May 15, 2013

Broken Things

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.

Some years ago, I found myself living in an area that, let's say, would not have been my first choice. Dog owner. Sometimes you have to take what you can get. It wasn't a bad little place but I was never comfortable there. And I started to have health problems. Allergies that I thought were under control worsened dramatically. I was just uncomfortable. The place, the entire area, simply felt... wrong. One evening, as I was coming off the highway and driving into the neighborhood, I had the distinct sense of moving through a membrane into a much darker, heavier energy, and the thought that came to me unbidden was "Indian burial ground." Suddenly, I was certain of it. I had been living on top of an Indian burial ground and that was why it had always felt so dreary, so dissonant, so corrupted.

Several years later, after I'd long been out of there -- I'd only been able to stand it briefly -- I was doing readings in new age bookshop. One of my clients there, I learned, had lived in the same neighborhood. She had also found it to be an unhappy, uncomfortable time. I mentioned my theory to her -- that I was convinced it was on an Indian burial ground. A few weeks later I received a note from here in the mail. It contained a newspaper clipping. There was some new construction in that area and they'd turned up a number of artifacts that seemed to indicate that they were digging on an Indian burial ground.

Some things you just shouldn't do.

So I was very saddened to hear that it's open season on ancient Mayan pyramids in Belize.

A construction company has essentially destroyed one of Belize's largest Mayan pyramids with backhoes and bulldozers to extract crushed rock for a road-building project, authorities announced on Monday.

The head of the Belize Institute of Archaeology, Jaime Awe, said the destruction at the Nohmul complex in northern Belize was detected late last week. The ceremonial center dates back at least 2,300 years and is the most important site in northern Belize, near the border with Mexico.

"It's a feeling of Incredible disbelief because of the ignorance and the insensitivity ... they were using this for road fill," Awe said. "It's like being punched in the stomach, it's just so horrendous."


Unfortunately, it doesn't look like they can do much to prevent this kind of desecration in Belize. Even though the law technically protects pre-Hispanic ruins like this one, they lack the funding and infrastructure for enforcement. This is not the first time a Belizean ruin has been desecrated and it probably won't be the last. Similar destruction is occurring in Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras.

I was reminded recently of the desecration of one of my most beloved sites: Teotihuacan. Many were sickened when Wal-Mart decided to build a store on an outer edge of the ancient complex. For me, it was particularly painful because of my time there -- a time when I experienced a kind of rebirth. Teotihuacan is magical, otherworldly. And Wal-Mart is evil.

In December, the New York Times revealed the massive bribery scheme that allowed Wal-Mart to build on protected land. In a recent blog post, archaeologist Dr. Donna Yates expounded on the damage allowed by Wal-Mart's alleged $24 million "investment."

We archaeologists often find our discipline difficult to explain to outsiders, specifically outsiders with an unyielding eye for unnuanced commercial development. Just because the core of Teotihuacán is massive and visible, doesn’t mean that the archaeology stops at the edge of the temple. Rather it extends, under the ground, in all directions, hidden from view but waiting to be exposed and studied. Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it is not there.

. . .

It is this periphery, these outer zones of sites, that are most at risk for destruction from development. It is difficult to convince planning authorities to protect this kind of past simply because people cannot believe what they cannot directly see. Even worse, it is in these areas that the average people lived: the people who built the massive pyramids, not the people who lived in them. The archaeology of real life, of workers, of farmers, of craftspeople, of the everyday is the hardest to preserve. It gets paved over and destroyed.

. . .

I share in the outrage surrounding the allegations of corruption involved in this scandal, however I urge readers to not lose sight of what we may have lost. Luis Gálvez, a leader of the workers’ union of the state National Institute of Anthropology and History, has stated that the Walmart at Teotihuacan is an “offence against Mexico”. I would contend that it is more than that. It is an offence against our shared cultural heritage. Everyone who visits the site, everyone who climbs the Temple of the Sun to look out over the Valley of Mexico and imagine the vast ancient city, painted bright colours and sparkling in the Central American sun will either have to pretend not to see the Walmart or ask themselves why it is there.

Indeed a number of artifacts were turned up by Wal-Mart's construction crew.

They found the remains of a wall dating to approximately 1300 and enough clay pottery to fill several sacks. Then they found an altar, a plaza and nine graves. Once again, construction was temporarily halted so their findings could be cataloged, photographed and analyzed.

The ensuing firestorm resulting from that find was not enough to keep Wal-Mart from greasing the wheels of "progress."

Elsewhere in the complex, Teotihuacan is still slowly revealing its mysteries to more patient archaeologists.

Hundreds of mysterious spheres lie beneath the Temple of the Feathered Serpent, an ancient six-level step pyramid just 30 miles from Mexico City.

The enigmatic spheres were found during an archaeological dig using a camera-equipped robot at one of the most important buildings in the pre-Hispanic city of Teotihuacan.

Clearly there is much still be discovered through the painstaking process of archaeological examination that doesn't destroy the integrity of such ancient marvels. Yet, I'm not convinced that even archaeologists approach these sites in the right spirit. I have more than once had the experience of walking through museums and encountering angry spirits around items that they don't seem to want displayed.

After having communed with the spirits at Teotihuacan -- spirits who demanded offerings and placed conditions before we could even step onto some of the structures -- I am left heartsick at the lack of respect paid by a retailer already well known for cannibalizing communities. And I can't help thinking there will be a price to pay for helping itself to to this one.

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