David Freidel and His Search for Mayan Treasure
For three decades, professor David Freidel has hunted for Mayan treasures and brought glory to SMU. Now he and other archaeologists say drug traffickers threaten their work. But the truth behind the published reports don’t make for a Hollywood ending.
It was a proposed tourist attraction that brought Freidel to SMU in the first place. In 1972, Dallas real estate syndicator John Love bought a chunk of beach in Belize that included Mayan ruins. Love wanted the mounds authenticated to add sizzle to his planned horse track resort. The SMU anthropologist who took charge of the project offered the archaeology contract to Freidel, a Harvard grad student at the time. "They wanted to hire somebody much more experienced," he says, "but they didn’t have the money, and I was cheap."
He discovered that the ruins were more than 2,000 years old. Nobody had ever found a Pre-Classic Mayan city before, and the lucky strike was a big career boost. Unfortunately, Love was going bankrupt in a real estate slump, and Freidel had to find new patrons. He asked family friend Leon Harris, chief of the Sanger-Harris company, for an introduction to Stanley Marcus. Harris and Marcus hadn’t spoken for years as a result of a bitter lawsuit, but to help out a friend, Harris sat down with both men at his favorite French restaurant on Lovers Lane. Freidel remembers Marcus as an unassuming man and a great listener, and the archaeologist soon found himself having lunch with a dozen wealthy friends of the Neiman’s boss. At the end of the meal, Marcus lit up a Punch cigar and said, "You should understand that David here is a brilliant young man, and this is an extraordinary project. We have to stand behind high potential people in our community, and I want you all to pull out your checkbooks and write him a check for a thousand dollars." Freidel watched as several of the guests complied.
"That taught me a lot about Dallas," he says. "So did the way John Love kept his word and kept supporting my research even when he was losing his shirt."
During the next two decades, Freidel co-authored two controversial books with Linda Schele, an influential University of Texas professor who died of cancer in 1998. After lengthy excavations in Yucatan, he came to El Peru, where so far the team he oversees for Escobedo has found five royal tombs and brought valuable recognition to SMU.
This story took a hard left in our first interview, when Freidel said that he hadn’t been happy at SMU for some time and was leaving to start a new career this fall at Washington University, in St. Louis. He described SMU as a place that doesn’t know what it is or what it wants to be. And SMU was not ready to see him establish an open-ended commitment to El Peru. He was impressed by a "whatever it takes" attitude at Washington University. His wife, herself a longtime professor of archaeology at SMU, was offered a job there first. "The administrators treat women with parity and invest in their faculties, and the results speak for themselves," he said. "At SMU, the policy is "Go out and find a competitive job offer, and then we’ll start to pay attention to you."
He said SMU’s recent priorities have been driven by the personal agendas of board members. In his opinion, that has worked well for the Meadows School of the Arts and the Cox School of Business but disastrously for the undergraduate college. "The core of the institution is failing," he said. "It’s simply less than it was in the ’80s, and it’s getting worse."
When we return to camp from our tour of the ruins, Reina and her helpers lay out a hearty dinner for the archaeologists, who eat separately from the crew. After dark, the workers gather in the courtyard for a favorite ritual: watching a DVD movie projected on a sheet. The flick stars Cantinflas, and under a sky full of blazing constellations, the Mayans laugh loudly at the exploits of the plucky Mexican underdog. At 2 in the morning, however, the camp is awakened by a drunken American graduate student directing waves of profanity at camp manager Arturo Godoy.
The next day, Godoy shrugs off the incident as a tantrum by a "spoiled brat." Freidel diagnoses the tiff as a case of camp fever, noting that the men had been cooped up out in the jungle for 30 days. But he worries about the breakdown of his team when Godoy, whom he introduced as his "right hand," decides to give notice.
"So many things haven’t clicked yet," Godoy says to me later, a blue bandana tied around his head. "The foreigners only come during field season, and they don’t appreciate all the bureaucratic errands required to keep the project running." He feels the Americans need to spend more time with local people, and he hopes that his stepping out of the loop will force the archaeologists to do things themselves and gain a better understanding of the reality on the ground. Godoy also cites the invasion of the squatters from Paso Caballos at YalÃ¡ as a stress factor.
"It just changes the whole thing here for us," he says.
A sense of friction deepens later in the day when the Mayan men on Freidel’s skeleton crew sit down at the long dining table to bargain with their American boss. Most are paid $200 a month, basically minimum wage. Some have been requesting a raise for two years, and for three years none has received all the periodic "benefit" payments required by Guatemalan law for employees not under contract. The payments are in cash and have nothing to do with benefits as the term is understood in the United States. The El Peru crew accepted a compromise on these payments a year and a half ago, but they are still upset and feel that Freidel has ignored their complaints.
