There’s Something in the Air: The Story Behind My Photo in National Geographic Online

I had a true bucket list experience recently when I learned that my research would be featured in the January 29th, 2015 post of National Geographic Online, and that a photo of me would be included in the article.  The article is by Dan Vergano, and entitled “At Newly Discovered Water Temple, Maya Offered Sacrifices to End Drought.”  It describes the underwater archaeology work that Lisa Lucero and I have done at an ancient Maya site at the Cara Blanca Pools, Belize.  Specifically, it talks about last summer (2014), when Lisa and her students excavated Structure 1 at Pool 1 (the “Water Temple”), while the divers and I continued our underwater explorations.  Please check out the article here.

About half way through the article, there is a photo that is entitled “Scientists collect samples for carbon dating from trees at the bottom of a pool at Cara Blanca (copyright Tony Rath)”  Here is a copy:

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I am the diver on the left holding the saw, cutting into a submerged tree in order to remove a wedge of wood for Carbon 14 dating.  I remember this dive well, but my memory has very little to do with tree samples.  What the photo does not show is how tiring it is to saw ancient wood at 70 feet below the surface while trying to float in the same spot (what is called “neutral buoyancy” in diving).  It must be similar to working in space, where any push against the tree trunk with the saw would have an equal and opposite reaction in the form of me floating away from the trunk.  Look at my left hand in the photo – as you can see, I was forced to grip the trunk with my left hand and saw with the right, while still keeping my breathing under control and my buoyancy neutral.  The other diver and I took turns, one sawing while the other bagged the wood samples, for about 40 minutes.  When I would feel my breathing get too frenzied, I would have to force myself to keep it under control and slow my lungs, while at the same time sawing, holding onto the trunk, keeping neutral buoyancy, and attempting to not cut myself or my air hoses with the extremely sharp saw.  I also had to make sure not to drop the saw or the plastic baggies containing the samples.

While it was an operation that seemed to require three brains, I was being successful!  Methodically, myself and the other diver collected our samples, moved between the trees, and made no mistakes.  During the last few minutes of the dive, I noticed my breathing was really starting to get heavy.  I was in control, I had plenty of air in my tank, but I was getting very exhausted.  As we bagged the last sample, I made the familiar sign to go up (a raised thumb, hitchhiker style).  My buddy signed an “okay,” and would join me at the surface in a few minutes.

I began my ascent, and did the required three minute safety stop at 15 feet.  Everything went perfectly, but I was exhausted when I reached the surface and I felt very queasy and generally out of sorts.  I pulled the regulator out of mouth, floated on my back and looked at the jungle sky, breathing very heavily and forcing myself to focus on my situation at hand.  A 70 foot dive is not very deep, and I had done nothing wrong during the dive or as I surfaced.  While half of my brain worried about serious problems like the bends or an air embolism, and knew that the type of first aid required for those life-threatening situations was impossible to come by in the middle of the Belizean jungle, the rational half of my brain knew that these situations were highly unlikely.  As I floated around, I started to feel a bit better and I climbed out of the water.  As the other divers surfaced (there were five of us that day), the photographer who took my photo (Tony Rath) also complained of feeling much worse than he thought he should.  His symptoms, and the possibilities for them, were the same as mine.  We figured that there were two possible reasons for this:
1.  In our zest to collect Carbon 14 samples and take great photos, we each independently over-exerted ourselves and our systems could not take it.
2.  The oxygen in our tanks was contaminated.

Over-exertion was a much more probable explanation than bad air.  A tank can be filled with impure air if the air pump is set up incorrectly, where the pump sucks exhaust fumes into the tank.  The divers on our crew were consummate professionals, so the chance that they set it up wrong was miniscule.  There was one more dive scheduled for the day, and as we ate lunch (and Tony and I continued to feel better, but not fantastic), we discussed the afternoon dive.  Chip Petersen (owner of Belize Diving Services on Caye Caulker in Belize) was our acting dive master, as he was easily the most experienced diver on the team.  It was up to Chip whether we continue with a second dive or not.

