I’m reading a rather late Clive Cussler novel, The Mayan Secrets, which is one of his Fargo series of novels and is co-written with Thomas Perry. It’s quite good fun, briskly written and full of adventure. Just the thing I need during a commute, so I can pretend to be somewhere else. Sam and Remi Fargo are, essentially, treasure hunters, but I suppose they could claim to be archaeologists of sorts, given that they work closely with a variety of museums and archaeologists to verify and preserve whatever it is they’ve found.
One of the artefacts of this novel is a large Mayan pot, into which an intact codex has been hidden, which is discovered buried in the side of a volcano after an earthquake reveals its hiding place. Now the bulk of the novel is concerned with the codex and its contents, but I’m more interested in the pot, mainly because it is a beautiful illustration of a point made in my Antiquities and Art Crime Course that I don’t think I grasped completely the first time – the importance of context. Indeed, Dr Donna Yates used a Mayan era pot as her example. So I was delighted to see that I actually had understood something.
In this novel, the pot is found alongside a mummified corpse in a cave system which is highly decorated and may have been a shrine. Cussler does give the reader a considerable amount of information in the prologue about the identity of the mummy and the importance of the pot, but in the interests of this case study, I’m going to ignore that and view the find as if I were seeing it for the first time. I will, however, point out the things that Sam and Remi Fargo really shouldn’t have done if they were genuinely interested in archaeology.
After a major earthquake, the entrance to a shrine in the side of a nearby volcano is revealed, which had been sealed some years previously by a lava flow. Inside the shrine, which is highly decorated, is the mummified body of a young man decorated with jade jewels, and a large decorated clay pot. In order to “protect the contents” having exposed the site to fresh air, Sam and Remi Fargo post guards at the site until the authorities can step in, remove the mummy and pot from the site with the mummy taken to the nearest mortuary and the pot going home to San Diego with them. In their climate controlled laboratory and in the presence of a professor of archaeology, they unseal the pot and discover the codex inside.
Now, if I were that professor of archaeology, I’d have lynched them for looting the site. Having removed the mummy and the pot, any context for the discovery has been lost, regardless of how wonderful the shrine is. It should have been secured, in situ, immediately and explored carefully, with every item mapped and marked clearly before its removal. This was not done; the argument being that the earthquake (and possible volcanic explosion) meant that the authorities would have better things on their mind, but also because having broken the atmospheric seal in gaining access to the shrine, removal of the artefacts would improve their chances of preservation. The occupants of a local village are told to guard the site until the authorities can take over.
This is all very well, but what has been lost is the context of the find. Even if the mummy and the pot were incongruous to the location, substantial amounts of information have been lost by not having the opportunity to properly see all the items in situ. Context provides information that may not ordinarily be ascertained from a close examination of the artefacts themselves. Dr Yates’ example from the course, showing how an apparently incongruous pot found in a burial site revealed historical alliances previously unknown between distant tribes, reinforces how such crucial information is lost when artefacts are removed. The pot itself would not have told us this and, in fact, may well have provided information that was either incomplete or false, depending on circumstances.
The removal of the pot from its finding place robs us from discovering if there is anything significant about that pot; if there is any relationship between the pot and the codex, or the shrine, or the mummy; or even if the pot is in the right place at the right time and it is everything else that is out of place. If it were not for Cussler’s prologue, we would never know how the pot got there and why – but having that prologue does reinforce the importance of context when dealing with antiquities of any kind. The looting of archaeological sites does more than just damage the sites, it damages history and our knowledge of the past. For that reason alone, it is criminal – and in my opinion, Sam and Remi Fargo must rank with the worst offenders.