My right-hand man is a brilliant, charismatic artist, my closest collaborator, and sometimes my seriously-armed companion in tough situations. He is what the Maya call my nahual. He is Luis Fernando Luin, but everyone calls him Guicho.
Guicho is not only as my right-hand man, but my left-hand man, my principal advisor, my lead project artist, the best man in my wedding, the man who enters war zones with me, and together we can negotiate our way out of anything.
Working as an exploratory archaeologist comes with many significant and unusual challenges; therefore, it’s vital to have a trustworthy partner who can navigate dangerous and uncharted territories. I always say Guicho is an “hombre de mil usos” – a man of a thousand uses – and then I add – “y algunos de ellos son legales” and some of those are actually legal (although actually in most of the areas where we’ve worked, there is no official law).
I first met Guicho on my digs in 1990 when he began working as an assistant to the lead project artist. The photo to the right is from the dig at the ancient city of Dos Pilas, where we had just discovered the royal tomb of the great ruler Itzamanaaj K’awiil, whose burial and treasures had strangely been preserved. Almost always, when we uncover tombs, everything is degraded due to mud, collapse, and decay, but this time, nature gave us a break – the ruler’s burial was preserved for centuries by a huge stone slab that had fallen from the roof onto the remains, leaving the ruler flat like Wile E. Coyote in the Road Runner cartoons.
When we lifted the slab, we found the ruler with his headdress, flattened, but perfectly preserved. Part of the center piece panel of the headdress was made of fine feathers covered with a beautiful mosaic formed by 400 pieces of obsidian, pyrite, jade, coral, and brilliant mother of pearl shell. In the photo you can see a young Guicho drawing the royal headdress of the ancient king; meanwhile, I had just finished digging for the day and was sipping a fine French wine before climbing up the shaft. Guicho, however, continued to sit in the boiling hot tomb, sweat pouring over him, creating a fabulous drawing that incorporated every single detail of the headdress. When I witnessed his work and his fanatical stamina, I knew that I had to make him the head artist. From then on, over the next twenty years, his roles multiplied and our bond strengthened.
Guicho has the perfect style and savvy to help me negotiate with the guerrilla, or worse, the army; he is invaluable and has saved my life several times. When we start a dig, before any actual work can commence and before we can even set up camp, my “A-Team” – a small, diverse bunch of dedicated men – go with me into a new, troubled area one to three years prior to the project in order to make peace, avoid crisis, and obtain permission from whomever we may find. The Maya don’t know who we are, what we want, what we’re collecting, or why we’re digging – they often think that we’re drug traffickers, miners, the army, looters, or robbers, out to take their land and sacred sites. There is no law in these areas – so we must negotiate everything directly. From beginning to end, Guicho is there leading the logistics and building trust, which sometimes includes eating, drinking, joking with our new uneasy friends. It’s a little rough, but it’s all part of the job! And admittedly, sometimes it’s a rush!
At the end of the day Guicho returns to his “day job,” creating beautiful artwork of the ruins. Guicho has been an archaeological artist for more than 25 years; he has become so skilled that he is also now our director of consolidation or restoration. He is able to look into an overgrown pile of rubble, know that it was once a room with doors and a staircase, then recreate its ancient form to help guide the excavation.
Guicho’s artwork is without parallel – be it technical drawings of excavation profiles, artifacts, structures, or architecture as it would have appeared over a millennium ago. Below you see a drawing of the top fragment of a huge stelae which Guicho reproduced in every detail, shading through the “stipple technique,” where the image is formed by thousands of tiny black ink dots on a sheet of clear drawing plastic.
That shiny head is Guicho, as usual, bent over with his drawing board. This is from the Cancuen field season of 2005 where we made an astonishing discovery – by accident, as often is the case. We’d found a small spring and we had a hunch, so we decided to excavate it. We found a 30 foot long, painted, masonry cistern. A thousand years ago it had functioned as a sacred pool that filled naturally with water from the spring. Located right next to the stairway to the main entrance of the royal palace, it probably served to cleanse the spirit before entering the palace. We were astonished to find the bones to account for dozens of people, who had been ritually sacrificed and placed in the cistern with their precious ornaments and other offerings. It kept Guicho very busy!
So, here in this photo, is Guicho hard at work with his head glistening with sweat. In many ways, that head has been critical to all our work over the last 25 years.