It would be a much, much better choice for the project if we completed a second round of dives.  Getting tanks and dive equipment out to a remote Maya site is not easy; it takes months of planning and lots of money.  It is also not easy to schedule all of us to meet in Belize during the same few days a year, so time is very precious.  To complicate matters further, the weather had been very good, but the rainy season was threatening, and a big storm could come along any day that would wash out the roads.  This would make the pools unreachable by truck, and any unfinished diving would have to be cancelled and re-scheduled for the dry season of the following year.  Additional diving the following year would also require new funding and a new permit.

I thought we were going to do another dive.  As I finished my lunch, I thought I felt good enough to go; I was not at 100%, but I was more than okay to do another shallow dive safely.  As I readied my equipment for a second dive, Chip decided to call the dive off.  His reasoning was that even a remote possibility of air contamination in the tanks could have disastrous results in a remote dive location like the Cara Blanca Pools.  Nobody complained – the dive master’s word is final.  We disassembled our gear, got back in the trucks, and headed back to camp.  By dinner time, both Tony and I were fine.

Chip made a great call.  People like him are indispensable on an archaeological project; those who will make a tough (and possibly unpopular) judgment call for the greater safety of the crew.  Under his leadership, everyone got home safe.  We ended up with plenty of Carbon 14 samples and stacks of amazing photos.  The weather held, and nothing had to be rescheduled.  We even made it into National Geographic.

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Kinkella’s Backpack Checklist of What to Bring on an Archaeological Dig

Several of my students have asked about what to bring with them on an archaeological project, so I thought I’d put together my Official SuperSmart Backpack Checklist Of What To Bring On An Archaeological Dig To Be More Comfortable Than Most. This will tend to be specific to a jungle environment (as Belize and the Maya world is what I know best), but the requirements of most archaeological projects will be very similar. I’m assuming you’ve already had your required inoculations and have your needed medicines (hepatitis A, hep B, Typhoid, malaria pills, etc).

1. The Basics:
Passport – Do not order this last minute! Order you passport at least six weeks before you leave and alleviate last-minute anxiety.
Airline Ticket – Just don’t screw this up (get to the airport on time, etc).
Money (cash) – Don’t bother with traveler’s cheques – nobody likes them.
Credit card – ATM cards are not as good, because if they are stolen, the thief has access to your real money.
Driver’s License
Other needed documents (e.g. dive certification, insurance card, etc)
Smart phone
Camera – basic, small, and durable
ipod and ear buds (can be part of your phone)
Computer – an older one with sturdy carrying case (optional – not needed unless you are a grad student or above)
Memory stick
Treats – granola bars, lifesavers, whatever you like. You will be shocked how much joy can be contained in a little taste of home when you’ve been eating rice, beans, and tortillas for weeks. Don’t skimp on this – fill empty crevices of your backpack with junk food (My old school favorite was Jolly Ranchers).
Xerox of passport, maps – keep one copy of your passport with you, and one at home.
Chargers and cords for electronics, and surge protector
Paperback book to read
A handful of pictures from home
A magazine or two (usually bought at the airport)
2 backpacks – one large (check) and one small (carry-on) to carry everything in.

2. Clothes:
3 pairs pants
2 shorts
5 shirts (1 semi-nice, the rest light colored t-shirts)
6 pairs socks
6 pairs underwear
3 bandanas
Sturdy hiking boots
Tennis shoes (optional)
Flip-flops
Belt
Sunglasses
Hat
Sweatshirt – great for the plane even if you go to a hot place. Also makes a decent pillow in tough spots.
Swimming suit

3. Jungle Survival:
2 flashlights (AA batteries) – see my earlier entry on this.
Clipboard – cheap and junky. Don’t buy one with a built-in box – it just adds clutter and
weight.
Notebook (may use write-in-the-rain brand if you will be out in the rain a lot).
2 cans of bugspray – one strong, one weak. See my entry on this.
Permethrin – spray that you put on your clothes before you go to keep bugs off. It works, and can deal with several washings before it goes away (not for skin).
Sunscreen – spray-on is best. You won’t bother to put on the cream ones.
Canteen – holds at least a liter or more. Nalgene bottles are common here. I prefer the wide-mouth ones because you can mix Gator-aid in them much easier, but the narrow- mouth ones are much easier to drink from while driving in the back of a truck on a dirt road.
2 extra water bottles – additional water holders. Keep ones that you buy in the airport on the way down. Buy the expensive sturdy ones with the sport tops if possible and re-use them throughout your entire trip.
Machete (usually bought once at your destination)
Trowel
Swiss army knife
Watch
GPS (optional, but nice to have)
Compass with adjustable declination
Paperwork including many blank pieces of paper
Maps
Pencils, pens, a small ruler, drawing stuff
Gloves – not too heavy (gardening)
Raincoat
An embarrassing amount of AA batteries

