Looters, Tombs, and Witchcraft, Oh My! – In the Field with Ryan Collins


Check out what it’s like to be an archaeologist! This Anthropological Life will feature blog posts, pictures, and video from our intrepid archaeologist while he works abroad in Yucatan, Mexico! Check out his Blog here

Ryan archaeology blog post 1It’s hard to imagine that it’s been nine months since setting foot in the camp at Yaxuná, Yucatan, Mexico. In many ways it feels as if I have never left. Yet, reminders that things rarely remain as you leave them are constant. For example, a box of clothes and supplies for the field that I left last summer is about 50% salvageable. I consider this a win because anything I left behind should be viewed as a gain. Thus, I have two pairs of boots and an extra set of (working) rechargeable batteries!  Then, some changes serve as reminders that field life isn’t always easy.

Yesterday I ventured on site to assess the situation.  Before beginning work each year my team needs to determine the amount of workmen to hire from the village to do any number of things that will help the project get started. This year we need workmen to repair leaks on five thatch huts, clear the vegetation in camp, clear trails to the areas we will investigate, build a wooden platform for a specific investigation, and construct wooden supports to avoid architectural collapse. But workmen cannot solve all issues. When venturing out to the site, my team and I found a new looters trench by a high priority excavation.

A looters pit is a hole dug by individuals essentially looking for treasure. The difference between most archaeologists and looters is that we care about recording the context learning about the materials recovered, and testing them in order to read something about the past. Looters don’t typically share in the same care for preservation or have the same expertise and precision a trained archaeologist will have. Understanding that there is a gray area here, because many great archaeological discoveries are made as a result of looters, I want to state that looters in general are not my concern. What concerns me is beginning a high priority excavation that could be looted before I have a chance to record, preserve the context, of what we may find.

As things stand now, I’m hesitant to write about what and where I will be excavating, at least until this part of the project is closed (hopefully by the end of May). At that point I will share more photos and videos of the process and be more open about preliminary understandings of the findings (should there be any). Needless to say, this excavation will continue forth under the possibility that something interesting could be there. In order to get to where there is, my team and I need to construct a wooden platform, mount structural reinforcements, and break through a mortared stone wall (via pick axe and sledge hammer) before the fun (equally tenuous) part can begin.

One of the problems we face in excavating in this area is drawing too much attention the specific excavation. While looters have recently been investigating the area, there is also evidence of local ritual, possibly witchcraft, taking place there as well. On a makeshift stone altar, my team observed a burnt candle with lace. It has been suggested by a team member that this sort of ritual could be one meant to steal someone’s air. When I was working in caves back in 2011, I learned a lot about air in relation to caves, but the same basic ideas apply. Some caves tend to breathe, that is some caves have air currents that run in and out of them making it seem as if the cave mouth is breathing in and breathing out at different parts of the day.

For Mesoamerican cultures, the earth is anthropomorphized and caves are part of its living body. Caves are its mouth. When the cave breathes out all is well and people may enter.  When the cave breathes in (in some areas this occurs at mid day and at mid night) a persons breathe, their air, can be taken away. This means the unfortunate individual is victim to the breath and it is believed that they could die. The candle and lace on the altar may be an offering to the wind, to take away someone’s air, possibly someone working in the area, in much the same way. This is not a good sign.

Another curious finding was a shoebox sized Tupperware container filled with water and a dead tarantula, left at the base of pyramid in the same area. The lid was discovered removed a few feet away with large holes in it. The type of holes you might find on a box to keep an animal inside though too big for the tiny tarantula. Who’s to say what it was for, but whatever was inside no longer is.

Before yesterday, excavations seemed perilous enough. I knew I would be entering a small cave like passage, I knew there would be a deep pit with jagged wood and rocks at the bottom. I also knew there was an active wasps nest and a giant snakeskin. I was beginning to feel secure with these issues but while we’re at it let’s throw in some giant boulders, booby-traps, Nazi’s, and golden idols.

All joking aside, this is shaping up to be the most exciting investigation I have been a part of and it pains me that I can’t share much more, at least for now. At three pm today (May 7, 2014, central time zone) we will consult with a few local workmen and begin the process of excavation. Soon after I will continue to write updates. Until then, there is plenty of work to do in camp. Bare with me for now, there is much more to come.


For now, this is TAL (This Anthropological Life) Field Correspondent Ryan Collins signing off.

NOTE: Don’t hesitate to comment or message me at [email protected] if you are curious or have questions about anthropology, archeology, early civilization, the Maya, and the Yucatan. I’d love to hear from you.