'Lost Maya Cities' Digs into the Nitty-Gritty of Archaeology

While public interest in Maya archaeology never seems to grow old, the irony is that books on the topic do. Technological advances in archaeology – not least the use of satellite technology – have propelled archaeological research forward at an astonishing rate globally, rewriting much of our established knowledge about the ancient world.

It can be a challenge, therefore, for publishers to keep up. Archaeologists have enough to do slogging through jungles and analyzing vast bodies of artifacts; it’s hard enough for them to keep up with academic journal publishing, let alone broadly accessible texts encapsulating the state of a field in flux.

Thankfully, many of them put in the effort. The Unearthing the Past series recently announced by Princeton University Press portends some exciting work, including a new, up-to-date history of the Maya from renowned archaeologist and epigrapher David Stuart.

An interesting contribution to the field, published originally in Slovenian, emerged in English translation last year during the pandemic’s height, slipping under the radar as a result. Ivan Sprajc’s Lost Maya Cities, translated by Petra Zaranšek and Dean Joseph DeVos, is a working memoir, a field diary drawn from Sprajc’s 25-year career. Each chapter chronicles different incidents – some interrelated – during Sprajc’s expeditions into the Mexican jungles. Here, the quotidian takes centre stage, and makes for reading that is surprisingly engaging.

The daily struggle to find water for a campsite, or efforts to survey a large chunk of a jungle and align it with an ancient map, constitute tension in the narrative. Several chapters address efforts to find specific sites lost for decades, and it’s always a toss-up as to whether they’ll be found by the end of the chapter.

The book neatly underscores how contemporary archaeology relies on techniques both ancient and modern. Sprajc and others rely on satellite communications when they’re deep in the jungle; scans conducted from orbit help them locate ancient ruins. At the same time, they rely on ancient technologies: maps drafted by previous explorers a hundred years earlier, chronicles of sites discovered and subsequently lost in interim decades, oral traditions from local villagers, and aging chicleros (rubber tappers). A large portion of Lost Maya Cities documents Sprajc’s efforts to relocate these ‘lost’ cities and align old maps which may or may not have been accurately produced in the first place, aided by modern technological tools and gruelling on-the-ground treks.

Exciting though the archaeology is, an archaeologist must still eat while in the field; make camp, find water, avoid poisonous snakes and other predators, and deal with injuries. Sprajc recounts all these experiences with as much enthusiasm and detail as he does the Maya sites which his team encounters. Sprajc mostly manages to avoid dipping into the sensational, though one can tell he is tempted; told around a campfire, his tales probably acquire a bit more artistic license. But the book offers probably the truest account produced in recent years of what daily life in the field is like for a modern archaeologist.

This is the gritty nuts and bolts of archaeology. There’s an entire chapter on efforts to drive through flooded roads and extricate a vehicle from the mud (he calls in the Mexican army to help, but they get stuck too, and he winds up rescuing them in turn). We see first-hand the challenge of funding archaeological work: chatting up rich private donors, getting sites recognized with World Heritage designation, making difficult choices about which sites might produce enticing new finds that’ll satisfy university funding agencies, and therefore get priority in seasonal expeditions.

He speaks fondly of his colleagues – university researchers, Mexican employees, Indigenous locals – and is eager to share credit for the work. Archaeology has progressed in countless ways from the imperialist looting that mars its early reputation. Sprajc recounts the efforts of he and his colleagues to restore ancient stelae (large, ancient Maya carvings, often covered in art and hieroglyphic texts) to the communities near which they’re located, helping the local communities to preserve and showcase their ancient heritage (for many communities, this provides an economic boom in the form of increased tourism).

Indeed, the most effective way to stop looting – which is still common – is to help local communities reclaim their ancient monuments and inculcate a sense of pride in the restoration of this heritage. A restored ancient monument will bring greater economic benefits to the entire village than a looted item sold on the black market. It’s far better for the entire community to prosper through an increase in researcher and tourist interest than for one or two adventurers to prosper by hacking apart monuments and selling them illegally to rich clients abroad. Prospective archaeology students would do well to look at this book because it offers the most realistic glimpse into what lies in store for them.

Unfortunately, the book’s greatest strength – its faithful presentation of daily life during an archaeological field season – is also its greatest weakness, as it doesn’t offer a whole lot more than the faithful reproduction of daily life. There’s very little in the way of background information on Maya history, which is unfortunate. The book would have been greatly improved if its author had spent some time reconstructing for the reader the broad outline of local Maya history and relationships between the cities and states his team works on. Aside from a couple of pages at the beginning and end, and the scattered paragraph in a few chapters, there’s little actual Maya history here.

Sprajc goes into tremendous detail describing the present state of the ruins that he and his team discover and explore, but how much richer the text would have been if he’d allowed his imagination a bit more free rein (informed by archaeological knowledge) to envision what the sites might have actually looked like in their heyday. Throughout the narrative, we are introduced to various interesting characters – eminent Mayan epigrapher Nikolai Grube – whose stories and work would have contributed to the overall narrative. Instead, they mostly appear, hike around a bit, share dinner around a campfire, and then disappear again.

The thorough, exhaustive reproduction of daily life is impressive, but after 300 pages, it becomes tedious. It’s scientifically faithful but leaves the reader – both scholarly and general – a lot to be desired. Sprajc has clearly accumulated an impressive lifetime’s worth of experience in Maya archaeology, but he doesn’t share any big-picture insights with the reader. Instead, the narrative fails to move beyond a series of field diaries strung together in loose narrative form.

Nevertheless, Lost Maya Cities is notable for presenting such an accurate and descriptive overview of what archaeologists do and provides a pitch-perfect counterpoint to more romanticized narratives. Archaeology is hard, gruelling work – physically and intellectually – and it’s good for the general public to be reminded of that. Lost Maya Cities is fun and insightful, a sort of archaeological ‘reality television’ in book form that conveys both the excitement and the challenge of a rapidly changing field.