4. Toiletries and First Aid:
Epi-pen (if you have one)
Bandaids
Bar soap
Shampoo
Deodorant
Shaving stuff
Tooth brush and tooth paste
Hair brush
Towel (old, crappy and thin – it will dry much quicker than a new thick one)
Pills – Malaria meds, vitamins, Pepto Bismol, Advil, Cipro
Powdered Gator-aid – a nice way to make lukewarm water tasty.
Sting-ease – you will get stung
Aloe vera – you will get burned
Q-tips
Spare plastic bags – a garbage bag or two, some gallon ziplock bags, some sandwich bags, some old grocery store plastic bags – super handy and takes up no space.

5. Miscellaneous Tips:
Collect and horde small change.
You can always buy a spare t-shirt or two while away.
Use 1 large and 1 small backpack to pack everything into – be able to carry everything you brought for a leisurely 20 minute walk by putting the large backpack on your back and the small backpack on “backwards” on your front. Don’t overpack.
Don’t use your phone to call people – turn off all roaming and call functions and only use it when you have wifi (FaceTime or Skype can provide the equivalent of an unlimited call for free!).
Make sure you get more than enough time stamped into your passport. If you know you will be in country for two weeks, ask for three when you enter the country. It is a huge pain to have your passport re-stamped for more time if you let it lapse.
Put pressurized bottles (bugspray, sunscreen, shaving cream, etc) in tight plastic bags in your luggage for the flights – I have had bad luck with these things leaking while in flight.
Don’t pack your trowel with your carry-on – they will take it away as a “weapon.”
Guard your passport!
Send an old-fashioned letter home. The recipient will love it. It usually does take forever (weeks) to get to its destination.

There you have it. This basic list has served me well for two decades of field research. Enjoy your trip – it can be life changing. Reply to this post if you think of anything else that I have forgotten, or other ideas that you found work well for you!

 

PS – You will get sick. While you are sick, know that you will get better (although it won’t feel like it).

 

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Why the Isuzu Trooper is the Best Archaeology Field Vehicle Ever

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As it is finals time at Moorpark College and I have several hundred papers to grade today, it seems like a perfect time to continue my archaeology blog!  I thought I would discuss the hotly contested world of archaeological field vehicles.  There are many strong opinions on this, as the archaeology field vehicle becomes a beloved part of the crew as the months go by, like a family pet with a personality and a name.  For example, the first project I worked on in Belize had two field vehicles:  “Big Blue” (A big and burly 1986 Ford F350 pickup) and “The Burb” (A massive 1980s 4WD Chevy Suburban).  Both were temperamental but lovable, and each crew member had their preference (I was a Big Blue guy and would defend it mightily, even though it got 9 miles to the gallon and the carburetors caught fire once).

In the field, these vehicles are lifeboats, their primary function being to get you home and not leave you stranded.  Good qualities include durability, simplicity, and decent gas milage.  With these criteria in mind, I decree that The Best Vehicle Ever Made for Archaeological Purposes is the original Isuzu Trooper.  Made from 1984-1991, these  are great because they are stone simple, reliable, and can carry lots for their size.  Not too big or too small, Troopers were first produced before the SUV craze happened, so their DNA is based on that of a true work vehicle, not on a Soccer Mom’s comfort preferences.  They are really “UV’s,” as the “Sport” aspect does not exist with the Trooper, and is not needed.

Popular “runner up” choices include Toyota 4Runners/HiLux (which would probably be my second choice) and even Ford or Chevrolet pickup trucks.  The cliche award is obviously shared by Land Rovers and Toyota Landcruisers, but I have not had very good luck with these in practice (too heavy, too old, too unreliable).  The Troopers win because of balance.  They are utilitarian without being uncomfortable.  They have enough modern technology to be comfortable on the freeway, but not so much technology as to be unreliable in extreme circumstances (the jungle is very unkind to electronics).

