I had the opportunity to visit a site in Belize that had been on my radar for most of the last two decades. On my radar, but chance had conspired to keep me away, until last week. I will write more about that visit soon, but for now I want to share a thought on the photo above, and the one below (since I neglected to snap photos while standing in exactly the same location as the photographer who took these two, my thanks to him for his website’s provision of these two images).
These are commonly referred to as looter’s trenches, on opposite sides of a Mayan burial site. They are relatively fresh. The family that owns the property on which these trenches were dug, by tomb raiders looking for valuables, decided that the best way to protect the patrimony of this site was to ensure that there were always people nearby to keep looters away. A lodge was built, and it became a pioneering success story in protecting both archeological and natural patrimony. In other words, what we call entrepreneurial conservation.
As I stood in the position where these two photos were taken, I recalled visits Amie and I took with Seth and Milo in the late 1990s to two of the best preserved Mayan sites, one in Guatemala and one in Honduras. Since then I have come to understand how many sites of archeological significance have been discovered by accident. Today, while collecting my thoughts on the Belize visit, I came across this article in the Atlantic:
A rock structure, built deep underground, is one of the earliest hominin constructions ever found.
By Ed Yong
In February 1990, thanks to a 15-year-old boy named Bruno Kowalsczewski, footsteps echoed through the chambers of Bruniquel Cave for the first time in tens of thousands of years.
The cave sits in France’s scenic Aveyron Valley, but its entrance had long been sealed by an ancient rockslide. Kowalsczewski’s father had detected faint wisps of air emerging from the scree, and the boy spent three years clearing away the rubble. He eventually dug out a tight, thirty-meter-long passage that the thinnest members of the local caving club could squeeze through. They found themselves in a large, roomy corridor. There were animal bones and signs of bear activity, but nothing recent. The floor was pockmarked with pools of water. The walls were punctuated by stalactites (the ones that hang down) and stalagmites (the ones that stick up).
Some 336 meters into the cave, the caver stumbled across something extraordinary—a vast chamber where several stalagmites had been deliberately broken. Most of the 400 pieces had been arranged into two rings—a large one between 4 and 7 metres across, and a smaller one just 2 metres wide. Others had been propped up against these donuts. Yet others had been stacked into four piles. Traces of fire were everywhere, and there was a mass of burnt bones…
I recommend reading it to the end. There is also good coverage of the same story over at National Public Radio (USA), as well as in the Guardian. What caught my attention was the role of geological accident, a rockslide, in covering up this important piece of human history for so long. Which in turn reminded me of the podcast I listened to, by weird random luck within 24 hours after the visit in Belize where I saw the looter’s trenches:
There seems to be a theme running through my days just now, since the Belize visit, and I am going to figure out what it is. It has something to do with nature’s role in covering up, and preserving, important human patrimony. And it has something to do with the idea that by uncovering the patrimony, there is much to gain. And that there is potential loss in the discovery.