In my career I have been constantly compared to Indiana Jones — most notably by PBS, The LA Times, and New Scientist. I’ve always chuckled at this comparison, but I do understand why and how this is an unending theme of my work. In colloquial terms: my job is to dig up lost cities in the thick of the jungle while negotiating with armed and dangerous drug lords. This is what I do for a living, plain and simple.
I know most people find it hard to believe that anyone really lives the way I do. Believe it or not, this is my normal lifestyle and has been for over 30 years, but I do realize how strange this must seem for some viewers. I thank you for taking interest in my world and the discoveries that keep me going! In my final set of videos of our Cancuen tour, we’ll navigate through the jungle as we explore the hieroglyphic staircase, the throne room restoration, the buried palace rooms, two large fallen stelae, and the royal ballcourt.
Due to its strategic economic position as the transfer point between the ancient highland world and the lowland cities, Cancuen became incredibly rich with the largest workshops of the Maya in both jade and obsidian, and one of the largest Classic Maya royal palaces. Follow along while I continue our tour through Cancuen!
Follow along as I continue our tour through Cancuen! We start at the camp and then we move toward the jungle to show the only place that is really our home, our hut-tent complex in the jungle, 100-feet above the river. Then, join us as we walk through the jungle to the entrance of the palace and the scene of the great royal mass assassination. Next, we go up through the great entrance to the palace and audience rooms. We move on to visit each of the excavations in the palace (which covers an area larger than six football fields) where we make a new discovery in real time. These digs are made possible by Vanderbilt University and by our leading archaeologists on my team, including my co-director Paola Torres.
Cancuen sits in a narrow peninsula where the Pasión river sharply bends and first slows down to be navigable by canoe. It’s a huge rich city built at “the head of navigation of the Pasión river,” the beginning of the great river trade route of the Classic Maya world. Due to its strategic economic position as the transfer point between the ancient highland world and the lowland cities, Cancuen became incredibly rich with the largest workshops of the Maya in both jade and obsidian, and one of the largest Classic Maya royal palaces.
In my last blog post, Colossal Cave Excavation, I shared a short video of my supervisory visit to the cave subproject, the Raxruja Viejo project, in collaboration with, and under the direction of, my co-director Chloe Andrieu (CNRS) and assistant co-director, Julien Sion (Sorbonne).
In the next video, Don Amilcar takes us deep into the cave subproject to show off the grand, natural wonders as I discuss Mayan rituals practiced in this very location. As you can see, even with many flashlights, it’s difficult to find your way to the underground river below. Can you imagine the ancient Maya doing this journey in almost complete darkness?
This cave acted not only as a ritual space, but also as a gigantic tomb and cathedral. For more, follow along below.
It seems like at any moment another ritual might “breakout.” Just a couple of days ago, I found a rare moment of peace to write up some of our findings. Those plans were truncated by a sudden cacophony of drums, flutes, and marimba, punctuated by deafening explosions of plastic bottle bombs. My “San Andresana” wife, Vilmita, casually said that it was the “rito de San Juan y los toritos” (the ritual of San Juan and the little bulls” also called “Los Negritos”) and she ordered that we had to go to it immediately! We were then swept away into the Kaqchiquel universe.
In the past six months the archaeology, discoveries, crazy field politics, and natural disasters – two earthquakes and two weeks of tropical storms – have all hit simultaneously, making the last couple of weeks more than exciting! The huge tropical storms have completely destroyed the big camp at Cancuen and damaged others, costing an astronomical amount in hut and structure rebuilding, tents, solar panel replacement, and so on. These repeated disasters in the Peten region and also all the tremors and landslides at my other dig in the highlands have made me feel like a target of biblical castigation! It hasn’t been easy, but life would be quite dull without the give and take of rainforest living. Que sera, sera!
Mayan artifact wrested from nefarious looters [with the help of Arthur Demarest, Vanderbilt University ( VU )].
By Dan Vergano
Now safe in Guatemala’s National Museum, the limestone altar, whose recovery was announced Wednesday, sheds light on the political life of the Mayan era. Carved in the year 796 to honor a treaty in the Mayan city of Cancuén, the altar depicts two kings playing a ritual ballgame.
The altar’s recent past sheds light on the extent of modern looting.