While bits and pieces may break off or wear down, I have never had a Trooper truly break down and leave me stranded.  Troopers have carried me deep into the Maya jungle, crawling up muddy embankments to distant ridge tops and down precarious and narrow gorges.  I have also driven them out in the desert, crossing dry creek beds and sandy terrain.  Just as importantly, I have used them as daily drivers, cruised the freeway for hours, and picked up the family Christmas Tree by simply shoving it in the back and closing the door.

If you are in the market for an original Trooper, do not buy a 1984 or 1985 model (no overdrive and very small engines makes it brutally slow).  Any model between 1986 and 1991 is good.  They came in either two or four-door configurations, with manual or automatic transmissions, and with either four cylinder or six cylinder engines.  Any combination is fine, even engine size does not matter (both are equally underpowered).  Simply buy the best kept, lowest milage example you can find.

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Troopers are not perfect.  The body panels seem to be made of an alloy of steel and swiss cheese, there are no airbags, and with either engine producing about 120 horsepower, you will enjoy a new definition of slow while merging onto the freeway.  Luckily, these negatives are easily offset by the durability and practicality of these fantastically useful vehicles.

Ten years from now, the Isuzu Trooper will no longer be the best field vehicle.  They will be too old, and parts will become too hard to find (it is already happening).  At that time, as the Trooper enters its rightful place alongside the Land Rover and the Landcruiser in the pantheon of Old Archaeological Vehicle Gods, I will still be extolling its virtues, because I will be old and stubborn (it is already happening) and the Trooper will always be my favorite field vehicle of all time.

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Kinkella’s Textbook Picks and Overall Textbook Philosophy in Teaching

I have gotten dozens of emails lately asking which books I use for class, so I thought I would put all of them down in one spot, and include a brief note on why I picked them over all the other contenders. I follow the same general pattern for each of the undergraduate classes that I teach – I assign one “textbook,” and one “free reading” book. I also put a few articles up online, to add a bit of color. My philosophy on textbooks is this: First, the textbook should be brief and to-the-point. I disdain large textbooks because they tend to be full of bloat in the form of too many keywords, too many examples, and too many images. The human brain can only take so much during one semester, and I find that it is most important to stick with focused, straightforward key terms and a few excellent examples to prove the point. Second (and above all), textbooks should be well written and enjoyable to read (this is possible!). Textbooks should function as a piece of the class pie (in tandem with the professor and the students), not attempt to be the whole pie.

I also include a “free reading” book in each class that is meant to be exciting and entertaining, a book based on the class themes but good enough to stand on its own, for readers to sit down with and really enjoy. If you find my “free reading” choices boring, then archaeology is not for you.

I have listed the classes I teach by number according to the Moorpark College catalog, and the books are listed as textbook first, free reading book second (both are required, and ISBN numbers are listed). I have also included “honorable mentions” with certain classes – these are books that are not required, but are still interesting or useful to read on your own time:

 

BIOLOGICAL ANTHROPOLOGY (ANTH M01)
Larsen, Clark Spencer
2013 Essentials of Physical Anthropology (2nd edition). W.W. Norton and Company, New York.
9780393919387
Breaks my “big textbooks are bad” rule, but I broke it mainly because it was the same price as the smaller books and the images are very good.

Dawkins, Richard
2009 The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. Free Press, New York.
9781416594796
A bio anthro colleague recommended this to me, and she was right. Well written – if you don’t believe in or understand evolution, read this book and you will. Dawkins has a great ability to intersperse hard scientific facts into a genuinely interesting discussion on evolution.

Honorable Mentions:
Watson, James
1968 The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA.
Reprinted many times.
Personal indeed – not a boring list of amino acids like some may think, but a very human (and controversial!) account of how Watson felt as he and Crick made their discovery, written by the man himself. Short too!

Park, Michael Alan.
2010 Biological Anthropology (6th edition), McGraw-Hill, New York.
A good standby that I have used several times. Well written (superior to Larsen in tone and voice), but priced the same as Larsen (or slightly higher) with many fewer images.

 

CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY (ANTH M02)
Kottak, Conrad P.
2012 Mirror for Humanity (8th edition). McGraw Hill, New York.
9780078034909
Like coming back to mother. I have left Mirror several times to try other textbooks, but always return. Professionally yet understandably written, one of the few anthro texts that goes into globalization and colonialism in the detail that it needs and deserves.

