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A Run for Their Lives Volume 50 Number 5, September/October 1997
by Anglea M.H. Schuster

[image] Peter Mathews and his colleagues were beaten while attempting to save this altar, found at the Late Classic site of El Cayo in 1993. (Peter Mathews) [LARGER IMAGE]

After a harrowing ordeal in southern Chiapas, Mexico, archaeologist Peter Mathews, 46, is safe and sound at his home in Alberta, Canada. Mathews, a professor at the University of Calgary, and ten Mexican colleagues were attacked and held by villagers living near the Late Classic (ca. A.D. 600-900) Maya site of El Cayo, whose ruins are located on both sides of the Usumacinta River some 80 miles southeast of Palenque. Initial newspaper accounts feared the party dead after the archaeologists disappeared on June 25, one quoting Yale University's Michael Coe as saying, "It is one of the worst disasters that has ever happened in New World archaeology."

According to Mathews, trouble began on June 24 when he, archaeologist Mario Aliphat, University of Calgary graduate student Armando Anaya, Nazario Magaña of the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH), and seven Mexican laborers traveled to El Cayo to make arrangements to transport a half-ton Maya altar to the town of Frontera Corozal to keep it from being stolen from the unguarded archaeological site. Four feet in diameter, the altar is inscribed with a Maya long-count date of, or August 18, A.D. 731, and the accompanying text tells of the reign and parentage of one of the site's rulers.

"When we were in El Cayo in mid-June to plan our upcoming field season, we were told that monuments at the site, particularly an altar we had found in 1993, were at risk of being stolen," says Mathews. "As it turned out, logistical problems precluded our scheduled work at the site, but there was still time to move the altar to safety if the Chol Maya elders and INAH agreed." With the appropriate documents in hand, Mathews and the others, along with several Chol officials from Frontera Corozal, returned to the site on Thursday, June 26, to reexcavate the altar, which they had buried protectively with fine dirt and a cairn of stones the previous season, and crate it for removal by helicopter.

"When we arrived at the site," says Mathews, "some of the protective covering had been removed, and there were three-foot-long pickax gouges in the altar. We felt that we got to the site just in time." The following morning more than 60 angry villagers arrived at the site and demanded that Mathews and his team stop what they were doing, telling them that the altar was to go nowhere. By midday, says Mathews, the situation had deteriorated. "We told them that we would leave the altar right where it was but that it should be reburied to protect it. By this time, however, the group had broken down into different factions with no one in charge. There was just a lot of confusion. We were held in the main plaza of the ruins a few feet from the altar. By nightfall, several guys armed with rifles had arrived and begun dividing up our things. They took our money and anything of value. By this time the altar had ceased to be part of the discussion. We were told to remove our boots and get lost; our Chol field crew got to keep their boots. At that point we fled to the beach. Soon shots rang out, however, and we were told to stop in our tracks, leave our knapsacks in a pile, and line up on the bank of the river. We believed at the time that we would be shot and our bodies left to float downstream. As it turned out, they preferred to beat us up, hitting us with the butts of their rifles and kicking us. They got me in the eye with a rifle and broke my nose. After the beatings, six of our field workers managed to flee on foot along the river. Five of us--four archaeologists and Martín Arcos, one of the authorities from Frontera Corozal--realized that we had to cross the river to Guatemala if we were to make it out alive. Two of our party, Martín and Mario, couldn't swim. We spent some time trying to figure out how to make some a flotation device out of a plastic poncho we had. Martín, who had suffered the worst--as we would later find out, he had three broken ribs and a ruptured spleen--walked downstream a little and tripped over a small canoe at the water's edge. It was just big enough for him and Mario. Three of us swam across the river with the canoe. Being without boots, we were really worried about snakes and we were also very cold. The rains had started, so we could not dry out after we swam across the river. We shivered through the night, but we did not want to light a fire and give away our location. We decided to try to make Piedras Negras, where Stephen Houston [of Brigham Young University] was working; they would have clothes and food and perhaps be in radio contact with the outside world. To hike there would be difficult. We hiked Saturday and most of Sunday. Luckily, late Sunday afternoon a motor launch supplying the Piedras Negras camp gave us a lift to the site, where we spent the night. The next morning (Monday), the boatman gave us a lift to Frontera Corozal, where we were met by Mexican government officials, who drove us to Palenque. That night Martín was operated on at a clinic in town." According to Mathews, the fate of the altar is uncertain. "We left it buried at the site, but given that someone had tried to remove it before, who knows if it is still there?"

This is not the first time archaeologists have experienced difficulty in the region. According to James D. Nations, an environmentalist with Washington-based Conservation International, he and NASA archaeologist Tom Sever were briefly detained by Guatemalan guerrilla forces in February 1990 not far from where Mathews and his team were captured. "When we were taken, the guerrilla leaders were worried that we were government agents," says Nations. "We were freed after they verified our tourist status. Our only losses were two compasses and a couple of maps of the area."

Most archaeologists agree that what Mathews encountered was highly unusual. Moreover, according to Mathews, there seemed to be little if any political motivation for the attack.

Anglea M.H. Schuster is an associate editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.

© 1997 by the Archaeological Institute of America