Journey to Belize: Bones and Visitors

This post continues the retelling of my recent trip to Belize: participating in an archaeology field school and learning about jaguar conservation. The other posts in this series are located in the “Travel” category.

Viking Exhibition in Tallinn, Estonia by Ulla Moilanen. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

June 4, 2017 was my second day working in Texas Camp’s field lab. As before, I started the day by helping to clean Mayan artifacts. But there was a twist ahead.

I described our usual lab set up in this post. To summarize, we carefully sorted bags of lithics (stone) and ceramic artifacts on three screen tables. We then rinsed the artifacts in shallow buckets of water. Once the artifacts had been cleaned, we left them on the screens to dry – making sure to carefully document where we placed the contents of each bag.

However, this lab day did not unfold like the first one. That is because one of our students found something remarkable.

This student, Spencer, was from University of Texas at Austin. He mostly studied lithics, but he was also interested in experimental archaeology. This research strategy focuses on replicating and testing elements of ancient societies to learn more about them.

Spencer occasionally practiced flint knapping in camp. Flint Knapping Lesson by The Bees. CC BY-NC 2.0

On this day, Spencer was working with us in the lab. While sorting through artifacts on a screen table, he found what he thought was a cohune nut shell. But Spencer had it checked by Texas Camp’s Osteologist (bone scientist), and she confirmed that the mysterious object was actually a human bone.

More specifically, Spencer had found a fragment of a baby’s skull. He was not pleased. To make matters worse, Spencer eventually found another baby skull piece. I tried to be supportive by reminding him that that is how curses start, but it did not help.

Our lab director, Ms. Sharon, had the rest of us examine the bones Spencer had found. We needed to know how to identify them, in case more bones were mixed in with the artifacts. I held one of the skull fragments in my hand, so that I could learn what it looked and felt like.

The bone was black in color, since it had been burned. It was remarkably lightweight, and had a texture that reminded me of old wood. It was a strange experience – holding the remains of a baby who lived many centuries ago. To be honest, it made me slightly uncomfortable.

Initially, Spencer thought the first skull fragment was part of a cohune nut, like the ones pictured here.
Orange Walk – Nuts of the Cohune Palm Tree by Drriss & Marrionn. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Remarkably, there was even more excitement in store for us today.

In the afternoon, one of the cooks brought her family to visit us. Her husband and children were all exceptionally polite, and it was wonderful to meet them. Events took a heartwarming turn when the cook and her family presented Ms. Sharon with a gift, to show how much they appreciated her. It was a truly remarkable moment, and I am glad I was there.

Unfortunately, June 4 was not perfect. Over the past few days I had become dissatisfied with my own behavior. I have a tendency to be fairly sarcastic, and this habit seemed to be getting worse – to the point that it was bothering me. There is a fine line between humorous sarcasm and mean sarcasm, and I was getting close to crossing it.

Lastly, there was the matter of the jaguar researchers I hoped to meet. Before leaving for Belize, I had made tentative plans to meet with a group of scientists who were running a camera trapping project in the Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area.

The researchers and I had decided that since they planned on visiting Texas Camp, we would wait to pick exact dates until we ran into each other. But my time with the Programme for Belize Archaeological Project (PfBAP) was coming to a close, and I had not yet seen them.

Fortunately, there would be plenty to keep my mind occupied with tomorrow.

8 Thoughts

  1. The part with the baby bones really sounds unsettling! But again it’s a post I really enjoyed reading, I like the way you write :) I made some super sarcastic friends last year and had to sharpen my sarcasm detector a bit (or a lot) since I wasn’t getting many things at first. I’m surprised you’re seeing it as a problem because I never perceived it as one in their case, but then it’s really attentive of you to be aware of it and wanting to change it.
    Have a lovely week, Josh! :)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Monika! It was a little weird to hold the baby bones, because it almost felt disrespectful to me. But I was told that the Classical Maya had very different views on death than we do, so that I had no need to worry.

      Usually I have no problem with being sarcastic, but towards the end of my time in the archaeology school I became EXTREMELY sarcastic. Sarcasm can get mean if practiced in a certain way, and I was trying to avoid crossing into that realm.

      I hope you have a lovely week as well :)


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