"Of dead kingdoms I recall the soul, sitting amid their ruins." ~Nathaniel Parker Willis
I spent a few weeks last summer as a volunteer with the Maya Research Program, excavating at the ancient city of Xnoha in northwest Belize. This was the first time I had done archaeology abroad, and was also the first time I had ever been in the jungle. Our campsite was an old cinderblock building that had, I was told, once belonged to a drug lord before his murder (and yes, that murder did occur in the building). Beyond this central structure the camp had expanded to accomodate more and more archaeologists, eventually becoming the equivalent of a small village, one that created a summer customer boom for the small Mennonite settlement that lay across the dirt road from camp.
From camp, a short, bumpy drive in a half dozen barely functioning pickups brought us from the edge of the jungle into its dense interior.
I was placed on a crew of five excavating a residential structure. We worked with pickaxes and shovels, hacking through masonry and plaster floors. This was archaeology of the most tragic kind. The Maya often built on top of the foundations of older structures, and to reveal the layers of construction we had to peel back (smash) each one in turn.
I expected work in the jungle to be hard, but I definitely didn't think I'd have to put down the pickaxe every few minutes from exhaustion, or that the buff I was wearing would be so soaked with sweat it would make a squelching sound as it shifted on my neck. I also didn't expect the howler monkeys to be territorial, or that they would vent their anger at our intrusion by pooping all over our dig site each night after we left.
The density of unexcavated archaeology in Belize is astounding. In the landscape photo above, there are multiple structures, which you may be able to spot as unnatural bumps sitting atop what should be flat hilltops. There are whole cities still being discovered, and most of the ones that we know of remain untouched by archaeologists (though not by looters).
Excavation proceeded slowly at Xnoha, and fell into a predictable routine. Awake by 5:30, breakfast at 6:00, in the pickups by 7:30 and at the site by 8:00. We'd work from 8:00-12:00, break for lunch, and than work until evening. The howler monkeys created a continuous cacophany in the distance, and between bursts of digging, my crew amused ourselves by playing baseball with rocks and sticks.
As we reached the lowest layer of construction, we found a vertebral column. It was buried upright in a cavity dug into the bedrock, and our initial thought was that it must be human. However, a lab analysis soon revealed it to be a jaguar, which put the whole crew into a tizzy. I may not be able to articulate it as well as my PhD overseers, but I was told that it was not uncommon to find Jaguars interred under the floors of elite residential compounds, and that finding one here was suggestive of the rank and influence of the home owners.
In addition to this find, the volume and variety of artifacts that came out of every layer amazed me. The Maya used pottery fragments and old stone tools and flakes as loose fill, alongside rocks, to undergird the plaster floors of their constructions. Between each floor, we pulled out buckets of pottery, lithics, and limestone blocks.
The photo below is a view of me exploring a looter's trench, cutting about 20ft. into a Maya temple. They aimed for the center and the base, hoping to find a burial and the most valuable artifacts. Our own excavation focused on the pyramid steps of the temple, which had been built up in layers, with each set of steps layed over older ones.
Occasionally I was moved from structure 34, the elite residential structure, to others as crews needed extra hands. One day was spent cleaning and photographing stages of excavation of a pyramid (which, in Maya terms always means a temple). Another was spent helping a crew backfill a fully excacated structure. That day was basically eight hours of hauling 40 lb. buckets of rock.
Back at structure 34, the discovery of a large, hollow space beneath the lowest level of construction raised great excitement, though discussion of its contents must wait until its excavation in the next field season.
We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night telling itself stories."
Humans are 90 percent chimp and 10 percent bee."
The very ritual practices that the New Atheists dismiss as costly, inefficient and irrational turn out to be a solution to one of the hardest problems humans face: cooperation without kinship”
The most powerful force ever known on this planet is human cooperation — a force for construction and destruction.”
The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor."
Sports is to war as pornography is to sex."
Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary."
Civilization is the interval between Ice Ages."
Most of us spend too much time on the last twenty-four hours and too little on the last six thousand years."
