The Adventures of James Fitzsimmons

In the morning, howlers roared and fed in  the trees around camp. I watched them from  the comedor with binoculars while the men made fresh tortillas, beans, and eggs, with fiery chiltepin chiles picked from a wild bush. “It’s a crapshoot whether we’ll be able to move a thing,” James told me while we drank our coffee and flocks of green parrots chattered overhead. “But Ephraim is a genius at moving large, heavy objects.”

On the hour ride to Zapote Bobal, we passed delicate white orchids growing in drainage ditches that I remembered from past trips. Men roamed the roadsides with packs of small jungle dogs and shotguns, hunting for the succulent rodent called tepescuintle, a kind of Mesoamerican woodchuck. Fences partitioned the burned, ravaged land. Few cattle grazed anywhere—the ranchers were land rich but cattle poor. Scattered colonias sprouted around the exposed stones of unexcavated and uncatalogued temples and pyramids that littered the region.

Given how widespread even undocumented sites were, looting had functioned something like a collective piggy bank—as group insurance provided by the ancients. “Most people have a few pieces stashed in their bodegas,” James told me. “If things get bad, they always have something of value they can trade.” Some left pieces in place until they needed them. More industrious looters airlifted large, standing stelae with choppers, or smashed them into mounds with backhoes, some with almost archaeological precision (there were good amateurs among them).

“One thing you have to accept is the fact that the ranchers and villagers that you deal with every day are the looters. There’s no difference. The workers you hire are the looters. You just have to make your peace with it.”

We reached Vistahermosa, a few concrete and board houses with metal roofs (“which has neither a vista nor is hermosa [beautiful],” James said), and turned onto an even rougher clay track through a farm gate and into a wet and rutted field of squash, where we left the truck. A forested knob, Zapote Bobal, rose before us. The trail led past overgrown pyramids pocked with looters’ trenches. “These are all looted to hell,” James said of the pyramids. “Most have tombs with bodies in them. Structure 2 has a royal tomb.” Within a few minutes we stood on the main plaza of Zapote Bobal, which James had recently determined was the probable main capital of Hix Witz.

“You trip on the monuments. They’re scattered all over,” James said, making a sweeping gesture. Around us lay stelae, whole and in fragments, formerly standing in a rough semicircle around the plaza in front of the main pyramids. All bore inscriptions in Maya glyphs indicating dates, dynastic names, events that celebrated the rulers’ accession to the throne, their pedigrees, and various acts and victories. It was like a scene from a painting by the 19th-century artist of Maya ruins, Frederick Catherwood.

“Watch out for barbas,” James said, speaking of tropical America’s commonest and most deadly pit viper, the fer-de-lance, known in Petén as barba amarilla, or yellow beard. “I killed one right here.”

The name Hix Witz had been known from inscriptions for years, but no one knew which of the region’s many unnamed sites it belonged to. Ian Graham first mapped La Joyanca, El Pajaral, and Zapote Bobal in the seventies, before knowing they constituted a single polity. In 2003, James’s graduate adviser at Harvard, epigrapher David Stuart, suggested the three sites made up the single kingdom of Hix Witz, and he sent James, then a PhD candidate, to conduct the initial excavations.

James showed me where in 2005 he had reburied the monuments so nobody would know where they were. The men shoveled away the dirt around stela 1, 12-feet long and fully intact, covered with eroded glyphs and carvings. “Nobody has ever seen the other side of any of these,” he said. One of the rulers mentioned on the stela (all the rulers at Zapote were called by a variation of Chan Ahk, “Snake-Turtle”) bore all the earmarks of being the deposed Balaj Chan K’awil, of Dos Pilas, he said, a powerful city on the upper Río de la Pasión to the south, who James believed must have moved to this minor but strategically located kingdom to rehabilitate himself and build it into something more important. He pointed out a carving on stela 3, still mostly buried, that showed figures wearing the distinctive split capes and footwear of Dos Pilas.

We didn’t know it then, but while we were talking, the prospects for quick success had started to dim. Ephraim joined us and said it would take a week to raise and move each of the two most important pieces as far as the truck. The workers and James walked back down the hill to find the best route to drive the truck to the plaza, instead of the other way around. I stayed behind to take notes and listen to the monkeys and flycatchers.

A few minutes later, James followed them back up the hill. He stood on the plaza under the hardwood canopy and shook his head, gazing at the ground. The air pulsed with heat.

