Beginner's luck: Archeological novice helps team find cache of jade
By Michael Lollar
January 11, 2004
Ann Dwyer was preparing for her first real archeological dig when an
anthropology professor warned her, "Archeology is very dull. It's not
going to be like Indiana Jones."
Two weeks later, Dwyer returned from Belize in Central America with an
Indiana Jones tale and memories of one of the biggest caches of Mayan
jade ever found.
The trip began as an escape for Dwyer after her 15-year-old son was
killed in a car-bicycle crash in 1993.
"I was lost, absolutely lost," says Dwyer. "It was a test of my
survivability. I needed to do something that was physically and mentally
Dwyer, 62, had studied sociology and anthropology at Southwestern at
Memphis (now Rhodes College) and got her master's in anthropology in
1988 at the University of Memphis. She and her son, Thomas, had "played
archeologist" by digging for Indian artifacts on family land in
With her husband, retired Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals Judge
Robert K. Dwyer, they also visited - as tourists - the Mayan ruins on
the Yucatan Peninsula. "I always wondered what lay beneath those
vegetation-covered mounds," she says.
In Virginia, there were a few arrowheads and minor finds on the farm.
"But I had never been on a real dig," says Dwyer, who set out to correct
that in 1994 when she answered an ad in an archeology magazine.
The vague ad said the dig was sponsored by the Maya Research Project,
but it didn't say where it was to be.
A few days after she applied, she got a letter telling her the session
had been booked for several months and suggesting she apply again the
following year. "So I put my dream on the shelf," she said.
But a last-minute cancellation brought a phone call a few weeks later
asking if she could be ready to go to Belize in three weeks. Dwyer
packed one suitcase, bought new hiking boots, a bush hat and sleeping
bag and showed up three weeks later at the airport in Belize City.
Dwyer had spent much of her gentrified married life in Germantown.
Suddenly, she was bouncing along the "molar-jarring" back roads of
northern Belize to a camp with no electricity and a three-hole privy for
She was among strangers, some of whom wondered about the well-coiffed
blond woman. One of the site directors, Dale Pastrana of El Paso, Texas,
says her first reaction was that Dwyer "was more or less a powder puff,
Pastrana changed her mind after asking Dwyer to clear a pile of rubbish
against a wall. "I looked around a minute later and she was there with a
pick ax swinging away as hard as she could. I thought, 'This woman is no
powder puff. She's like a steel magnolia.' "
Pastrana, who had lost both a son and a daughter, soon learned about
Dwyer's son, which helped create a bond between them and helped Dwyer
find meaning in her archeological quest.
The dig, sponsored first by St. Mary's University, moved to Texas
Christian University and under project director Dr. Tom Guderjan. "The
focus of the project is learning about how a Maya city was organized,
the structure of it," he says.
Guderjan says the project began in 1991 and has slowly progressed each
year. The site dates from the long Mayan presence in the Yucatan from
roughly 900 years before Christ to 900 years after.
Among his conclusions, Guderjan says jade was a valuable commodity with
most of it concentrated among royalty.
For Dwyer, the dig was largely uneventful at first, but satisfying. "I
was perfectly happy just digging in the dirt and finding little things.
I found things that I was just thrilled with, like spear points and
obsidion blades and a ceramic piece with a design on it."
Most of the pottery was broken. Dwyer learned the Mayas often buried
their dead under the floors of their homes in order to keep them near.
They buried pottery with them, often knocking holes in the pottery as a
ceremonial "release of the spirit."
Finding even a broken piece of pottery is exciting after a day of what
really amounts to "ditch digging," she says.
It was the last day of her two-week adventure when Dwyer stayed late at
the dig site to help Pastrana. Most of the other volunteers had returned
to the camp and were packing or beginning a farewell beer party.
Suddenly, Dwyer says they heard a piercing scream - "just really a
scream. Dale told me to grab the snakebite kit." They assumed someone
had been bitten by a fer-de-lance, one of the most poisonous snakes in
Instead, Dwyer says one of the diggers had found a capstone, a round
stone covering a deep shaft. Beneath the stone, they found two clay
bowls fitted lip to lip. Inside were 300 to 400 pieces of jade. As they
dug deeper and deeper they found a roughly 1 pound piece of jade in the
form of a carved pendant, then hundreds more jade beads and other
Some archeologists at the site had been exploring Mayan ruins for 20
years. They had found minute pieces of the big Maya puzzle, but nothing
to elicit a scream worthy of a deadly snake. Guderjan gathered everyone
around to see the "once-in-a-lifetime sight."
News of the find lured National Geographic. In its May 1995 issue it
reported the shaft was dug as part of the burial ritual of a ruler 1,500
years ago. The 18-foot shaft included five layers of jade objects, more
than 900 pieces along with other artifacts. At the time, it was the
second largest cache of Mayan jade ever discovered (now the third
Pastrana says Dwyer was "incredibly lucky" to be in on the find,
especially on her first dig and on the last day of her two-week stint.
"It's really amazing," says Guderjan of Dwyer's beginner's luck.
Dwyer since has returned to the Blue Creek site four times and has put
her anthropology expertise to use as a volunteer at the Memphis Zoo,
working in a research project involving Asian turtles and as a docent in
the new panda exhibit.
But she will never forget that one day in the excavated Mayan city.
"That night from the camp we looked back in the direction of the (dig)
site, and it was the most beautiful rainbow we'd ever seen. It looked
like it went straight to the site."
For her it was a "mystical" experience, as if her son had joined her
with the rainbow as a sign.
Dwyer's experience helped convince retired University of Memphis
anthropologist Charles McNutt to visit the site himself. There McNutt
also made the rare find of an intact clay pot.
It was McNutt who had warned Dwyer that a real dig was "not going to be
like Indiana Jones. But, by God, it was."