Nazario, Sonia
2007 Enrique’s Journey. Random House, New York.
9780812971781
After years of trying, I finally found a cultural anthro “free reading” book that grabs the students. “Harrowing” could describe this tale. Exciting, depressing, informative – I dare you to put it down.

 

ARCHAEOLOGY (ANTH M03)
Fagan, Brian
2012 Archaeology: A Brief Introduction (11th Edition). Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey.
9780205240821
Another “back to mother” textbook. I have left it several times, but always go back (until I write my own). Too many examples, but the writing is strong and the organization is intuitive (Fagan always delivers). Even though I have taught archaeology for years, a good free reading book still eludes me.

 

NATIVE NORTH AMERICA (ANTH M06)
Sutton, Mark Q.
2011 A Prehistory of North America. Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey.
9780205342013
Small, succinct, relatively inexpensive, and well written. Very few images, but the writing style makes up for it.

Thomas, David Hurst
2000 Skull Wars. Basic Books, New York.
9780465092253
Another favorite. Written by an archaeologist, it tells the Native American story and serves as the perfect tool to expose students to the atrocities of the past, and get students to think about the Native American experience today.

 

EGYPTOLOGY (ANTH M15)
Mertz, Barbara.
2007 Temples, Tombs, and Hieroglyphs (2nd ed.). William Morrow, New York.
9780061252778
A bold choice. I could see dedicated Egyptologists guffawing at the use of this book, but I rank it as my favorite “textbook” of all time. It does not have key terms in bold. There are no chapter summaries, workbook questions, and very few color photos. But therein lies its brilliance. It tells the story of Egypt as a story. Evocatively written page-turner (how often can you say that about a textbook?) it is a perfect component to a lecture-based class. I give the key terms in lecture, and Mertz gives them life.

Fagan, Brian
2004 The Rape of the Nile. Westview Press.
9780813340616
Great tale of early Egyptology. Fagan was a professor of mine at UCSB (a fantastic storyteller), and some of his best writing lies in these pages. There is no way not to love Giovanni Belzoni, one of the most prolific looters of all time.

 

ANCIENT MAYA (ANTH M16)
Coe, Michael.
2011 The Maya (8th ed.). Thames and Hudson, New York.
9780500289020
Relatively short and to-the-point, with great images for the price. Although the Maya are my specialty, I still haven’t found a suitable free reading book, so I supplement with additional readings.

 

ARCHAEOLOGICAL FIELD CLASSES (ANTH M05, M10, and M12):
I only require one book for the three field classes I teach in archaeology, because we are spending all day Saturday in the field or lab. The book is used as a guide or manual rather than a lecture-based textbook.

1. Field Methods/Excavation (ANTH M05)
Neumann, Thomas W. and Robert M. Stanford
2010 Cultural Resources Archaeology: An Introduction (2nd edition). Altamira Press, Walnut Creek, CA.
9780759118461
I haven’t found an excavation text that is a true favorite yet, but I use this one because it is small, and follows a general CRM pattern to excavating sites that is useful for my class.

2. Survey and Mapping (ANTH M10)
White, Gregory and Thomas King
2007 The Archaeological Survey Manual. Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek, California.
9781598740097
Great manual! Succinct, good images, well organized and well written. Perfect for an introduction to recording archaeological sites. One of my all-time favorite textbooks.

3. Laboratory Methods (ANTH M12)
Sutton, Mark Q. and Brooke S. Arkush
2009 Archaeological Laboratory Methods: An Introduction (Fifth Edition). Kendall/Hunt Publishing Co., Dubuque, Iowa.
9780757559747
Ye olde archaeology laboratory standby. Nice writing style, straightforward, and with a few quotes the students love – how often is a lab manual quotable?

Honorable Mentions:
Hester, Thomas R., Harry J. Shafer, and Kenneth L. Feder
2009 Field Methods in Archaeology (7th edition). Left Coast Press,
The old standby. It’s been through several editions and lifetimes, and is a good, solid reference book to own during the times when you are unsure of just about anything while running an archaeological project.

White, Tim D., Michael T. Black, and Pieter A. Folkens
2011 Human Osteology (3rd edition). Academic Press
“The Bone Book.” Great for life-size images, so when you are unsure about a bone, just hold it up to the book.

