to show me a cenote. He wants me to buy a piece of land on which the cenote is located. I told him that without water, land is worthless. He assured me the water was there, the cenote was there. In fact, he said there was even a second cenote much further into the jungle. We parked beside the road and grabbed our machetes. Ponce led the way into the jungle, following a distinct path that was almost hidden in places by the plant growth on either side of the path. We really needed the machetes. Ponce pointed out the plants not to touch and pointed out the ones that are good to eat. After about 1/2 hour of playing Indiana Jones, we came to an open field populated by some Brahma bulls and cows…and a dozen young boys from a nearby village on their way to the cenote to swim. We joined up with the boys and continued on a much more frequently used and open path to the cenote.

The cenote is very deep; Ponce says 20 meters or almost 66 feet to the water. It’s difficult for me to judge depth, but it was a long, long way down. This cenote has no name but is similar in some ways to the one at Dzitnup. There was a main opening, a hole, less than ten meters (about 33 feet) across. With the brilliance of the sun, it was hard to see into the opening, but with a little patience, waiting until the clouds covered the sun, you could see that the cenote opened up to a much larger space near the water level. It space was shaped somewhat like a mayonnaise jar with a hole the size of a quarter cut in the lid. That was the main opening to the cenote. When the sun was just right, I could see there was dry land down there at the bottom. As well as the larger opening, there was another one nearby of four or five meters (13 to 16 feet) across, but it was so overgrown with trees, shrubs and bushes, that it was impossible to determine even the shape of the opening. And then there were another five or so much smaller openings to the larger underground chamber. One of them had rocks mortared around it in a circle forming a well-like location from which to draw up water by the bucketful.

The leaning tree on the left of this photo is the one on which the boys are climbing down on the following photos. This image has been photoshoped to attempt to bring out some of the interior detail.

All of the openings allowed light to penetrate to the furthest depths and, depending on time of day, allow sunbeams to strike the surface of the water. That’s what made this cenote so beautiful and so similar to Dzitnup, the sunbeams on the water. Great flocks of a beautiful bird flew in and out of the main opening. Butterflies flittered about. Vine-like tendrils seemed suspended from the edge of the opening all the way to water level. Plants covered one side of a huge stalactite that hung down almost to the water below. Other stalactites formed bizarre shapes. The boys kept warning me not to step in one of the smaller holes or to go too close to the edge of the big one. Hey, don’t worry; I’m not going down there! But the boys did. There was a very large tree leaning against one edge of the largest opening. The boys scampered down it like monkeys to jump into the water. I could not see how far down the tree actually went. Perhaps it was growing from one of the dry areas at the bottom.

While we were standing there watching the boys swim, I tried to envision what I would do with this cenote if the land around it became mine. For access, I pictured a spiral staircase leading all the way to the bottom from the second largest opening. The flat terrain would allow a rough road to be cut leading to the cenote area. But that’s as far as I could picture it without seeing what was at the bottom of the cenote. Could it be developed as a tourist attraction? Did it have a natural, temperature-stable cave in which to age cheese? Or wine? Or was there a hidden temple? Or a buried treasure? I knew I could not get down the tree trunk and ever get back up…so maybe I will have to just send my camera and see the cenote through another’s eyes. But I think I want to know what’s at the bottom of the cenote.

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What’s Past is Present (Part II) 
The Thrill of Discovery: There's Old Stuff All Around Us

“Eureka! I’ve found gold!”
I don’t remember if those were my exact words since I was only about 11 years old at the time, but I know I was very excited. I had found a rock with a vein of glittery, shiny, gold. I lived in Bozeman, Montana, at the edge of town. So I could freely wander the creeks and the woods and the fields that abutted where we lived. My friend and I were wading in the creek looking for whatever struck the fancy of an 11-years old boy when we came across the gold-filled rocks. We had struck it rich! The mother lode! When I showed my prize to my father (who had his master’s degree in soil mechanics and lots of geology under his belt), he explained that my discovery was just iron pyrite. Alas, it was the mother lode of iron pyrite sometimes known as fool’s gold …and I was the fool. POP! There went my dream-bubble.

Since that time, there have been any number of “Eureka” moments in my life. One of the most memorable was the discovery of my first ceramic shard while attending an archaeological field school in northern Belize. Most of the school participants were anthropology undergrads fulfilling a field school requirement. Another large group comprised grad students and post-grads working on specific projects. A small group of us were just interested volunteers, along for the ride, and hoping to experience archaeological fieldwork. Along with two undergrads and one other volunteer, I was assigned to a professional archaeologist and his guide. Our project took place in the heart of the jungle. Every morning, we were loaded in the back of an old pickup truck and driven to the drop-off point for the work site. To get there, we followed the axel-deep ruts of previous passages by the pickup, trying to avoid getting stuck. We had to stop every few hundred yards to open and then close the barbed wire gates. One field full of cows, the next corn, the next cows, the next corn, etc. We could not allow the cows into the cornfield. If we did the farmer who owned the land where the digs were would stop the projects cold. So we were very careful.

