Monday, November 3, 2008

The Mysterious Maya

Back in the Eighties when we lived for a while in Belize, rumors abounded of a brisk illegal trade in Mayan artifacts. The locals were tight-lipped about it for the most part, but one did hear stories of certain government honchos (long since departed) who, among others, were a conduit for this profitable business.

On one of our rare weekend excursions to the hinterland we ran into a couple of guys who worked for our company emerging from an even more remote area. They raced past us in a battered, mud-splattered Land Rover. In the back they had shovels and digging tools.

I'd been an afficionado of Mayan archaeology since discovering a copy of American explorer John Lloyd Stephen's Incidents of Travel in Yucatan while visiting friends in Mexico a few years before. I knew that grave-robbing and trading in artifacts were destroying any chance of learning the history of the vanished Mayan civilization. Sooner or later science would find a way to decipher the hieroglyphic writing on their ancient monuments. (And indeed, in the ensuing period, intelligent and incredibly patient archaeologists, after a lifetime of work, have cracked the Mayan code.) But the archaeological value of a hieroglyphic carving or a piece of art is much greater when it is discovered in situ, rather than by itself in a private collection far removed from its original place of origin.

Our chance meeting with the local guys led to a few discreet inquiries later in the week, and human nature being what it is, one night not long thereafter they showed up at the house to show off their loot. They actually came a couple of times. The first time I remember that they had things that looked like they might have been authentic, including pieces of green stone they claimed were jade. They were covered in mud, as if they had been recently dug up.

The second time they came they brought statuettes that they also said were jade, but they weren't green--they were a lighter, softer stone, and looked suspiciously like the kind of things that you can buy today at any schlock shop along the "Mayan Riviera." These, too, were covered in mud, but also had small fibers on them, as if they'd been buried in someone's yard, and grass roots had grown around them. Yes, there were also rumors that a few clever people, including some enterprising archaeology students, had taken up the practice of manufacturing and selling some convincing but completely fake artifacts. All in the interest of financing their own legitimate studies, of course.

But one piece they showed us did catch my eye, the granite disc shown above. It was only with considerable persuasion that they consented to allow us to photograph it. It was about ten inches across. The reverse side was concave, like a shallow dish. There were no signs of modern tool-marks on the piece, and it was difficult for me to imagine any modern-day person taking the time to create something out of such hard stone, just to pass it off as a legitimate artifact. I mean, with the skill and work involved, wouldn't there be a way to use those skills and effort to earn an honest living?

Later I had a print made from the original photo, which was a slide. I sent the print to National Geographic, explaining how I'd come by it, and how I thought it might have historical significance. After all, it does seem to show two priest-kings having some kind of palaver, and the glyphs up the center look like they might be an important date in Mayan history. Maybe I'd done my small part in saving this valuable piece of the Mayan puzzle.

A few months later they sent the photo back, along with a snide letter saying: "It's obviously a fake. Even the glyphs are wrong (you idiot), they're backward."

OK, so the photoshop must have turned the slide around by mistake. You'd think that the people at National Geographic would have considered that possibility. Then, again, maybe granite discs like this are commonplace souvenir items. But I've never seen one like it. So I still wonder....

No comments: