The Globe and Mail (Canada) January 21, 1980 Monday
By DONALD GRANT
WITH SOME modesty, David Pendergast acknowledges he's better known in the
tiny Central American country of Belize than he is in Toronto.
In fact, he said, My name is known to nearly everyone - 143,000
persons - in the country.
When mail is sent to him, often it's just my name and only the country
for an address.
And, indirectly, the logo for the best beer in Belize has a Pendergast
touch, a tribute to him and his work.
Some Belizians even believe Mr. Pendergast is Belizian and that for
the past seven months he has really been on furlough or vacation in
For the past 15 years, Mr. Pendergast has been wintering in Belize as
a Royal Ontario Museum archeologist literally digging into the mysteries
of the Maya people who disappeared in 1641.
But despite the warmer weather in Belize, it's not a vacation for him
in that country, either. Before he returned this month to Belize, he
said, I'll be shovelling dirt, not snow.
According to Mr. Pendergast, the museum's archeological teams moved
into Belize in 1964 when Canada was looking outward in many respects, not
only in scientific work . . . and out of an isolationist period.
Because Belize, known then as British Honduras, and Canada both are
members of the Commonwealth, it was a logical choice to locate the dig
Until the studies at Altun Ha, north of Belize City, the archeologist
said, the area was considered a backwater fringe, but six years of
digging and learning changed our understanding of the Maya people whose
civilization is known to historians as lasting from 1500 B.C. until the
At Altun Ha, Mr. Pendergast and his associates learned the how and why
of the temples, a tremendous amount of the Mayas' trade and why that
civilization collapsed there and in other villages in the ninth and tenth
Evidence shows, he said, that the Maya civilization didn't disappear
because of invasion or famine, but because of a protestant movement
similar to Martin Luther's in Europe.
Mr. Pendergast said there are things to suggest that . . . the
religious and political leaders of the time became fat and lazy . . .
became more distant from the bulk of the people . . . and the people rose
up against the religious leaders.
However, unlike the protestant movement in Europe, the specialized
knowledge was held by the leaders at the top . . . the whole society came
down . . . they didn't reform . . . they shot it to pieces.
As they unveiled Altun Ha, he pointed out, we could see the period of
decline . . . we could see the hold of the rulers declining . . . and the
final stroke - the people rose up in a violent way, a direct attack on
For the past six years, Mr. Pendergast's archeological teams have
concentrated on Lamanai, a 4.5-square-kilometre site with some 718
buildings, the tallest is 33 metres, where about 3,000 Mayas lived until
1641. There, they're trying to learn why that town wasn't destroyed in
the tenth century, too.
It's unique because it was occupied so long. Everywhere else in the
Maya lowlands, all the other cities were abandoned in either the ninth or
tenth centuries. But this didn't happen at Lamanai. There were still Maya
people there in the sixteenth century when the Spanish arrived.
About 1520, the Spaniards built a church on the site. He reasons that
the Mayas were there, because the Spanish wouldn't build a church there
unless they had parishioners.
Later, he said, they (the Mayas) destroyed the churches, burned all
the perishable things and took off into the forest. They really didn't
just disappear. The people simply dispersed into smaller communities, not
very different from 600 or 700 A.D., just smaller village life, not city
Today's Mayas, he said, speak the language and some practice native
ceremonies, but the written language is gone and all the knowledge held
by the leaders is gone. What is known is not handed down by living Mayas,
but is known by archeological work.
Historians now know that the Mayas weren't primitive people. They had
a calendar more precise that ours, astronomical knowledge without
telescopes, a complicated writing system and a very rigid cast system
centred around their temples. However, no evidence of military or police
forces has been found.
Most of the artifacts that have been unearthed by the ROM teams are
stored in Toronto until Belize builds its own secure museum. And that has
fostered suspicion and sparked actions bordering on violence on the part
of some Belizians.
For, Mr. Pendergast found a jade head of the Maya sun god Kinich Ahau,
the most important diety in Altun Ha. It's about 15 centimetres high and
weighs 4.4 kilograms.
The archeologist reluctantly estimated that the jade head is worth a
half million dollars or more today and that has caused problems.
After it's discovery in a tomb, the Belizian Government asked ROM
officials to take the jade head out of the country for safe-keeping in
1968 and it was returned two years later.
But a lot of people still believe we have it. It was so bad at one
point, the political opposition threatened to take to the streets.
But Mr. Pendergast said that the jade head is in Belize in the Royal
Bank of Canada vault and is not on display for security reasons. In fact,
a replica, valued at $1,500 Canadian ( about $3,000 Belizian) isn't on
display either for security reasons.
But the excavations have resulted in a thriving tourist business for
Belize and national recognition for Mr. Pendergast and the museum.
At this point in the interview, Mr. Pendergast searched for his bottle
of Belikin beer.
Has someone stolen my bottle of beer? he asked, adding that the
Belizian beer is one of the best beers in the world. We think it would go
Belikin, meaning Pathway to the East has as its logo one of the
structures at Altun Ha, a tribute to Mr. Pendergast.
NOTE: Mr. Pendergast is currently age 77, and has an honorary position at the ROM in Toronto.