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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Andrew Answers Archaeology

Why is Professor Kinkella Blogging about Archaeology Anyway?

I have started this blog for two reasons:  Reason one, to answer any archaeology-related questions from my students and the general public.  Reason two, to give you a feel for what it’s like to experience the world of archaeology firsthand, by posting stories from my past and present as a Maya archaeologist, underwater archaeologist, local California archaeologist, and college professor.  While telling my stories, I will make sure to retain a simple enjoyment in archaeology, to show you that archaeology can be engaging, edgy, funny, and flamboyant without aliens or other high-concept nonsense.   I promise that my posts will be simple, straightforward, jargon-free and intrinsically interesting.

Welcome, and don’t be shy – any archaeology-related question is fair game!

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