What was your best experience?
Following the excavation of the west wall mural, a number of important visitors—including Guatemalan Vice President Eduardo Stein—choppered in to see the murals firsthand. So many helicopters visited the site that my young sons Cenzo and David tired of seeing them arrive and depart. One important visitor arrived by land, having hitched a ride with our weekly supply truck from the village of Uaxactun 35 miles (56 kilometers) away. After four hours bouncing through the dense forest, Ian Graham, the intrepid Maya explorer and one of the men I most admire, emerged from the mud-covered pick-up.
My wife, Jaime, who had been keeping an informal record of visitors' first words after seeing the murals, informed Ian that the most recent three visitors all uttered the same one word quote, unprintable here. Ian responded, "I am an Englishman, and very unlikely to say that. At best you might get a 'jolly good'."
As we entered the cramped tunnel, Ian's eyes welled up with tears at the sight of the painting before him. He sat silently, taking in the masterpiece and eventually uttering, "This is the greatest, really, the greatest find." When he came out Jaime asked, "So, jolly good?" He responded with an enthusiastic "No, positively ripping!"
What was your worst experience out in the field for this story?
Snakebite is a big concern in the jungle since bites from the fer-de-lance, rattlesnake, or coral snake can all prove fatal. When archaeologist Roxandra Ortiz was bitten by a type of rat snake, we found out that even snakes categorized as non-venomous can still pack a wallop. Roxandra—who grew up in the Peten and has survived bites from both the fer-de-lance and the coral snake—lobbied to stay in camp, confident that the swelling and pain around the bite would subside with time and fearful of the effects of the jarring ride to the nearest hospital. But after a few hours of Internet research on similar snakebites and instant-messaging conversations with doctors back in Guatemala City (over our satellite connection), I insisted on her evacuation. She remained in the hospital for more than a week before she was strong enough to return home. She has recovered fully, but snakebites remain my biggest scare.
Did you have quirky moments covering this story?
The San Bartolo project provides a unique field-training opportunity for both Guatemalan and U.S. students. After three months of combining jungle living with intensive study, my students from the University of New Hampshire were engaged in some last-minute cramming the night before the final exam. The rains that had begun with the opening of the tomb had continued on and off for the rest of the season, and this evening they were threatening once again. A wave of strong wind rushed through the forest, and within minutes chaos ensued as branches, then trees, began to fall throughout our jungle camp. All 110 members of the project crowded into the two dining halls at the camp's center. Large parts of the forest canopy crashed down around us, and the horizontal rain soaked us even inside the shelters. Someone muttered "Asi es el castigo de Chaac," which means, "So goes the rain god's punishment," a statement that met with a good deal of agreement from the wet and huddled masses. In the midst of it all the students continued to study, albeit with disparate goals in mind. One said to another, "I just want an 'A'." The reply: "I just want a cheeseburger."