The 4×4 double cab rolled west through the lowlands of northwest Petén, Guatemala, hard by the Mexican border, carrying four workers for the Guatemalan Institute of Anthropology and History (IDAEH), Middlebury Assistant Professor James Fitzsimmons, and me. It was summer solstice, and hot. Cattle grazed on poor clay soils under a clear, blue sky, and open views extended to the horizon where a generation ago high canopy rain forest had sheltered jaguar, tapir, armed guerrillas, and Maya ruins. The ruins were still there, but the land now belonged to ranchers, immigrant coyotes, and narco-traffickers, and an ever-growing population of full- and part-time looters, who dug unauthorized trenches in the omnipresent ancient sites and sold what artifacts they found on the open antiquities market.
We were on our way to a Maya site called Zapote Bobal to see if James—Professor Fitzsimmons—and the workers could begin the process of moving important late-Classical monuments (ca. 600–800) to the museum at Tikal, a major Maya site three hours back the way we had come, for safe-keeping and further study. He had been trying to get them there since he discovered them on a dig with Middlebury students in 2005 and had reburied them so they wouldn’t get looted before he made it back. They bore remarkable inscriptions and carvings from Hix Witz, “Jaguar Hill,” an eccentric and short-lived kingdom, which may have helped explain the dynastic alliances and political shifts in the critical seventh-century Maya world.
He’d gotten this far, but there were always obstacles. Approvals took forever. Nobody had tried to move monuments of this size in years—at least not without breaking them. “Not since Morley!” James said, naming Sylvanus Morley, the explorer and Mayanist of the late 19th century, who was among the most adept at transporting large monuments to museums—a kind of sanctioned looting, in many eyes.
And questions often arose about who owned the “patrimony,” the fund of both known and as yet undiscovered wealth from the precolonial civilizations that occupied the region, often leading to violence. Fifteen years ago, when the Mexican equivalent of IDAEH had tried to move a monument from a remote village a few miles away, across the Usumacinta River, armed campesinos kidnapped the workers and archaeologists, beat and stripped them naked, and shot at them when they escaped and swam across the swollen river to safety.
We turned off the paved road a few miles shy of the smugglers’ village of El Naranjo, “a very sketchy place,” in James’s words. The truck lurched over the rutted dirt road for more than an hour, through colonias that had sprouted from nothing in recent years; burned and scarred fields; milpas of maize, chiles, and melons; and the spindly cecropia trees of early forest succession. An oil pipeline paralleled the road, running down from El Tigre National Park, and there were enough cell towers scattered about to give all the looters, narcos, snakes, and parrots for miles around four bars of phone reception. Finally the truck climbed a forested limestone mesa to the site of La Joyanca, one of three, along with our final destination, Zapote Bobal, and El Pajaral, nearby, that might have served as multiple and shifting capitals of the anomalous and minor kingdom of Hix Witz (pronounced heesh-weetz).
Open sight lines in all directions had made it easy to defend. On one of the kingdom’s plazas, IDAEH had erected a few rough cabins and an open-air comedor. After we pitched our tents in one of the cabañas, James suggested a walk. We followed a narrow trail into the high forest. Howler monkeys roared in the distance, then the trail opened onto a compact plaza with the familiar outcroppings of cut stone and grassy, partially cleared pyramids and palaces.
After the hot and jarring ride, the plaza held the indefinable stillness and mystery you come to associate with even the remotest minor sites, a combination of silence, teeming nature, and the presence of the towering past. While we looked at the partial restoration of one temple—the clean, rebuilt walls and lintels emerging out of the softer and more crumbled stones, moss, and vegetation—an old Ixil Maya man, a worker in the ruin, approached us wearing black rubber boots, with a machete and net bag over his shoulder. We traded news of the country and told him of James’s plan. The man had followed one of the recent migrations to lowland Petén from the southern highlands during the 40-year insurgency that ended in 1996, and he shared James’s commitment to seeing the stones of Hix Witz protected and remaining in public hands.
James, like his mentors, Ian Graham (one of the great epigraphers and explorers of modern Maya studies) and MacArthur Fellow David Stuart, was trained as an epigrapher, or a specialist in Maya inscriptions. To be copied, read, and deciphered, inscriptions had to be readable and safe. The monuments he wanted to move lay half buried, fragile and immobile, and he had brought Ephraim Peralta, the most experienced person at moving monuments in Guatemala, to do the job.
In the sixties, Ian Graham had begun a similar program to relocate the most vulnerable pieces from remote sites to the Guatemala City museum, a good effort that nevertheless damaged a lot of monuments. Subsequent attempts also failed. Relocation became frowned upon, for reasons of maintaining site integrity as well as politics. Nevertheless, James told me, “You work on a place because you love it and don’t want it to be screwed up.” If the Zapote Bobal monuments remained where they were, he said, “they will be looted.”
Ephraim would make casts after the monuments reached Tikal. The reproductions would go back to the site and be erected where they had stood. With luck and funding, James hoped, one or more might make their way to Middlebury’s Museum of Art.
At 36, James, who teaches in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, had just published his first book, Death and the Classic Maya Kings, an “indispensable compendium of all the current knowledge of Maya concepts of death,” according to Stephen Houston, another MacArthur Fellow. In the nineties, James had worked for Houston at Piedras Negras, the sprawling and important Maya site on the Usumacinta River. It was “an arduous project,” Houston said, that could only be reached by boat, speeding past bandits and through vicious class-three rapids. More than once the crews went without food for days. “You could always send James out to survey a site and depend on him to produce a perfect report, with drawings and maps,” Houston said. A few miles away, at the jungle site of Tecolote, James had suffered even more with archaeologist Charles Golden to place this remote and minor site in a historical and geographical context.
“His cheery personality doesn’t hint at the underlying toughness of an archaeologist who thrives in the environmental and logistical difficulties of the unbroken jungle and the even more perilous world of rural community politics,” Brandeis University’s Golden said. “James is among the few Maya epigraphers who has engaged in and directed archaeological field projects, wrestling with the challenges of integrating two very different kinds of data to paint a more complete picture of the Classic period.
“He is putting in the effort to make a real difference in protecting these precious links to the past,” Golden continued, “links that give voice to a great ancient culture and which contribute to modern Guatemalan culture.”