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Ordeal in Chiapas: Archaeologists Survive Attack During Attempt to Rescue Maya Altar from Looters

John W. Hoopes

When University of Calgary archaeologist Peter Mathews's life seemed to imitate fiction this June, comparisons with Indiana Jones made the story too good for the media to ignore. Unfortunately, a preoccupation with hype and sensation missed most of the real story--a valiant attempt to rescue an irreplaceable monument from looters by archaeologists who were then robbed, beaten, and left to wander for days in a Central American rain forest, while friends and colleagues sought help on the information superhighway.

Mathews, an epigrapher of international reputation and MacArthur awardee, had been excavating at El Cayo, an ancient Maya site on the lower Usumacinta River altar (bordering Mexico and Guatemala) since 1992. The site is located between the Maya cities of Yaxchilán and Piedras Negras in one of the more remote corners of the Maya Lowlands, an area accessible only by boat or aircraft. Although the site extends on both sides of the river, Mathews's work had concentrated on the portion in Chiapas, Mexico. Mathews's 1993 excavations revealed Altar 4, a beautifully preserved monument inscribed with fine hieroglyphic texts and relief sculpture. The text on Altar 4 indicates that the monument was carved to commemorate a 20-year katun ending (, celebrated in the year 631 by the 67-year-old Ah Chak Wayib ("The Great Dreamer"), a sahal, or underlord of the king of Piedras Negras.

Both the carving and the inscription were beautifully executed and wonderfully preserved. While this made the monument valuable for scholarship, it also made it a target for looting. The plundering of archaeological sites in the Maya Lowlands is extremely bad, especially in inaccessible regions of Chiapas and the Petén. Looters regularly tunnel through pyramids in search of royal tombs. They have used chainsaws to strip whole stelae of their carved surfaces, making them easier to transport and sell in fragments. Classic Maya art commands top dollar from private collectors and museums. An altar similar to the one from El Cayo recently sold for $1 million. Although a few local people respect these objects as part of their indigenous heritage, many of the current residents feel no cultural connection to the Maya ruins; they simply consider them assets that can be mined and sold for personal benefit when times get tough. For its protection, Mathews had reburied the 600-kg monument under a layer of fine silt, plastic sheeting, and two or three tons of stones. It didn't work.

Mathews and his codirector Mario Aliphat, a Mexican archaeologist with a PhD from the University of Calgary, cancelled this year's season at El Cayo in mid-June because it was clear that general lawlessness--much of it originating from the community of Nuevo Progreso--had made the region too hazardous for a prolonged visit. Most tour companies had cancelled trips to the lower Usumacinta as a result of several years of unchecked robberies and harassment of tourists by local bandits. With looting on the rise, the Insitituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH) became concerned about the safety of Altar 4. These concerns were heightened when villagers from El Desempeño, the community nearest El Cayo, reported an attempt to loot the monument to the community council of the Lacandón Region, who in turn reported it to INAH.

On hearing of the attempts to steal Altar 4, INAH requested that Mathews and Aliphat remove it from El Cayo and transport it to Frontera Corozal, Chiapas, a large town about 40 km upriver, where it could be protected and enjoyed by the community and its visitors. Villagers from El Desempeño and representatives of the Frontera Corozal community had already been consulted about these plans and had agreed to them. Mathews organized a group to reexcavate the monument, remove it, and prepare it for a helicopter airlift out of the site. The group consisted of 11 individuals: Mathews and Aliphat; Armando Anaya, a Mexican doctoral candidate studying at the University of Calgary; Nazario Magaña, an INAH archaeologist; Martín Arcos and another Chol Maya, both leaders from the Comunidad Lacandona in Frontera Corozal; and five additional Chol laborers from the same community.

On the morning of June 24 (Tuesday), they drove to Nuevo Jerusalén, where they left their vehicle and departed for El Cayo by boat the following day. Upon arrival at the site on June 25, they were welcomed by people from the adjacent community of El Desempeño.

In beginning to reexcavate the monument on the morning of June 26, the group discovered it had been partly excavated and damaged by pick marks in a looting attempt. While they worked, a group of about 30 people from the nearby village of Lázaro Cárdenas appeared, demanding to know what was going on. They claimed that the land was theirs and that they would not allow anything to be taken from it. Mathews and his assistants gave the men copies of the official permits, and all but three, who remained to "guard" the archaeologists, departed. However, the hostile interchange alerted the archaeologists that they might have to modify their plan. The afternoon was spent uncovering and cleaning the monument, but they decided to leave on June 27 (Friday) and arranged for a boat to take them back to Arroyo Jerusalén the following afternoon, from where they would drive back to Frontera Corozal.