“It’s bad,” he said. The workers had decided the monuments were too fragile, the truck too small, and the ground too wet to move without breaking something. Given past scandals and political tensions, a bad break could get them fired.

A drawn-out palaver ensued, which I followed in my rusty Spanish. The guard began pointing out smaller fragments the crew could practice on, since they were there anyway. He led us to a partially buried altar on the other side of the plaza, smaller and more solid than the stelas, with carvings of a calendar around its perimeter. The men dug around it, and the guard suggested trying to find an alternate route for the truck. Various scenarios and schedules were discussed, but the local IDAEH manager rejected every one. “He just doesn’t think it’s a good idea to do anything like this,” James said.

It had taken James two years, numerous bureaucratic delays, and the evaporation of multiple funding sources to get here. He had arrived three weeks ago with just enough time and money to attempt something that hadn’t been done in years. Now, the head of the local office was rejecting a plan approved in Guatemala City.

Luckily he had Ephraim on his side, the oldest, most experienced and authoritative of the bunch. “If the altar is the easiest to move, with the most beautiful carvings of all the monuments, then it follows that it’s the most in danger of being looted,” James argued. Ergo, they should try this year to see if they could do it. If successful, it would establish the method and the confidence for when the ground dried out in March. Then they could come back and try again for the larger pieces.

They followed the guard’s suggested route to the truck, cutting through the underbrush with machetes. It wasn’t far, and the men agreed they could cut a road in a day with chainsaws. All that remained was to rent space for a crew in Vistahermosa and come back with chainsaws and a bigger truck. Ephraim needed to find a supply of strong but limber chicozapote timbers to craft his scaffold. The manager seemed willing to go along.

At the truck we leaned against the bed, guzzling water. “I can’t believe I pulled that out,” James said. “I was in a dark place back there.”

He wouldn’t be getting the stelas, but he could perfect the technique and get permission to return.

Around us, Northwest Petén sprawled in 180 degrees of devastated splendor. Except in patches, the only forest you could see was on the far slopes of the Sierra del Lacandón, a few dozen miles to the west. The view may have looked about the same for more than a century, around when Hix Witz had its brief moment: a loose kingdom of small polities separated by widespread but populous suburbs, ceremonial centers, and very little forest cover or game. Four hundred structures had been identified within a couple of kilometers of Zapote Bobal alone. It was a different model than the better-known centralized kingdoms, possibly less militaristic and autocratic.

But it didn’t last. Widespread drought came in the eighth century. The consequent pressures of population and food resources brought the loss of royal authority and civilization-ending war. Recent core samples from the Caribbean have shown a widespread low-rainfall period over the whole region; so it wasn’t necessarily the Mayas’ forest clearing that did them in. In fact one Mayanist believes the Classic people maintained “forest gardens” that they harvested for food, fiber, medicine, and materials. Given the current economic and political trends, however, deforestation augured badly for the region’s immediate future.

We spent a week in Flores, a small island city for tourists and archaeologists on Lake Petén Itzá, hoping Ephraim could get the permits and come back right away with chainsaws and heavy tackle. That way I might be able to join the excavation before I had to leave. We spent most of our time out of the heat, watching the World Cup and meeting in the evenings for dinner. By the end of the week, James, who had published his first paper as an undergraduate at Tulane, had produced a new paper on royal succession at Zapote Bobal. Ephraim would take a few days more to get back. I flew home.

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  1. […] Magazine has recently published a fine story on James Fitzsimmons of Middlebury College and his on-going important rescate work at the ruins of Zapote Bobal, […]

  2. This story is good news for Mesoamerican archaeology. James Fitzimmons is obviously a man with a plan for rescate that pleases the locals (with providing casts) and preserves hieroglyphic texts that are critical for understanding the Maya and their situation in this less-studied region of the Peten. Hixwitz/Zapote Bobal must have had an interesting and complicated history surrounded by powerful warring kingships. I have a small part in that I’m working on iconography and texts on ceramics from that area from museum and private collections that are coming to light gradually as that region was so badly looted in the past.
    This brings me to a question related to Hixwitz. A colleague told me that last year in

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    Madrid at the European Maya conference there was a report that the name Hixwitz was actually Hixhitz, but he had to miss the talk and didn’t know if it was convincing and whether we should be spelling this favorite site differently.
    At any rate, I enjoyed the article which was so well written that I felt I was there.

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