The Challenging Mound at Cahal Pech

I have just returned from my summer vacation. The first two weeks of my trip was spent in Central America, in the country of Belize, formerly known as British Honduras and shares its borders with Guatemala and Mexico.

A colleague of mine was an archeologist and used to work on a site there before a career change and joining the league of International Teachers. My colleague’s friend has been running an archeological like camp, (AFAR), for highly selected High School Students in Belize for several summers and extended the invitation to our staff and students. I have always been fascinated with the ancient civilizations and I thought this would be a great opportunity to travel to a new country, experience a new culture and learn about the Maya.

The morning of the 21st of June, I waited nervously at the airport for my colleague and the two students to arrive to begin the adventure. Once the gang was assembled and we had become acquainted with one another, the long journey across land, sea and ocean began. The afternoon of the 22nd of June exhausted and hungry, we landed safely in beautiful Belize and met up with and were introduced to the rest of the student body and staff whom we would be working alongside for the next two weeks.

The following day we were taken on a tour of Cahal Pech (Place of Ticks), with Mr. Saunders, Dr. Marc Zender and Mr.& Mrs. Pritchard, they talked to us about the site and the Maya way of life as we walked around and through Plaza’s A and B. Cahal Pech was the site where we were to help excavate. My first impression of the site was how quiet, secluded, nicely shaded and small it was. In my mind I had imagined a much larger complex and a huge temple like the one in Luxor, never the less it was still spectacular in its own right. As we walked around the site there were several excavation projects being carried out by BVAR (Belize Valley Archeological Reconnaissance Project), in my little mind I assumed that we would be helping them. When our tour of the site came to an end, a physically fit man who looked like he might be in his late fifties, with graying black curls, glasses and a big smile came striding across the floor of plaza B towards our group, this man turned out to be the renowned Dr. Jamie Awe an archeologist and expert in the Maya, (he would be the equivalent to the Zahi Hawas of Egypt). He greeted us warmly and explained what it was that his team was doing and what he would like us to do.

He pointed towards one of the large structures in plaza B, that had stairs and an a rectangular archway and said that, that structure had been excavated many decades ago and parts of it had been reconstructed and conserved, he also asked us to follow the wall to see where it abruptly ends or disappears beneath a huge mound of dirt that had numerous tall trees deeply rooted and growing out of it. He explained that when the Maya abandoned the city, the place was left to ruin and with time the hurricanes caused a lot of structural damage to fall and deteriorate due to lack of maintenance. Seeds that had been carried by the wind or deposited (pooped), by animals fell and took root, which caused more damage to the city. He then turned to this fairly big hill and said and pointed at it and said, that he would like for us to uncover the remains of the wall.

As I stood there taking in the length and height of the hill, I couldn’t help but wonder how, he or anyone else for that matter expected us to uncover a wall with just brushes? Surely that would take forever. He then added that it would take probably the first week for us to find structure… (Yeah, right! I thought to myself). For the remainder of the afternoon, students learned how to measure out units using measuring tape, thread, compass and a construction plumbob, (A plum what? (was my first reaction when I heard it too), the definition from Weikipedia; A plumb-bob or a plummet is a weight, usually with a pointed tip on the bottom that is suspended from a string and used as a vertical reference line). The boys got busy carving wooden stakes to put into the ground to tie string around to divide the units up. Others picked up rakes and started raking away small rocks and fallen leaves to clear the ground.

The following morning the students and staff were divided and assigned to the units that we would be working on for the next two weeks. I chose to be with unit one, “The Silverbacks”. There were a couple of logical reasons as to why I chose that particular unit; One of which was because they came highly recommended (most of them had a lot of experience excavating and had been coming for the past couple of summers), the unit was the closest to the already excavated wall and I was certain that we would find a lot of stuff.

In all honesty the mound that we were expected to get through intimidated me (GREATLY)! I seriously began to question why I was there and what had possessed me to want to do this in the first place when I could be doing something that would not require me to tap into my inner badger. After a little mental pep talk, I got myself ready for the challenge ahead. I am somewhat stubborn by nature, but I hoped that I had the resilience, stamina and persistence to keep up with five teenage boys and that I would be able to make a difference. I walked over to them and introduced myself to them one by one and that is when I was presented with a pick axe. I looked at the manly tool with puzzlement, (where were the brushes? I thought to myself). I jokingly asked if these were to break knee caps, (I hoped to hide my ignorance and break the ice. I’m not sure how I did). The team leader, a graduated high school senior very politely and patiently explained what we needed to do first and how the tools were used to excavate the area. First we needed to clear the surface of the rocks and make a pile because some of the rocks will be used to reconstruct some of the structures at the site. Once that was done we take our pick axes and start picking away at the layers of dirt. The dirt would then be scooped up into buckets which would then be taken by one of the team members to the big hanging sifts, to make sure that pieces of pottery (clay) or chert were not accidentally thrown away. If pieces of clay or chert were found, they would be placed in artifact bags. At the end of the day an artifact card would be filled out in black pen to explain what the contents were and how many bags of each had been collected. Sounded simple enough, but I tell you…it sounded a lot easier than it actually was. This job is not for lazy bones, wimps or girls worried about ruining their manicure. The students and staff took it seriously and expect those who come to take part to work hard. Some of the rocks were the size of my torso or just as heavy as the bucket full of dirt that had to be carried over to the sift. The shade of the canopy and the light breeze could cause you to forget that you were hot and in need of keeping hydrated. In the first half of the day, I found pieces of clay and beautiful pieces of quartz. These little finds gave me the incentive to keep on going. At lunch time (noon), I was hot, sweaty, hungry, thirst and exhausted! I couldn’t believe that we had been working for almost four straight hours and were expected to continue till four o’clock.