"I don’t have more money than I have," he says. "You say you don’t have benefits, but you have work."
"Es un cosa de realidad," says one of the workers. "It’s a matter of reality.€VbCrLf Record inflation in the country has pushed the cost of essential food staples and fuel out of reach. The worker sums up his frustration with a country proverb. "If we don’t cry, we never get the tit,€VbCrLf he says.
Freidel tells the men that he’ll check with the treasurer of his foundation to see what might be done. The Mayans ride out of camp on trail motorcycles, their machetes in belt sheaths on their hips. English voices consult quietly in the mess hall. "If we raise their salaries, we might be able to put a new contract in place,€VbCrLf one says. "It gets us out of the benefits.€VbCrLf
Freidel knows he can’t afford to alienate workers who know the site well. After a tomb discovery in 2006, looters raided that structure in the middle of the night. At times, indeed, Freidel’s version of the project history has the flavor of a siege chronicle. In 2003, he says he was "surrounded by people trying to burn us out.€VbCrLf After the first tomb discovery in 2004, an army unit was committed to El Peru for protection. In spite of this show of force, he says a village leader in Paso Caballos with links to drug dealers arranged for thieves to steal the team’s Mitsubishi truck. In the same year, Godoy and two workers were confronted in Paso Caballos by a group of unemployed men with machetes who demanded that the El Peru project stop hiring workers from other communities. The president of Guatemala came for a tour in 2005 and dispatched an army major to ratchet up security. Now, three years later, a brand-new colony of farmers is planting food crops just up the road.
When it is time for us to leave El Peru, Freidel heads out in a separate truck while I ride with Godoy. We pass the burned fields again, and Godoy points out how errant sparks have floated down and torched a reed bed in the river where crocodiles breed. Foreigners who read stories about the Laguna del Tigre park should understand that slash-and-burn farming is not a meticulous process. Fires sometimes spread unintentionally.
Back in Paso Caballos, an old woman in a bright hand-woven skirt balances a bowl on her head as she walks. She flashes a toothless grin when she sees a camera lens, then shyly hides her face with her hands. Godoy stops briefly to chat with a man who had hoped to work at El Peru this season. More unemployed men are sitting around, watching a young villager split firewood with an ax.
A source familiar with the El Peru project, requesting anonymity, supplies some helpful background. He says that the first American archaeologist put in charge of community relations in 2002 was so dictatorial that he came across as a racist. A year’s worth of this foreigner’s bossiness and condescension completely alienated the people of Paso Caballos, who kept petitioning the Americans to donate funds for the construction of concrete bridges-necessary infrastructure in a climate where spring rains turn dirt roads into soup. The team’s Mitsubishi truck, parked unattended for two days by the riverside, went missing after these written requests proved ineffective month after month. Public opinion lightened up a bit in 2005, because the tomb discoveries were exciting, and the archaeologists were making an effort to explain the project in a way that helped the workers grasp its significance.
But according to Godoy, at least one of the community leaders in Paso Caballos was a guerrilla during the civil war that rocked the country from 1980 to 1996. And while Freidel considers the army "the one thing the narco-traffickers are afraid of,€VbCrLf many civilians in the countryside still see soldiers as bad guys. During the civil war, which began as a battle for land rights, 440 Mayan villages were destroyed by the U.S.-backed army and death squads that were no secret to the State Department. Today, the drug racket has bought out members of the army and police.
Godoy drives us past a little roadside stand that sells soft drinks and cake. Colorful woven goods are arrayed on a porch bench. Since 1999, the villagers have been trying to develop their own little eco-tourism business. Two non-governmental organizations, Conservation International and ProPeten, provided training and helped the villagers deputize a tourism committee. In the first year, the operation grossed $4,700 from guide fees and food sales to tourists. You can sign up on ProPeten’s website for river and jungle excursions that employ the villagers. One of these is a guided tour of the archaeological ruins at El Peru.
The rest of the trip goes quickly. We visit Tikal, relatively close by, the main Mayan ruin that attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists every year. Then we fly to Guatemala City to see the lab where the archaeology team’s curators work. This facility is set up in the upper story of a house ringed with razor wire in one of the capital’s safer neighborhoods. Treasures and remains unearthed at El Peru are brought here for scrutiny and classification, and the bones of kings and their noble ladies are neatly stacked on shelves in plastic bins.
We get back to the Holiday Inn just in time to order room service. We say goodbye to Freidel the following afternoon at DFW Airport. He is off to work on a grant application. A U.S. embassy officer he met with in Guatemala City told him that the State Department might be able to raise funds for his troubled outpost.