Philip Larkin famously proposed that what will survive of us is love. Wrong. What will survive of us is plastic, swine bones and lead-207, the stable isotope at the end of the uranium-235 decay chain."
We are part mineral beings too – our teeth are reefs, our bones are stones – and there is a geology of the body as well as of the land."
However many nations live in the world today, however many countless people, they all had but one dawn." ~Anonymous, Popul Vuh
Every step you take has already been taken. Every story has already been told. The land is not newly discovered, so old with legends you might mistake them for rocks." ~Craig Childs
The present contains nothing more than the past, and what is found in the effect was already in the cause." ~Henri Bergson
Archaeologists may not always see the trees, but we capture the forest with great clarity" ~Robert Kelly
The past is never dead; it's not even past." ~William Faulkner
No civilization has survived forever. All move toward dissolution, one after the other, like waves of the sea falling upon the shore. None, including ours, is exempt from the universal fate.” ~Douglas Preston
If you go into a museum and look at antiquities collected there, you can be sure that the vast bulk of them were found not in buildings but in graves." ~Leonard Woolley
Ice breathes. Rock has tides. Mountains ebb and flow. Stone pulses. We live on a restless earth.” ~Robert Macfarlane
We always stand on the shoulders of our ancestors, whether or not we look down to acknowledge them." ~David Anthony
That which always was, and is, and will be everliving fire, the same for all, the cosmos, made neither by god nor man, replenishes in measure as it burns away." ~Heraclitus
Shamanism is not simply a component of society: on the contrary, shamanism, together with its tiered cosmos, can be said to be the overall framework of society." ~David Lewis-Williams
Opened are the double doors of the horizon. Unlocked are its bolts." ~Utterance 220 of the Pyramid of Unas
If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten." ~Rudyard Kipling
The mountains are fountains of men as well as of rivers, of glaciers, of fertile soil. The great poets, philosophers, prophets, able men whose thoughts and deeds have moved the world, have come down from the mountains." ~John Muir
The ecological thinker is haunted by the consequences of time." ~Garrett Hardin
Through the experience of time, Dasein becomes a ‘being towards death’: without death existence would be care-less, would lack the power that draws us to one another and to the world." ~Iain McGillchrist
The dead outnumber the living fourteen to one, and we ignore the accumulated experience of such a huge majority of mankind at our peril." ~Niall Ferguson
Tell me what you eat and I'll tell you what you are." ~Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin
We live in a zoologically impoverished world, from which all the hugest and fiercest, and strangest forms have recently disappeared." ~Alfred Russel Wallace
Humans have dragged a body with a long hominid history into an overfed, malnourished, sedentary, sunlight-deficient, sleep-deprived, competitive, inequitable, and socially-isolating environment with dire consequences." ~Sebastian Junger
Except in geographical scale, tribal warfare could be and often was total war in every modern sense. Like states and empires, smaller societies can make a desolation and call it peace." ~Lawrence Keeley
The first people were aware of the signs and signals of the natural world. Their artifacts were projectiles, blades, and ivory sewing needles, either used on animal products, or made from them, or used to procure them. The world around them was a cycle of animals of all sizes, from voles and falcons to some of the largest mammals seen in human evolution." ~Craig Childs
The number of herbivores sets a cap on the number of carnivores that can live in a region. Of course, adding an additional predator of fairly large body size, like a modern human, would produce repercussions that would ripple though all the other predators in the area and their prey." ~Pat Shipman
When viewed globally, near-time extinctions took place episodically, in a pattern not correlated with climatic change or any known factor other than the spread of our species." ~Paul S. Martin
However splendid our languages and cultures, however rich and subtle our minds, however vast our creative powers, the mental process is the product of a brain shaped by the hammer of natural selection upon the anvil of nature."
Behavior is imitated, then abstracted into play, formalized into drama and story, crystallized into myth and codified into religion- and only then criticized in philosophy, and provided, post-hoc, with rational underpinnings."
I have seen yesterday. I know tomorrow."
