This post continues the retelling of my recent trip to Belize: participating in an archaeology field school and learning about jaguar conservation. The remainder of this series is located in the Travel category of this blog. The names of some individuals in this post have been changed to respect their privacy.
When we arrived at Pretty Group, my first task was to clean and close a unit (rectangular area) that we had been excavating. I swept up the loose dirt, measured how far down we had dug, and photographed the unit. Next, it was time to start backfilling.
The Programme for Belize Archaeological Project was organized into two sessions. The first session, when most of the excavating took place, was coming to a close. We thus had to backfill our units.
I was assigned to backfill an old unit with one of our Belizean workers, Fernando. We started by laying a tarp across the bottom of the unit, on top of which we shoveled dirt and leafy debris.
This was my first time working with Fernando, but we got along well. Fernando did not speak much English, but he was patient with my clumsy Spanish.
After Fernando and I had finished backfilling the old unit, I had to help our site leader profile the unit she had been excavating. This is the same unit that produced the large Mayan bowl I wrote about earlier.
Profiling was tedious work. We first planted two stakes at opposite ends of the back wall of the unit. We then tied a string between the stakes, which was suspended a few centimeters above the ground. Next, one of us stretched a measuring tape along the string. The other person took a sharpie and marked the string at 10 cm intervals. Now we were ready to start profiling.
One of us entered the unit, while the other remained topside. The person inside the unit took measurements at various depths. Using a measuring tape, they first assessed the distance between the string and the ground. They then checked to see how far down the humus (topsoil) layer was. They proceeded to measure points of interest (e.g. changes in soil type or the beginnings of human-made floors) until they had reached the bottom of the unit.
The person in the unit read each number aloud. The other individual recorded each measurement by making a dot on a graph. This process was repeated for each 10 cm interval along the wall of the unit. As they proceeded, the recorder connected the dots on the graph. The end result was a precise and accurate map of the unit.
I understood the value of profiling, but for me it was a chore. Fortunately, my next task was more to my liking.
I was assigned to help Fernando backfill the unit we had just profiled. However, this backfilling job was infinitely more fun than the first. This is because it involved moving large rocks.
We protected the unit’s floor by laying down a tarp, which we covered with soft dirt. Fernando and I then threw large rocks into the unit, trying to carry as many as we could in each load. Some of the other Belizean workers joined us, and the task turned into organized chaos. It was delightful.
Our hike out that afternoon proved most interesting. By now, the three-mile trek to the road had become routine. But not today.
At one point, I began to smell a dead animal. After taking a few steps Fernando tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Tigre, cerca.” That means, “Jaguar, close.”
I questioned Fernando, and he said that the dead animal we both smelled was a jaguar kill. When I relayed this information to the rest of our group, they became visibly distressed. Jaguars are hardly ever aggressive towards humans, but disturbing one at its kill is not wise.
I told everyone that we would be fine if we just kept walking. We were a loud group, and our chances of surprising the cat were virtually zero. Sure enough, no one got mauled by a jaguar that day.
What I did not tell my companions was that I really wanted to see that jaguar – if it was indeed there. While that did not happen, it is exciting to know that I was potentially within metres of a wild jaguar.