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Saturday, June 6, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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You Call This Archaeology? Hunt For Maya Artifact Ends In Harrowing Escape From Angry Natives

By Thomas H. Maugh Ii Los Angeles Times

It seemed like something straight out of Indiana Jones - complete with the daring, award-winning archaeologist and the happy ending.

Bootless and weaponless except for one small pocketknife, five archaeologists spent two rainy nights in the dense Guatemalan rain forest after escaping local Indians who had attacked them to protest removal of a Maya monument, the leader of the group said Tuesday.

Battered from their encounter with the protesters and sore-footed from their six-mile journey through the thorn-infested forest, the team ultimately was rescued by a passing boat delivering supplies to another archaeological site, Peter Mathews of the University of Calgary said Tuesday by phone from Palenque in Mexico’s southernmost province of Chiapas.

Mathews, whose nose was broken by a rifle butt during the attack, was attempting to move the Maya altar to a nearby museum to prevent it from being looted when he was accosted Friday by locals protesting his actions.

After a daylong confrontation with more than 100 villagers, what had started as a protest turned into the theft of the archaeologists’ money and equipment before the badly beaten team was allowed to escape into the night, Mathews said.

Six Cholo Indian workmen hired by the team were also beaten, but they were separated from the archaeologists and made their way back to the nearest village Saturday.

“This was not quite the result we expected when we went in there,” Mathews said.

Mathews, a MacArthur “genius” award winner who specializes in translating Maya glyphs or writing, has been working for four years at a city called El Cayo on the shores of the Usumacinte River, which forms the border between Mexico and Guatemala. The city dates from the Classic Maya period, between A.D. 600 and A.D. 900.

Two years ago, the team excavated a large stone altar, about 4 feet in diameter and weighing half a ton. The altar is considered to be very valuable because it is covered with writing that could yield much insight into the Maya culture.

At that time, the team reburied the altar under a layer of fine silt, a plastic covering and two to three tons of rocks to protect it.

Mathews recently received reports that looters had attempted to remove the altar. Even though he had canceled this season’s excavations at El Cayo because of unrest in the region and fighting between the small villages in the area, Mathews decided to go in and transport the stone to a museum in the nearby city of Frontera Corazol.

When the team reached El Cayo last Thursday, he said, they discovered that the altar had been uncovered and that there were pick marks on its surface from the attempts to dig it up.

Before they could begin digging the altar out and crating it on Friday, however, they were accosted by residents from a nearby village.

“The very first group that we saw claimed that this was their land, and that they didn’t want anything taken out,” Mathews said.

“They left and other, more bellicose groups came in. By the end of the day, the majority didn’t care much about the monument and the ruins, but about what we had and how much they could get out of us.”

The irate villagers, he said, took all their cash, equipment, cameras, clothes, watches and $900 in travelers’ checks - which Mathews didn’t sign. “I understand some people have been around town today trying to cash them,” Mathews chuckled.

By about 8 Friday evening, “They stripped us of our boots and told us to get out,” he said. “We fled as fast as we could in the dark to the beach on the river. We got to the beach and were starting to hide when there were shots. We were told to pile up all of our remaining gear on the beach and line up along the edge of the beach. We thought we were going to be shot.”

Instead, they were beaten with rifle butts to the face and body.

The villagers then picked up the gear and left. “We decided to hide in case they came back,” he said. The six workmen fled into the bushes on the Mexican side of the river. “We decided our best chance was to get across the river and hide out.”

They spent the next two days in the rain forest walking upriver toward Frontera Corazol.

They were finally rescued Sunday afternoon by a boat heading downriver to take supplies to an archaeological expedition at Piedras Negras.

“I won’t be going back to El Cayo for a while,” Mathews said. “It’s far too tense to go in and do anything. We would have to have a very heavily armed escort, and the military won’t want to provoke the situation.”

The team was able to rebury the statue on Friday, he said, so it should be relatively safe for a while.

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Cut in the Spokane edition

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