Danger in the Ruins

By Kim Clark

DEEP IN THE MAYA BIOSPHERE RESERVE, GUATEMALA--The patches of sky visible through the palm and bamboo jungle canopy here are white--not just hazy and pale from the steamy, 90-plus- degree heat but smoky white, thanks to nearby fires kindled by farmers and ranchers illegally clearing this national park set aside for scarlet macaws, howler monkeys, and jaguars.

Wearing calf-high laced boots to protect against the fangs of poisonous fer-de-lance pit vipers, David Freidel drips with sweat as he peers into a 20-foot hole dug into a tree-covered, rocky mound. At the bottom, a local worker carefully jabs a trowel at a stone near his feet. If they do it right, the excavators will open up a passage into a perfectly preserved, 1,600-year-old royal tomb. If not, they'll cause an avalanche that will destroy the jade-earringed skeletons and museum-quality ceramic bowls.

It's risky, but on this spring morning, there isn't time to try anything else. There are only 10 days or so before the year's money runs out and the rains make work impossible. And tomorrow, Freidel, the Southern Methodist University archaeologist who runs this dig, must leave, taking the three-hour stomach-jarring jeep ride to the nearest airport, close to Flores. There, he will hop onto a plane to Guatemala City and deliver a report to government officials. Freidel must convince them that his excavation is doing enough good for the country--creating jobs for locals, for example--that he should be allowed to return next year. Then, he'll fly back home to Dallas to start fundraising.

As digger Catalino Ramos pries out the 40-pound capstone that covers the roof of the crypt, a dozen archaeology students and workers gathered above hold their breath. A half-minute of anxious silence passes--not a creak or snap from a falling rock. "We're in!" someone exhales. It is thrilling, yes, but also terrifying: Word of the discovery can't help leaking out, threatening to draw in looters and maybe even whoever fired warning shots at fellow archaeologists exploring nearby ruins that day.

Modern-day heroes. Indiana Jones would have just grabbed the treasure and bullwhipped his way to safety. But today's real-life archaeologists don't have it so easy. Freidel braves poisonous snakes, flesh-boring flies, arsonists, murderous thieves, and machete-armed, hostage-taking mobs. But he must also do meticulous science, using dental picks and soft brushes to painstakingly excavate every shard and bone. And for the first time since his initial dig at age 17, Freidel must protect ruins from overcrowding, poverty, and greed by, for example, putting out forest fires and creating jobs for locals. "When I first walked in here four years ago, I was naive. I had no idea I'd have to be doing all this," to excavate jungle mounds hidden deep in the Laguna del Tigre National Park, about 50 miles west of the more famous Maya city of Tikal. "But it has become impossible to do archaeology without protecting the sites," Freidel says.

That realization has put him "at the very leading edge" of an archaeological revolution, says Kenneth Ames, president of the Society for American Archaeology. Looting, of course, has been a problem since King Tut's time. But the recent stripping of Iraq's treasures woke up the entire profession to the need to better protect sites with both security and economic incentives for locals, says Ames, an archaeologist at Portland State University. Other archaeologists in Guatemala and other underdeveloped countries such as Cambodia and Peru have been trying to help locals build up businesses that depend on the preservation of important sites. Indeed, it is probably just a matter of time before all archaeologists have to augment their expertise in traditional skills like hieroglyphics and carbon dating with security and economic development strategies.

At first glance, one wouldn't take Freidel for an action figure. Long walks through the jungle and a camp diet heavy on rice, black beans, and thick, handmade corn tortillas keep the 58-year-old Harvard grad in fairly trim shape. But with his longish bangs, beard (the camp only has makeshift showers and no hot water), wire-rimmed glasses, and slightly hangdog look, the celebrity he most resembles is a middle-aged, high-IQ version of Shaggy from Scooby-Doo . His evening guitar solos of '60s folk music and penchant for long, eye-crossingly detailed lectures about obscure Maya deities only add to his mild-mannered-professor aura. But as Freidel's last day on the site--known in Spanish as "El Peru" and in Maya as "Waka'" --shows, modern archaeologists are at least as brave as any Hollywood version.

After the hole is opened up in the ceiling of the crypt, graduate student Jennifer Piehl steps into a harness the workers have jury-rigged out of thick yellow nylon rope. (Fellow grad student Michelle Rich, who is running the mound excavation, jokingly calls the harness the "rope diaper.") They thread the rope through a pulley attached to a tripod made from fallen logs. Piehl, a 32-year-old Tulane University graduate student, is lowered into the tomb. She wryly complains that her slight build and childhood training as a gymnast usually win her these contortionist, ghoulish assignments. But her mind quickly turns to the pressing business: "How the hell are we going to do this?"

