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.

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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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