Bass, William M.
2005 Human Osteology: A Laboratory and Field Manual (5th edition). Missouri Archaeological Society
“The Bass Book.” Images are not nearly as good as White, but the descriptions and drawings fill in where White is sometimes lacking. Used together with White, you become an osteological force to be reckoned with.

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The Fine Art of the Flashlight in Archaeology

Bring two flashlights.  The combination can be variable; what matters here is that one light is a good multipurpose flashlight that can show you the way to the bathroom at night when you are forced through circumstances beyond your control to walk/run/flail to the potty in brisk fashion, while the other is used for reading.  I use a Mini-Maglite as my multipurpose light (uses 2 AA batteries), and a collapsible lantern light for reading (uses 4 AA batteries).  The lantern light is great because it collapses into a multipurpose flashlight if you need it in a pinch, and then can pop back up into lantern mode for reading.  It gives a warm, diffuse light which is great for reading at night (not harsh).  Some people prefer to use a caver’s headlamp as a substitute for one of these choices, which is fine, just don’t look me in the eyes while you are using it (everyone hates that)!

As an archaeologist, it is good to pack your flashlight with you while in the field during the day for two main reasons:
1.  At some point, you will find yourself in a cave, or in a hole, or under a car where you will really wish you had a flashlight, even in the day.
2.  You might get lost and have to spend the night in the wilderness.

Expository Note of Truth – I almost never pack my flashlight during the day, because I do a lot of difficult hiking in the jungle, and backpack weight is a major concern.  With that said, I have experienced both #1 and #2 above, and I really wished I had a flashlight during those times.

Awesome Pearl Of Archaeological Wisdom – Try to make it so that every tool requiring electricity you bring on a dig is either rechargeable or runs on AA batteries, and bring a massive pack of AA batteries with you on your trip (they will be used).  Buying uncommon batteries in the third world (such as strange camera batteries or even D cells) will be expensive, and may be impossible.

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Mosquitoes Will Win, But You Can Try

Several of my students have been emailing me recently on what to bring on an archaeological dig, so I thought I’d get creative and do a quick series on “what to bring on an archaeological dig.”  I’m not going to give a laundry list here – my suggestions are an “advanced class” of sorts, where I drop a few pearls of wisdom on specific aspects of living in adverse conditions.  Know that my experience is specific for a jungle environment, but many of the suggestions will work in other venues.  Today’s topic – The sticky, stinky, and burny world of Insect Repellant, a.k.a. Bug Spray.

You will often hear the mantra of “more is better” regarding bug spray.  Beware!  This is true, except when it isn’t (more below).  Bug spray is rated based on DEET content, where DEET is the poison that keeps the bugs off.  To put this in perspective, the Fourth of July Barbecue might require bug spray with 10-15% DEET just to be comfortable, where the summer camping trip might need 25%.  The jungle is a different animal entirely.

The day-to-day work life in the jungle demands a supply of bug spray with around 30-40% DEET.  Bring two cans with you if you will be in the jungle for more than three weeks or so – be sure to pack them in your checked baggage, and put them in a sealable plastic bag (they always leak on the plane).  When using the spray in the field, make sure you take your watch and sunglasses off first, unless you’re into the splotched, dotted, melty look.  Spray as needed, re-apply as needed (although I almost never re-apply, because it’s just too much of a sweaty mess by lunchtime).  Make sure to get your ankles, waistline, and neck a bunch.  Helpful Tip #1 – don’t put a bandana on around your neck right after spraying, and then wipe your eyes with it several minutes later (I can still feel the burn…).  Helpful Tip #2 – Don’t bother buying a cream insect repellant – you will never use it.

At night, you need a bottle of weak, 10% DEET bug spray that you use at dinnertime and for general evening hanging around.  This bug spray will not keep every bug off, but it gives a little help, and most importantly it smells okay and doesn’t have the “thick” feeling of heavy bug spray.  The 10% stuff is important to bring because as the weeks go by, you will get thoroughly and utterly sick of smelling like bug spray.  It’s do-able during the day on site, but eating dinner with bug spray hands and spraying yourself with bug spray after a shower gets old quick.

Finally, never buy 100% DEET.  Why?  Because you will use it!  100% DEET is really bad for your skin.  Once, on a really bad night in a really bad hotel in Guatemala, I couldn’t take it anymore and spread 100% DEET all over my neck, shoulders, and arms.  It felt all hot and red all over, with an unmistakable undercurrent of “this is not good for me.”  100% DEET is supposed to only be applied to clothing, not skin.  In a cloud of mosquitoes, I guarantee you will not follow those directions.  Don’t buy it.

