This post continues the retelling of my recent time in Belize: participating in an archaeology field school and learning about jaguar conservation. Reading the previous entries in this series (by entering “Belize” in this site’s search bar) will help this one to make more sense. The names of some of the people in this post have been changed to respect their privacy.
May 29, 2017 was to be my second day of archaeological field work. It began the same as yesterday: with an early morning rise and a three mile hike to Humboldt State University’s field sites. But this time I would not be working at Structure 130. Instead, my task today was to help Walter. He was excavating a Mayan water feature for his master’s research, and I would be assisting him today.
The path to the Water Feature was a narrow one, and we had to avoid brushing up against the Escoba trees (Cryosophila stauracantha) that occurred along the sides of the trail. The trunks of these palms are covered in sharp spines, and they are exceedingly painful to touch. Luckily the Water Feature was only a short distance from Structure 130.
When we reached our destination, I noticed that the ground was significantly higher on one side. It sloped downwards, almost giving the impression of a shallow bowl. The jungle here was also thick. We were probably less than 100 metres from Structure 130, but we may as well have been 1,000 metres away; the vegetation blocked all sight and sound of the other excavation team. I suddenly realized how easy it could be to get lost in a dense rain forest.
The units were also oriented differently here. Yesterday, I had mostly been digging in one metre by one metre rectangles. However, the units at the Water Feature were longer: one metre by two metres. They were positioned in a single file line, so that they formed a trench down the side of the slope.
I also found that the working conditions at the Water Feature were more to my liking. The excavation process was the same as before: we methodically scraped and swept dirt, placed it in buckets, and then sifted for artifacts. But Walter had a slow and steady pace, which I enjoyed. The dense vegetation here also provided bountiful shade, making the Water Feature slightly cooler than Structure 130. Lastly, our Belizean helper, Miguel, proved to be excellent company.
Miguel and I had great conversations. He knew both English and Spanish, but I tried speaking with him in the latter tongue when I could. Miguel was patient with my bumbling Spanish, and helped me when my limited vocabulary failed me. We discussed jaguars, Belize, and more. One thing I learned was that some of the local Mennonites offered bounties for dead jaguars. This practice is illegal in Belize, but law enforcement was sparse up here.
Miguel and I also shared food at lunch. This is an important custom in Belize, and afterwards Miguel offered to give me a Belikin (the excellent Belizean beer) shirt. This made me slightly uncomfortable, as I knew he could not have had much money. But I did not object, because I did no want to be rude. I only hoped I could offer him something in return.
After a pleasant day of excavation, the three of us began the long trek to the truck. I felt much stronger on this return hike than on the previous two, and I did not tire as quickly. Despite suffering debilitating dehydration just five days ago, my body was adjusting to the jungle.
Unfortunately, today was not all butterflies and sunshine. Part of my reason for coming to Belize was to meet with jaguar conservationists. At this point I had not been able to pinpoint exact dates with any of the individuals I wanted to speak with, and this was beginning to worry me. I needed to get ahold of these people, but that was going to be difficult in an area with limited phone and internet service. I would have to be patient.