We are fire creatures from an ice age." ~Stephen Pyne
Men come and go, cities rise and fall, whole civilizations appear and disappear-the earth remains, slightly modified." ~Edward Abbey
Men and women, empires and cities, thrones, principalities, and powers, mountains, rivers, and unfathomed seas, worlds, spaces, and universes, all have their day, and all must go." ~H. Rider Haggard
One day the last portrait of Rembrandt and the last bar of Mozart will have ceased to be- though possibly a colored canvas and a sheet of notes will remain- because the last eye and the last ear accessible to their message will have gone." ~ Oswald Spengler
All that is human must retrograde if it does not advance."
In the long paleontological perspective, we humans must be considered invasive in any locale except Africa." ~Pat Shipman
Of the gladdest moments in human life, methinks, is the departure upon a distant journey into unknown lands. Shaking off with one mighty effort the fetters of Habit, the leaden weight of Routine, the cloak of many Cares and the slavery of Civilization, man feels once more happy." ~Richard Francis Burton
Sedentary culture is the goal of civilization. It means the end of its own lifespan and brings about its corruption." ~Ibn Khaldun
Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire." ~Gustav Mahler
As for man, his days are numbered. Whatever he might do, it is but wind." ~The Epic of Gilgamesh
There is a cave in the mind."
Full circle, from the tomb of the womb to the womb of the tomb, we come." ~Joseph Campbell
I feel again a spark of that ancient flame." ~ Virgil
Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun. I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it therefore not to be an experimental science in search of law, but an interpretive one in search of meaning." ~Clifford Geertz
In all chaos there is a cosmos, in all disorder a secret order." ~Carl Jung
Man fears time, but time fears the pyramids." ~Arab proverb
Few romances can ever surpass that of the granite citadel on top of the beetling precipices of Machu Picchu, the crown of Inca Land." ~Hiram Bingham
You don't have to be a fantastic hero to do certain things- to compete. You can just be an ordinary chap, sufficiently motivated to reach challenging goals." ~Edmund Hillary
Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going into the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity." ~John Muir
To speak of truth sounds too grand, too filled with the promise of certainty, and we are rightly suspicious of it. But truth will not go away that easily. The statement that ‘there is no such thing as truth’ is itself a truth statement, and implies that it is truer than its opposite, the statement that ‘truth exists’." ~Lain McGillchrist
The Sphinx will always have to be looked after."
Yes, the pyramids have been built, but if you give me 300,000 disciplined men and 30 years I could build a bigger one."
Civilizations exist by geological consent, subject to change without notice."
When at last we anchored in the harbor, off the white town hung between the blazing sky and its reflection in the mirage which swept and rolled over the wide lagoon, then the heat of Arabia came out like a drawn sword and struck us speechless"
The best prophet of the future is the past."
An archaeologist is the best husband a woman can get. The older she gets the more interested he is in her."
Archaeology is the peeping Tom of the sciences. It is the sandbox of men who care not where they are going; they merely want to know where everyone else has been."
What would be ugly in a garden constitutes beauty in a mountain."
I have never been able to grasp the meaning of time. I don't believe it exists. I've felt this again and again, when alone and out in nature. On such occasions, time does not exist."
Myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths. "~Joseph Campbell
In my experience, it is rarer to find a really happy person in a circle of millionaires than among vagabonds."
Always my soul hungered for less than it had"
History is filled with the sound of silken slippers going downstairs, and wooden shoes coming up."
Back home, I'm always focusing on something happening in the future. On expeditions, time stops, and you become like a stone age man, acting on instincts and knowing you are part of the universe."
Genes are rarely about inevitability, especially when it comes to humans, the brain, or behavior. They're about vulnerability, propensities, tendencies." ~Robert Sapolsky
The Land is not old. It only changes, becoming one thing and the next. We are the ones who ascribe age, the brevity of our lives demanding a beginning, middle, and end."
Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books."
The only thing that belongs to us is the time."
To abhor hunting is to hate the place from which you came, which is akin to hating yourself in some distant, abstract way." ~Steven Rinella