After a much-needed lunch break, soft drink and a bit of socializing, our hour was up and it was back to the grind. I found it very difficult to get back into the rhythm that I had been working to before. My heart was beating rapidly for some unexplainable reason and I was sweating more than I had been earlier, (I might have been having a mild panic attack, my mind and body might have been putting up a little protest to the manual labor, but being a stubborn person I wasn’t going to let it get the best of me). I tried talking to the team but being the newbie no one was really talking, so I chewed on a stick of gum, took out my iPod and listened to music as I worked away until the end of the work day. When quitting time came about, I was out of fuel and all I wanted was to stand under a shower and wash the dirt and sweat away, drink a gallon of icy cold water, EAT and recharge!

I woke up feeling not as sore as I had thought I would, which I took to be a good sign, (maybe I wasn’t as out of shape as I thought and perhaps I can do this with gusto? I didn’t want to jump for joy yet, it was ONLY the second day). The day played out very much like the first, except this time I felt like I knew what was expected of me and what I needed to do. After lunch time the guys started to open up and talk me, which helped pass the time and a bond between my team mates had begun to form.

As the week went on, the site of Plaza B changed drastically. It no longer looked like a well-kept garden, it looked like a bunch of gold diggers had set up camp and had torn up the lawn. There were piles of discarded rocks and dirt dotted around the plaza which I think took away from the beauty of the ruins. Tourists who came to visit the site would come and stop and watch us work and would often ask members of the group questions as to what we were doing and what we were looking for. (The little devil who lurks deep within my cranium, though we should have roped them into doing some of the labor, so that they could also witness archeology first hand and like us appreciate the time and man power that goes into excavating… mwaaahaahaahaa!)

By the end of the first week, my relationship with my 5 team mates had been sealed. I was one of the guys and a fully fledged ‘Silverback’. We had succeeded in finding the ancient floor of the plaza and were well on our way to finding structure. The mound that had looked so intimidating to me when we first began excavating looked unrecognizable, huge chunks of it had been dug out and when I stood back to look at our progress as a whole, I couldn’t help but marvel at all our combined efforts. It was then when I realized that the thing that really stands between us and doing the things that we want to do, is usually our own insecurities, self doubts and fears. The students on the project reminded me of the young teen I used to be and how I rarely ever let anything (except my parents), stand between me and the goals I wanted to achieve. Anything really is possible if you set your mind to it.

For our first weekend in Central America, we crossed the border into Guatemala and stayed on the eloquent and colorful island of Flores. Where we toured the ancient Maya city of Tikal and it was there when my tendonitis came back with a vengeance. Luckily I had anticipated the possibility of this happening and had brought the medication I would need to reduce the inflammation. Having experienced the strain and pain of this before, I knew that when we got back to Belize and the site, that I would not be able to work as hard as I had been the previous week. It was a big blow to me. I didn’t want to have to give up or sit on the side lines and not be able to help my unit complete the task that had been given to us. I was determined to find away to continue to work at some capacity, so that I could see the project through, not let the guys down and prove to myself that I can still do anything.

When we returned to the site on Monday morning, I had difficulty getting back into the routine and finding a way to work comfortably without putting too much strain on my heels. It wasn’t as easy as I had hoped. I had to make a choice, to push through the pain and possibly ruin the remainder of my vacation touring the East Coast of the U.S or to take a sick day. I eventually gave in and took the sick day to elevate my legs, do some stretches and ice my heels. Although I was bored out of my mind and felt sorry for myself, I knew I had made the right choice. The following day, wild horses couldn’t have kept me away from my unit, I can’t tell you how happy I was to be holding a pick axe and being back in the pit. I wasn’t able to work as well as I had the week before, but I kept on going, stopping and taking necessary breaks when I needed to, so that I could make it to the end of the two weeks. Which I am proud to say I did!

By the time Thursday had come around, we had found more worms and ant hills than I care to remember. We had seen interesting looking spiders, fever worms, a small snake and beautiful butterflies flutter through our unit as we pushed forward. We had filled hundreds of buckets and wheel barrels full of dirt, as well as numerous artifact bags with clay and chert. Like a colony of worker ants, we had uncovered several layers of white plastered well-preserved Maya floor, the outer remains of a long-buried and forgotten wall, revealed a looters trench and parts of a damaged staircase in just two weeks. Many of the participants were disappointed with our finding, but I couldn’t have been prouder of what we had accomplished together as a whole group and as individual teams! Our discoveries might not have been as exciting or as grand as another excavation team at the site that uncovered a tomb, with skeleton and well-preserved antiquities, but I was impressed in what we had achieved together.

People working together is powerful as well as unstoppable… but most of all inspiring!

In all honesty, I have never had to work that hard in my life! The physical labor that goes into excavating must be right up there with training for the Olympics! I might have suffered from tennis elbow, tendonitis, sore muscles and many mosquito bites, but the experience was by far one of the best I had ever had and one of the most memorable and fun summers too. If there was a chance of me being able to go back next summer or sometime in the future, I would most probably do it all over again.