This post continues the retelling of my recent time in Belize: performing archaeological field work and learning about jaguar conservation. Entering “Belize” in this site’s search bar will bring up the other entries in this series.
Sunday, May 28 marked the end of the mandatory rest period following my severe bout of dehydration. I was finally able to return to the field.
I was excited about heading back into the jungle, but also somewhat wary. Therefore I made no attempt to keep up with the fastest members of our group during the 3 mile (4.8 km) trek to our field sites. This made the journey less strenuous than before, even though I was now carrying six liters of water (as opposed to the previous four).
Today I would be working at a location called Structure 130. It was a pretty site, consisting of a small hill that looked natural to the untrained eye. The forest here was more open than much of the Rio Bravo Conservation and Management area, allowing considerable sunlight to reach the ground. This made for a pleasant, albeit warm, working environment.
Our site supervisor showed me the proper way to dig. She turned a trowel on its side and began to scrape away the dirt: little-by-little. It was a slow, methodical process. At times we would use a brush to sweep dirt off of rocks, helping to reveal hidden details. The debris was all scooped into buckets, which were dumped onto screens that were held aloft by a stick at each corner. We then sifted the dirt with our hands, encouraging the smaller particles to fall through the cracks. This left only the larger objects, which we sorted through for ceramic or lithic (stone) artifacts.
I was assigned to work in a rectangular unit that was near the bottom of Structure 130. There were a number of cobbles (piles of rocks) here, and we wanted to find out why. I thus spent several hours performing the routine described above: scraping, sweeping, dumping, and sifting.
The sifting portion presented challenges for me. This was my first time partaking in archaeological field work, and I had a difficult time distinguishing broken ceramics from pieces of limestone. The artifacts I was finding at Structure 130 were also quite degraded, which made them harder to identify. As such, I frequently had to ask for help.
My excavating continued to reveal cobbles in the unit I was working in. In fact, it began to seem like we were looking at stairs. There would be one set of limestone blocks, and then another slightly below or above them – at similar spacing. Though I did not realize it at the time, I may have been one of the first people to glimpse the exposed stones of Structure 130 for hundreds of years. That is quite a thought.
At approximately 2:30 pm it was time to head out. Walter, who was conducting his master’s research at a nearby water feature, swung by to pick me up. I would be walking with him, since he did not like to rush.
The return journey proved easier than I expected, but there was some excitement. At one point Walter spotted a large bird, either an ocellated turkey (Meleagris ocellata) or a great curassow (Crax rubra). I saw it walking away into dense brush, so I thought little of it. But when I stopped to adjust my snake guards (essentially shin guards for snakes), the bird rushed me loudly from behind. Walter and I walked away quickly, and the bird did not follow us.
A few minutes later we were startled again. A black, chicken-sized bird noisily landed in a branch above us. It had a crest on its head and a distinctive red chin-strap, and consultation with Dr. Brokaw revealed that it was likely a crested guan (Penelope purpurascens). It was non-aggressive, but our previous encounter had made Walter and I suspicious of large birds.
When we returned to camp, I was satisfyingly tired and dirty. I finally felt pleased with what I had accomplished during the day, which was a welcome change. The situation was improving.