When the group arrived at the El Cayo plaza early Friday morning, they were confronted by 60 to 70 angry men from several communities around El Desempeño, demanding that they cease work immediately. The large group was not placated by the explanation that the monument was only being moved 40 km upstream for safekeeping in Frontera Corozal. They rejected the authority of the Comisario de Bienes Ejidales and INAH, claiming autonomous rule and insisting that Altar 4 remain at El Cayo. Negotiation with the group failed utterly in the absence of any structured authority. One of the team's Chol workers from El Desempeño was tied up, reportedly for acting defiantly against the intruders, as was a senior community leader from El Desempeño for attempting to mediate the dialogue with the archaeologists. Both men were tied to trees in the plaza for most of the day, and it became clear that the assailants would not allow the archaeologists to leave without escalating their harassment.

In a theater of aggressive ridicule, threats, and bluffs, certain individuals demonstrated their willingness to outdo the archaeologists in protecting the monument. They informed Mathews and his crew that Altar 4 would not only be reburied, but that it would have to be covered with a cap of cement. They forced Mathews to order 10 bags of cement and several loads of sand, which were delivered later that evening. The monument was reburied under a thick layer of stones. Meanwhile, the villagers confiscated all of the expedition's equipment and field notes.

When the cement was delivered, the archaeologists were informed that the local people who were taking over the project would need to be paid a sum of 15,000 pesos (calculated on the basis of a daily wage of 50 pesos/day for each of 100 people for three days). The fact that Mathews could not afford to pay that sum served as pretext for robbing the expedition of cash, $900 in unsigned travelers checks, cameras, field equipment, and personal effects, including the four archaeologists' boots. Accomplishing this, the assailants told the barefoot archaeologists and their associates to leave immediately. As they hurried toward the river the archaeologists heard gunshots. A smaller group with firearms detained them at the riverbank, ordering them to drop their few remaining possessions and line up at the river's edge.

Mathews was now convinced that they would all be killed. Instead, they were beaten badly with rifle butts and kicked. Mathews's glasses and nose were broken; Arcos suffered broken ribs and a ruptured spleen (which he survived, amazingly, despite his three-day escape); two of the Chol assistants were cut with machetes, one in his face. The assailants then left, threatening to kill the party if they didn't leave immediately. Unable to swim, six of the Chol escaped through the forest. The four archaeologists and Arcos decided to cross the Usumacinta and seek refuge in Guatemala. They found a canoe that was used by the remaining non-swimmers while the others swam, pushing the canoe across to the Guatemalan shore in the cover of darkness.

On Saturday morning, June 28, the archaeologists tried to reach the ruins of Piedras Negras, about 20 km downstream. Injured and barefoot, they hiked all day through thorns and thick forest and torrential rains. They were able to get water from vines, but had no food. According to Mathews, a main preoccupation was with the poisonous snakes that abound in the region. After a hard day of hiking, the group remained lost. They spent another night in the forest, but resolved to continue on toward Piedras Negras the following day.

Meanwhile, some of the Chol workers had made it back to Palenque, where Merle Greene Robertson, Robert Rands, Alfonso Morales, and others were conducting an archaeological project. The workers described the attack and the archaeologists' flight into the river. They had no idea whether Mathews or the others had survived. Naturally, everyone feared the worst.

Early June 29 (Sunday) Robertson called Mary Dell Lucas of Far Horizons, an Albuquerque travel company specializing in archaeological tours of the region. She called Mathews's wife in Calgary, who notified Steve Randall, dean of social sciences at the University of Calgary. Lucas also notified Khris Villela, a doctoral candidate at the University of Texas-Austin, and archaeologist Michael Coe. The Mexican president, Ernesto Zedillo, and the governor of Chiapas, whom he happened to be visiting at the time, were informed about the situation, as were officials from INAH, the Mexican ambassador to the U.S., and the Canadian and Australian embassies--since Mathews lives in Canada and is an Australian national.

In Guatemala, Mathews and his group had made little progress on foot. Injured, exhausted, and hungry, they hid near the river hoping to flag a passing boat to take them downriver to Piedras Negras. That same Sunday afternoon, Robertson hired a small plane to fly over the El Cayo area in search of the missing party. The archaeologists waved to a small plane as they rested by the river but were not seen. An hour later, they were picked up by a boat carrying supplies to Piedras Negras that dropped them off in the Guatemalan settlement of El Porvenir, where they spent the night. The Guatemalan boatmen changed their own plans and arranged to take the group back to Frontera Corozal the next day.