Also, don’t believe the hype when others tell you that you can use alternative remedies to keep bugs away like moisturize your skin with Avon Skin-So-Soft, smoke a bunch of cigarettes, take certain vitamins, or burn an insect candle.  Actually, I hope you try the insect candle in the jungle, because it would look really funny.

Even heavy bug spray doesn’t really work in the jungle, but it is better than nothing.  It kinda sorta mostly keeps bugs off, but I have seen mosquitoes land on my skin where I just sprayed moments before.  Realize what you are playing here is a percentages game – bug spray will lessen the total number of bugs that bite you.  It will not keep bugs away.  They never, ever go away.

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Sacred Water, Sacred Pools, Sacred Cenotes

A 300-foot measuring tape attached to a rock is really heavy when you are treading water in the middle of a natural freshwater pool, deep in the jungle.  Note to self: bring an inner tube next time…

I have spent most of my life in archaeology exploring the realms of the ancient Maya, and since 1997, my focus has been on the 25 Maya cenotes in the Cara Blanca area of west-central Belize.  What is a Maya cenote?  It is a large pool of water, made when a sinkhole forms (because the bedrock below is weak and collapses) and fills with water.  An “average” cenote is approximately 400 feet across and 50 feet deep, but they vary considerably in size and depth.

Unfortunately, you can’t take “Introduction To Cenote Measuring and General Swimming 101” in college, so my approach to recording these pools for my dissertation research was one of trial and error, especially in the beginning.  When in doubt, I found that the simplest tools and methods were the way to go – it was much better to swim out into the middle of the pools with a measuring tape attached to a rock to measure depth than it was to try and buy some fancy sonar depth measuring device that would just break anyway in the harsh jungle environment.  As I progressed in both method and experience, I found that a three-tiered approach worked best when studying these pools:  Step 1 – swim out into the middle of the pool and use the afore-mentioned measuring tape and rock method of getting pool depth.  Step 2 – use a mask and snorkel to survey the shallow sides (down to about 15 feet deep), looking for artifacts such as broken pottery.  Step 3 –  at the pools with the most ancient Maya settlement nearby, bring full dive gear and explore the depths.  This last part in my dissertation research garnered a good amount of interest, so much so that in 2010 a National Geographic sponsored dive team came to Cara Blanca to aide in the research.

What have I found underwater?  In terms of marine life, I have encountered fish, turtles, crabs, and a crocodile.  In terms of artifacts, a few broken pieces of pottery is about it, although we did find a fossilized Giant Sloth (although not strictly archaeological, interesting nonetheless – story to come at a later date).  Even after exerting massive effort at the pools over the years and finding relatively few artifacts, I am more proud of my work at the cenotes than any other archaeological work I have undertaken.  Why?  Because before my research, we knew nothing about the cenotes in the Cara Blanca area of Belize.  Now we know all kinds of things.  Although I did not find many artifacts in the pools themselves, the bits I did find enabled us to date the ancient Maya use of the pools to the Late Classic period (AD 600-900).  I also found plenty of additional artifacts in the many Maya structures located directly beside the pools to support this date.  These ancient Maya structures near the pools have now been mapped – I found over 200 structures in the vicinity of the pools, some very small (under 3 feet tall) and others quite large (one was over 30 feet tall).  Also, we now know that the cenotes are very different underwater.  Some are wide (600 feet or more) but very shallow (only 6 feet deep).  Others are narrow (200-300 feet) but very deep (over 200 feet!).  With this new information, we can now make much better guesses on how the ancient Maya used these pools, and how the Cara Blanca area of Belize fit into the larger Maya world.

With my dissertation now finished, I can say that the days of treading water, carrying heavy dive equipment deep into the jungle, and accidental crocodile encounters were well worth it.  While my research did not turn up mummies and gold bars, it did add to our understanding of the use of cenotes in ancient Maya society, and provided me with a lifetime’s worth of great stories that spice up any dinner table conversation.  For a more involved treatment of Maya cenotes (including how they relate to Maya gods and rituals), check out the online article I wrote for the UK website Mexicolore here.

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