Occupational hazards for archeologists

Probably no single animal on earth evokes more terror for humans than a poisonous snake. Even though thousands of people around the world die from snakebite every year, the chances of any one individual being bitten by a snake is less that your chances of being struck by lightning. Still, many people take little comfort in that statistic when a snake appears unexpectedly.

Over the years I have spent a great deal of time in snake-infested areas in both hemispheres as a U.S. Marine, and, more recently as an archeologist. I have suffered a minor bite and had several close calls and I'll confess right now that traversing a snaky area makes me very, very goosey. All it takes is the sudden rustling of leaves on the jungle floor anywhere near me and I usually get airborne.

Now archeologists, especially the "dirt" archeologists (there are others, sad to say, that spend their time in the sacred halls of the university pontificating and dreaming up "models" for the "dirt" archeologists to test in the field) who stomp around in the bush that usually encounter the reptiles. Once on the mainland in Belize I was escorting a group of tourists through some May ruins when we spotted a troop of howler monkeys. Interest in the ruins was temporarily set aside as the visitors maneuvered for positions to photograph the little darlings. I was so intent on finding a vantage point for the photographers in the group that I temporarily slipped a cog in my brain mechanism and stepped right smartly on a three-foot long Fer-de-lance. Known locally as a "Tommiegoff", this is a particularly disagreeable viper of the very poisonous kind. Fortunately I had stepped on the snake about six inches from its head so it was unable to strike effectively. My dilemma was as follows: Should I raise my foot and beat a hasty retreat or stay where I was, pinning the snake in a harmless position. About four milliseconds of careful consideration passed before I realized that I had the weapon at hand to dispatch this vile creature. I had earlier suffered a knee injury that caused me to walk with the aid of a rather hefty stick. In a move that would have made Arnold Palmer proud I sent that snake to the big golf course in the sky. Then of course I got the shakes.

Scary though that event may have been it pales by comparison with the experience that one of my volunteer workers had while excavating a small village site in a remote area. Very close to the place we were working was a restored farmhouse used by the owners as a kind of weekend vacation retreat. The house was sparsely furnished but it did have a flush toilet and a refrigerator, both of which were made available for our use. The excavation took place in the dead of summer and I encouraged our volunteers to drink lots of water and Gatorade to prevent dehydration. What with the ingestion of all this liquid, the bathroom became an active area and the female members of the crew seemed especially grateful for the modem convenience. At one point one of our number, a young woman in her twenties, excused herself and moved off toward the bathroom. Very shortly thereafter we heard a scream that caused the hair on the back of my neck to stand up. Racing to the house, my Graduate Assistant and I were first to arrive. With her shorts around her ankles and her face the color of fresh plaster, the young woman gasped and said: "There's a snake in the toilet!!!" It seems that while sitting on the toilet she felt something cold nudge her in a VERY private part of her body. Glancing down there was a snake whose head was protruding from the drain and waving about in a menacing way.

We eventually trapped and released the snake which turned out to be a nonpoisonous variety, but that of course meant very little to the woman who had, the close (and I do mean close) encounter. I have since often wondered how long it took for her to have a normal bathroom experience ... especially at night.

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