During the first part of the trip back upriver on Monday morning, June 30, Mathews and the others hid under tarps to avoid being seen by their attackers as they passed that section of Chiapas. Their fellow passengers from Guatemala reported hearing that Altar 4 had been disinterred and moved by boat upriver to Nuevo Progreso, a settlement with a reputation for looting and banditry.

When there was still no word of the party on Monday, Villela, Coe, and Lucas decided to notify the media to spur the Mexican government to action. The official response to the emergency had been slow and ineffective; it was hoped that worldwide attention would hasten the party's rescue. Through friends and contacts, using both telephone and email, the Canadian press, CNN, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Associated Press (AP), and other major news organizations were alerted. The Internet played a significant role in spreading the word quickly, heightening the drama throughout the online community. Shortly after noon on Monday, a message signed by Lucas, Randall, and Villela was sent to friends and colleagues. Sam Edgerton, at Williams College, forwarded it almost immediately to AZTLAN, a listserver for Precolumbian studies with hundreds of subscribers worldwide. This message reported the arrival of the six Chol workers in Palenque, the bad weather, the apparent reluctance of the military to go into El Cayo or Nuevo Progreso, and the frustration that, although many people had been informed, little had been accomplished in terms of an active rescue attempt. Later that day, this message was forwarded to ARCH-L, a listserver for archaeology with over a thousand subscribers.

The boat from El Progreso carrying the missing group finally arrived at Frontera Corozal about 3:30 p.m. Monday afternoon. After an hour-long wait for a military escort, the four were taken to Palenque late that evening. CNN and AP broke the news of the missing archaeologists Monday and later reported their return to safety. News went out on the AZTLAN listserver shortly afterward, and many of the media web sites were updated by midnight. However, many local papers did not catch the evening update, and stories reporting the archaeologists as missing were circulated nationwide Tuesday. Many of these also hinted the archaeologists had been attacked for trying to remove a sacred shrine.

An interview with Mathews was aired on National Public Radio Tuesday evening and shortly afterward made available from the NPR web site <>. Over the following week, the AZTLAN listserver was buzzing messages about the incident and its implications. Much of the discussion centered on whether it was right for the archaeologists to remove a monument without the local community's permission. In response to speculation in the worldwide press and on the Internet, Mathews and his associates issued written statements on Thursday, July 3, that explained the purpose of their expedition and clarified that permission to move the monument from El Cayo to Frontera Corozal had indeed been obtained from INAH, the community council of the Lacandón region, and even members of the community of El Desempeño.

Although people who read the story in the mass media were left with the impression that the archaeologists had been attempting to remove the monument against the wishes of the indigenous community, this was proven false. On Sunday, June 29, after hearing of the attack on the expedition, the Comunidad Lacandona unanimously voted to abstain from the July 6 elections for regional representatives. This organization represents about 17,000 inhabitants of the region, both indigenous and otherwise. An official statement released by the Comunidad states that it is better to have no representatives than ones who are ineffective and remarks:

Presently we have a conflict with some invading communities which are composed mainly of criminals. These were the aggressors to our archaeologist partners and representatives of the Comunidad Lancandona. These criminals disguised as campesinos have been responsible for robberies of foreign tourists, of local people, and even of robbing money from the Zona Arqueológica of Yaxchilan, Chiapas. These criminals are also involved in trafficking of drugs, contraband firearms, and looting of archaeological monuments, which are sold to acquire more arms. This is the reason the state and federal authorities have not wanted to establish a security post to guarantee the safety of the border region, which is their obligation.

Translated from the Spanish by the author. Received via email message from Khris Villela <>, July 7, 1997, "The Comunidad Lacandona Response."

It should be clear that, far from being an Indiana Jones-style attempt to steal a sacred altar for science, Peter Mathews's expedition was in fact a highly risky but heroic effort to rescue an ancient work of art from looting and/or destruction. The individuals who prevented this from happening were not indigenous people struggling to hold on to their heritage, or even Zapatista rebels, but thugs and bandits who are considered a scourge of the region by most of its inhabitants.

Mexico derives a substantial economic benefit from its rich archaeological heritage, whose value is greatly enhanced by the archaeologists who help explain its meaning. We are fortunate that all the members of Mathews's expedition survived and have been reunited with their families. However, SAA and its membership should do whatever is possible to assist the Mexican government--in cooperation with local communities--in protecting this heritage and creating a safe environment for ongoing field research and archaeology-related tourism throughout the country. Much of this will only be accomplished by directly confronting the social and economic circumstances that foster rural crime and rejection of governmental authority, but it must be accompanied by educating the public at home and abroad about the goals and motivations of archaeologists. No one should believe we are actually in the business of stealing sacred relics.

W. Hoopes is associate professor at the Department of Anthropology at the University of Kansas.

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