Rachel Egan recently returned from a whirlwind tour of Belize – basking on the beaches, hiking the jungles, tasting the Caribbean culture, touring the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave, and… working as a field technician for 6 ½ weeks at Belize’s largest Maya site?
Not your typical Belize vacation! Rachel spent last spring camped out in the heart of the Belizean jungle, within walking distance of the Classic Maya site at Caracol. Every morning Rachel set out with a bucketful of supplies and no idea what she might uncover. Her experience was particularly rare because the team excavating the Caracol ruins lives on-site – unusual for an archaeological dig. Led by Drs. Diane and Arlen Chase, the ongoing archaeological project at Caracol is making important discoveries that shed light on Maya activities in Belize. By participating this past field season, Rachel had the opportunity to contribute an exciting find of her own! We spoke with Rachel about her incredible experience.
AMBLE RESORTS: Describe your arrival at Caracol:
RACHEL EGAN: You come through the jungle to a vast cleared region with numerous temples and thatch huts. This is where we stay: a stone’s throw from the main plaza and Canna. It is breathtaking. We arrived in the late afternoon so already it was getting darker, with the sunlight appearing on the tops of the trees surrounding us. This was my first view of Caracol: once a major place of gathering, now the quiet, secluded remains of an ancient Maya city.
AR: What was the most exciting discovery made at Caracol this season?
RE: Well, this last season was pretty exciting – there were a lot of important finds. Perhaps the most interesting was in a chultun I dug (a chultun is an underground storage chamber used by the Maya).
At the bottom, we uncovered buried individuals. One had jade and shell ornaments. The bones were on top of and below several slabs of rock laid purposefully along the bottom to form a floor. Along with the individuals, there were four ceramic vessels, two of which were bowls, one was a ceramic bucket (I kid you not – it matched the buckets we used in the field in size), and the most interesting was a bright red chocolate vessel. The chocolate vessel was Mexican in style.
Dr. Arlen and Dr. Diane estimated the burial dated from the Early Classic Period, making it one of the earliest chultuns from the site. The pottery suggests that a trade route to Mexico was in use during this time. In addition, the prestige of the items in the chultun suggests the site was thriving.
AR: Living on-site, uncovering remains… Any ghost stories?
RE: Well, no ghost stories, but the scariest moment when was a group of army ants came though camp. Army ants are vicious. They eat everything in their path. Unfortunately, it was after dark so we didn’t notice them at first… then, the horror. They swarmed and grabbed onto people, leaving giant red welts. Once they’re on you, they’re almost impossible to get off.
AR: Yikes! How about a more pleasant memory from your Caracol experience?
RE: Well, Canna, the tallest pyramid at Caracol and also the tallest man-made structure in Belize, was located a very short distance from our camp. We had Saturday afternoons and Sundays off from work, so on Saturday night the other students and I would go to the top of Canna to hang out and watch the stars. On these nights we could see everything for miles since Canna reaches above the tree-line. It was very thought-provoking, the beauty of it.
AR: What else did you do for fun in the jungle?
RE: A favorite among the students was playing cards on Canna and watching the tourists. You would be amazed what people wear to visit a jungle Maya site, including one girl in a swimsuit. Mind you, there are botflies, ants, scorpions, and snakes in the region. Other adventures included going on trails to check out different parts of Caracol or just to see the vast array of wildlife.
AR: After a full day of digging, what were evenings like at your jungle camp?
RE: After dinner, we had free time until 7 when we started lab work. Lab work typically lasted until 9 p.m. when the generator went dark. After it turned off, flashlights were the only way to see in camp. Lab work consisted of cleaning the artifacts, mostly pottery sherds, found in the field, labeling and packaging so that they can be used in research. After lab, students either played cards, read, or went to bed.
AR: What do you love most about the work you do?
RE: The opportunity to work with people of different cultures and uncover lost pieces of history, for the basic answer. I love traveling as well, so the fact that my job lets me travel is a bonus.
AR: Greatest insight gained from this experience:
RE: I think the most humbling part of being an archaeologist is realizing that societies fail, cities are abandoned, and ways of life are lost. The most common comparison is to Detroit. From an archaeologist’s standpoint, Detroit is a city in the early stages of abandonment. Perhaps the Maya had it right: time is cyclical. That is why archaeology is so important. To quote George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
AR: Thoughts on your travels in Belize:
RE: Overall – it was amazing and I would go back in a heartbeat.