The crypt ceiling is only about 4 feet above the floor, and there is no place to put her feet that might not crush some hidden artifact. Unhooking herself, Piehl wedges her feet against the walls and crouches. She carefully measures the closest bowl and shouts up the numbers so staff carpenter Fidelino Diaz can build a wooden crate. Then, she starts shooting photographs of every 30 centimeters or so to create a map of the tomb.

Meanwhile, a dozen machine-gun-toting soldiers and park rangers have marched up the mound. In Spanish, Freidel tells the guards that they have just discovered a tomb containing the skeletons and adornments of royal women who died around A.D. 350-400. Back then, this forest was mostly cropland, planted with orchards of fruit trees, corn, beans, and squash. They would have been standing atop a pyramid near the center of a 16-square-kilometer city of 10,000. The green mounds and hills seen from this vista hide the ruins of at least 700 buildings and walls. The freshwater marshes in the area were probably lakes, part of a river system that connected this city to the other major cities of a great Maya empire as sophisticated as anything in Europe at that time. Freidel asks the officers for help protecting the tomb while the archaeologists work, noting that by law, everything discovered here will eventually go to Guatemala's national museum.

Telling them about the discovery is a risk in this nation where 37 percent of the population live on less than $2 a day. Already, many of Waka's steles--4-to-5-feet-tall limestone slabs carved with hieroglyphics telling of important events--have been sawn into pieces and carted off by thieves. That has created huge gaps in the historical record about how this great city grew and why it was mysteriously abandoned in about A.D. 950. And that's not all. Freidel has found hundreds of trenches dug by looters (including some just a few months old). Not surprising, perhaps, bowls not quite as nice as the ones in the crypt were recently valued by Sotheby's at about $10,000 apiece; the auction house says that some of the bowls Freidel has found could go for five times that much.

It's not just the artifacts that need protection. In 2003, park rangers got into a shooting match with armed thieves attempting to steal a fledgling from a scarlet macaw nest not far from the camp. The spectacular 2 1/2-foot-high, blood-red parrots sell for about $2,000 each in the United States. Since the end of the civil war in 1996, desperately poor farmers and rich cattle ranchers have been pouring into this vast, virgin rain forest. In the past five years, more than 5,000 homesteaders have illegally built homes and set fires to clear the land for corn and cattle. In 2003, Freidel's first year of excavation here, the flames got so close--about 2 miles away--that he had to pull workers off the ruins to dig fire lines to save the camp. This year's fires haven't been so threatening, but the air is almost always scented with smoke, with ashes that flutter down like hellish snowflakes in the tropical heat. The ground fires have so far burned an estimated 40 percent of the park, which is supposed to protect a lake that is one of the most important wetlands in the world.

The growing forest population also creates serious threats to the archaeologists themselves. Just that day, a group of Freidel's staff scouring a new part of the jungle for more excavation sites did belly-flops into the dust when they heard shots, clearly warning them to keep out of what could have been a looting camp or even one of the drug runners' airstrips, common in the park. And earlier this year, as Freidel was returning from one of his rare breaks in town, his truck was stopped on a dirt road by a rubble roadblock set up by machete-armed farmworkers. The angry mob detained him, his photographer, and his driver to exact negotiations with soldiers who had arrested one of their compatriots. After about 45 nerve-wracking minutes, negotiations began, and they were released.

The lawlessness and greed that are destroying the rain forest and hidden history that he loves "got my dander up," Freidel says. "They think I am a naive archaeologist. But if you don't have somebody willing to take a stand in the world, then what are you going to do? What is going to happen if I fail? There is a very good chance that the looters and ranchers will not stop until they get to the border," he says.

As the workers' 4 p.m. quitting time nears, Piehl and Rich have finally measured and photographed every centimeter of the crypt and can start moving the treasures out. Piehl carefully lifts the closest bowl and wraps it up in a sheet of foam. She attaches it to the winch, and the workers pull it up. Above ground, everyone stops to admire the fanciful black-and-orange serpents painted on its top. Rich wraps the lidded pot in more foam and gingerly places the bowl in the handmade crate. After stuffing all the foam they had brought up to the site that morning, she realizes with dismay that there's not enough. The pot will bounce around inside the crate and could get damaged. But Rich has an inspiration. She runs to the makeshift outhouse built here for the workers and the Army guards, grabs an armful of toilet paper rolls, and stuffs them all around the bowl. Now the fit is snug. "Actually," she jokes, "this is a better use of this particular brand."