Our first stop was near a small hill at the edge of the fields. We dropped off a group that was digging there and looking for a burial site. We had to drive for about another 10 minutes to the end of the line before we got out. We crawled over or under another barbed wire fence and then followed Ricky (our guide). Every day he had to chop back the jungle with his machete to keep our path clear. The jungle almost grew faster than he could keep up with it. Our objective was to discover the general plan and dimensions of a residential complex. A very small part of a much larger site. Kind of boring compared to looking for a tomb! The previous group of diggers had laid out a one meter-wide set of lines running over a small mound. My job was, shovel-full by shovel-full, to uncover all of the dirt and rubble, down to bedrock, to the other side of the mound. I was in Belize for two weeks for the field school and it was the most physically demanding two weeks that I have ever spent in my life. It was hot and humid. Once we entered the jungle in the morning we never saw the sun for the rest of the day, but we sure felt its heat. Everything just dripped with moisture. Using small mason trowels and brushes, we removed the dirt and filled a 5-gallon bucket with the mixed dirt and rubble. Then we screened every bit of the dirt through a framed square of hardware cloth… made from welded wire with 1/4 inch opening. The dirt easily passed through the screen, the larger pieces didn’t. We had to sort through everything that was left looking for ceramics, bones, flint, obsidian, jade, wood or anything else unusual. And then bag and tag any findings. After about the third or fourth bucket, I suddenly saw my first shard (or sherd). It really was a “WOW” moment. I had just discovered (actually uncovered) something that had been made by man and had been hidden for hundreds of years beneath the earth. I felt like Indiana Jones. It was so exciting to see and then hold this small piece of broken clay. I ran to the archaeologist to show him. Ho-hum. Just another piece of a broken jar. After the first piece, my eye had learned what to look for and I discovered sometimes dozens of pieces with each screening. Nothing of real consequence but filled with rich meaning for me.

Earlier that same year, I had been in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, for the first time. I had a few hours to explore a local market before leaving to visit the local archaeology museum and then on to the Mayan ruins at Copan. I wandered through the market seeing nothing of great interest, nothing I thought was unique to the area. Since I have a mask collection of over 60 pieces from numerous places around the world, I asked at a few shops if they had any masks. One or two had some freshly carved wooden masks for the tourist trade, but that wasn’t what I was looking for. When I attempted to explain that I was looking for old masks or ones that had been used ceremonially, a shopkeeper beckoned me to enter her shop. After we talked for a few minutes she reached beneath one of the counters, literally under the counter, brushed away a handful of spider webs and withdrew an old cigar box. Old and dusty and slightly moldy and covered with mouse droppings. And full of small clay figures and broken pots. I had never seen a shard before or if I had, never paid any attention to them so I didn't really know what I was looking at. The contents of the box were for sale. I selected two of the intact small clay figures and as I paid for them, the box was returned under the counter.

The two figures I purchased in San Pedro Sula

I met up with the tour and went to the archaeology museum and there, in a showcase, saw one of the figurines that I had just purchased. It was part of a display showing how 1000 years ago, mass-produced whistles were made by casting clay in molds. The very same figure! Made last week in an original mold? Or found on a washed-out riverbank where it had been uncovered by the floods, a riverbank where it had been lost 1000 years ago? ¿Quien sabe? Some time almost two weeks later, and in another country, I showed the pieces to my guide. He was an experienced digger and guide at Copan as well as having extensive experience at other Mayan sites in Honduras, Guatemala and Belize. He looked at the pieces and said they were authentic. And then asked “where was the shop I purchased the find?” He would go there on his next trip to San Pedro Sula to purchase the entire shoebox.

Later that same year, I took an archaeological tour of Peru. I first went to Iquitos on my own and by boat down the Amazon to the Napo and then up the Napo River for a bit to reach a jungle lodge where I spent a few days. When I returned to Iquitos, I joined the tour and we flew to the north coast of Peru to Chiclayo. At our first ruin we had to walk about a kilometer or two from the parking area to reach the ruins. As we were walking, I noticed we were walking across a field of shards. Thousands of them, covering the field in all directions as far as I could see. You couldn’t walk without stepping on them. I asked our guide about this and she told me that the north coast pyramids were built of adobe or dried mud/clay. Since this area has almost zero annual rainfall, the pyramids should last forever. And they probably would except for every hundred years or so, a huge rainstorm (literally a hundred-year storm) comes through and dissolves a bit more of the pyramids. And washes down more shards to the plain below it. The guide said all the shards were out of context and of no value to the archaeologists because they couldn’t learn anything from a single piece without knowing where it came from and what had been next to it.

At each site in Peru that we stopped, I found shards. Near Trujillo, near Cusco, along the Urubamba, even at the top of Machu Picchu. I never knew if they were broken, contemporary pots that had been brought into the sites as fill for the paths or had been there for hundreds of years waiting to be found. Once my eye knew what to look for, the shards magically appeared.

In Mexico, when I went to Chichen Itza, Uxmal, Ek Balam, Yaxunah, Muyil, Calakmul, Tonina, Palenque, Bonampak, Yaxchilan, Dzibilchaltun and other smaller and out-of-the-way places, I saw shards. In caves, caverns and around cenotes, I saw them. In my gardens in Valladolid, at the Casa Hamaca, when I dig to plant some flowers, I come across shards. From 10 years ago? Or a thousand? Who knows.

Last week one of my masons brought something to show me. He lives in a small village near Valladolid and farms a small milpa. He had completed this year’s slash and burn and discovered something curious in the ashes. The left forearm of a statue or an idol made of fired clay. Hollow, with the hand gripping an undefined something…like a ball, perhaps? And with a heavy bracelets encircling the wrist. Half of the forearm was fire-blackened, the other half terra cotta color with, maybe, suggestions of paint or color. Roberto was pretty proud of his find, as he should be. But now he has gone back to look for the rest of the statue. Based on my calculations (read: best guess) the full statue might be 12 to 14 inches in height. I hope he finds it; I’d love to see it.

The forearm Roberto found in his milpa

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