The Adventures of James Fitzsimmons
The next time I saw James was in August, in the archaeology lab he had cobbled out of the old English department offices in the basement of Munroe. He was bent over a drafting table working on a drawing of stela 1, the shading of the glyphs and figures making them stand out bold and clear. It was beautiful.
Things were shaping up for a spring 2011 return, he said, and permits were in the works. Funding for a reproduction had gotten tentative approval from the art museum. Every possibility existed that Middlebury, like Harvard, Penn, Yale, and very few other universities, would soon have a Classic Maya stela for its collection.
He showed me boxes of stone points, animal bones, and other artifacts of the type that students might find on a dig in Mesoamerica, or in Vermont. He told me how he used light shows and burned copal incense in his classes to create a sense of a previous reality, and showed me the atlatls—ancient spear throwers, predating the bow and arrow—that students crafted from scratch, making the atlatl, the stone point and shaft for the dart, then shot at targets. He hoped in the near future to be able to establish an archaeology minor at the College.
We looked at pictures he had taken of the scaffold Ephraim built to raise and lower a fragment of stela 20, which he had found in 2004 with Midd students Ben Grimmnitz ’08 and Jackie Montagne ’09, into the waiting truck bed. (Ultimately they had chosen it over the altar.) It had been quite an undertaking in the heat, but in the end, they hoisted the fragment with a block and fall, wrapped it in foam mattresses, and loaded it in the truck for the long ride to Tikal.
At first all went well. They traveled in broad daylight, in a slow convoy with vehicles ahead and behind. Then a Petén Seguridad patrol found reason to stop them under suspicion of looting. James and the local IDAEH director produced official documents, to no avail. They were held for hours while faxes and calls flew back and forth to the capital. It wasn’t until late in the evening that they pulled into Tikal and unwrapped the stela fragment in the safety of the Sylvanus Morley museum.
There wasn’t a scratch on it.
Christopher Shaw, a visiting lecturer in English and American Literatures at Middlebury, is the author of Sacred Monkey River:
A Canoe Trip With the Gods.