Danger in the Ruins
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.