Archeological surprises- or just when you thought you had seen it all

This column which appears at rather irregular intervals in the Sun deals with archeology in its many facets. This week is no exception, but it takes a little time to develop, so please bear with me.

In San Pedro Town for the past couple of years my wife and I have established a favorite watering hole where we can meet with friends after work and enjoy a few adult beverages. BC's Beach Bar and Grill is likewise a hangout for a number of ex-patriots from all over the world and the late afternoon conversation is usually lively and friendly. This atmosphere, largely the result of the graciousness of the managers, Bruce and Charlene (nee Woods) also attracts quite a few visitors to the island who are always made to feel welcome. Now that I think about it, "gracious" is probably a bit of a stretch in Bruce's case since he is, after all, an Australian.

In any event, the bar is equipped with ashtrays made from coconut shells, which visitors consider "quaint" and I consider an abomination. Although I am not a heavy smoker I enjoy an occasional nicotine bon-bon with my beverage of choice and there is a single ashtray, a round white plastic one with bright red letters that spell CAMPARI on the side, which over the last couple of years I have come to regard as MY personal ashtray when I am in attendance. I confess I have become rather possessive.

Now I said this is about archeology, so hang in there.

Last week my wife and daughter and I accepted a long-standing invitation from Tom and Josie Harding, the managers at the Chan Chich Resort near Gallon Jug to come out for a few days. I was hardly prepared for what I saw upon arrival at the resort. The place, aside from the beautiful jungle setting, was nestled squarely in the middle of an ancient Maya site, a plaza complex consisting of a number of un-excavated but well-manicured mounds that in the Classic period (250 to 900 A.D.) would have been teeming with activity of both a religious and secular nature. The wildlife was abundant- monkeys, birds and a variety of small mammals were everywhere. Of more direct interest to me however, were the huge mounds just outside the resort area that over the years had been more or less looted by treasure seekers no doubt burrowing into the pyramids in search of tombs of ancient rulers. In years past enterprising farmers would come to this remote area to grow marijuana and while waiting for the plants to mature they would bludgeon their way through the large burial mounds in hopes of finding a burial chamber containing artifacts such as jade and intact polychrome ceramic vessels that represented a bonus in terms of extra money that could be obtained through the sale of these objects to tourists or front men for art dealers and collectors. The damage done to the site and the information forever lost is hard to assess but the shear labor required to dig through a sixty foot stone pyramid with hand tools is remarkable and the deep holes that still exist in these mounds are silent testimony to the determination of the looters to extract every piece of salable material possible. Tom Harding, our guide for the trek, led me into one of the trenches in which the looters had successfully broken into a burial chamber and removed the contents for later sale. The walls of the chamber were smoothly plastered and a good bit of the original red paint (a color much favored by the ancient Maya) remained intact on the walls of the chamber. Moving to another large mound, Tom gave me a flashlight and directed me along a narrow passage some forty feet or so into the side of the structure, cautioning me to go only so far as the first chamber as there had been a recent cave-in further along the tunnel. Again the looters had achieved their goal and I could see potsherds scattered around the floor which I recognized as Classic period pieces suggesting the treasure hunters had burst into a tomb that had lain undisturbed for some 1500 years. Tom then directed me to make a sharp right turn into yet another burial chamber where the red paint on the walls was illuminated by the narrow beam of my flashlight. On a shelf where at least one body had been laid to rest I caught a flash of white and bright red. It was my CAMPARI ashtray from BC's Beach Bar and Grill. I had been had!

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