Then, in a scene that even Piehl admits "is sooo Indiana Jones," the crate, handmade of a local, rusty, red-colored wood, is loaded up on two poles. The local workers, with short, powerful, copper-colored bodies, and 2-foot-long machetes dangling from their belts, heft the poles onto their shoulders. They carry the crate, Ark of the Covenant-style, down the steep, treacherous path to the four-wheel-drive pickup waiting on the road to the camp. The workers laugh as they slip down the narrow jungle path, lined with palm trees bristling with 2-inch thorns that can break off in the skin and quickly become infected. Miraculously, everybody manages to arrive at the road unharmed. There are wide grins as the workers and archaeologists pile into the back of the truck, which creeps back to camp.

Over a dinner of rice, beans, and tortillas, the archaeologists turn to the less obvious dangers of the site. The mosquitoes that breed in the marsh next to their sleeping tents and lab buildings not only carry diseases like malaria but, occasionally, the eggs of the botfly. When deposited in human flesh, the larvae eat an air hole and then keep chomping away at the host's flesh until ready to pupate. A vigorous debate ensues over the best way to remove the botfly. One person swears that dangling a piece of raw meat over the air hole will lure the worm out. Another says that covering the air hole with electrical tape will suffocate it.

Shoptalk. After dinner, the cooks, diggers, and tradesmen crowd into the screened-in laboratory building to watch the opening of the crate. As Freidel declares the bowl a masterpiece, one of the students translates into Spanish. Because Piehl and Rich can find no evidence of disease or trauma in the bones, Freidel theorizes the two young women, one of whom was pregnant, were royal family members sacrificed as a part of a ritual to bring back a king or other very high figure. This discovery would then further debunk the old stereotype of the Maya as a peaceful, star-gazing civilization. Archaeologists have in recent years discovered plenty of evidence of self-mutilation and human sacrifice by the Maya. "The Maya were not a peaceful people," says Freidel, but they were no more bloodthirsty than any other civilization, he adds, citing bloody sacrifices and massacres perpetrated by everyone from the ancient Greeks to our own contemporaries.

The aim of these lectures is not only to educate the local Maya descendents about their own history but to give them the knowledge they'll need to take paying tourists here. Since he started excavating in 2003, Freidel has traveled to four of the poor farming communities around the park, making sure to hire at least a few workers (at above-market wages) from each. There is no way the two private guards Freidel pays can possibly defend 16 square kilometers of ruins. His only hope, he says, is that "the local people will defend the site because it is a source of income for them."

Freidel is starting to win some converts. Francisco Botzoc, 47, the project foreman, previously made his money cutting down trees. The excavation job has been a revelation to him. "I always thought the Mayans just piled up rubble. Now I can see there were structures," he says in Spanish. The archaeologists pay workers the equivalent of about $200 a month, 30 percent more than local farms offer. Botzoc and his friends now agree, "there will be more jobs if this is a park" than if it is burned and looted. "We must protect it," he says.

Freidel is not alone in the fight to protect the site. Guatemalan government agencies, as well as nonprofits such as RARE Conservation, Rainforest Action, and the Wildlife Conservation Society, have set up nearby offices and are training locals to set up ecotourism businesses and harvest the rainforest sustainably as well as sending in monitors and guards to protect the park. But Freidel's dig has been one of the most successful preservation ventures so far, says Carlos Albacete of ParksWatch, a nonprofit that monitors parks around the world. "If they were not there, El Peru would have disappeared, burnt," says Albacete, who heads the nonprofit's Guatemala office.

The shield Freidel has erected around Waka' will only last as long as he has money to support it. He'll need to raise $300,000 to pay for next year's dig and several million more to jump-start tourism businesses. But that is all down the road. Thrilled with the discovery and convinced that Rich and Piehl will be able to clear the tomb before the rains and looters come, Freidel steps outside and lights a cigar. The workers gather on benches and camp chairs as a staffer hooks up a generator, DVD player, and projector aimed at the wall of the archaeologists' dining hall.

Freidel leans back in his chair and chortles at the escapades of George Clooney and his gang of thieves in Ocean's Twelve . It's only a movie; Freidel's treasures are safe, for now, anyway. In the black, starless sky above the palm jungle, the moon rises orange amid the smoke of fires just a few miles away.

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