Exploring ancient Maya civilization with the last of the great romantic adventurers in archaeology
Author Elaine Glusac Photography Holly Wilmeth
Indiana Jones is eating my breakfast, the remains of a leathery flap of grilled beef, yellowed by egg yolk. He has insisted on a hearty meal before we venture into the central wilds of the Yucatán, the beach-fringed peninsula of southern Mexico. He needs his energy.
Ivan Šprajc (pronounced E-von Shprites) is a tranquil version of Harrison Ford’s frenzied film character less 50 pounds, with ice-blue eyes and now sweating through head-to-toe khaki at a streetside table in Tulum. The Slovenian archaeologist’s pioneering work mapping heretofore unknown Maya cities in the deepest Yucatán—battling snakes, insects, rain, and looters—has inspired colleagues to nickname him after the bullwhip-wielding Jones.
“Ivan is one of the last, if not the last, of the great romantic adventurers in archaeology,” says Joe Ball, a professor of anthropology and archaeology at San Diego State University. “Ivan is all about lost cities and how to find them and hacking through the bush to their eventual discovery.”
Two of Šprajc’s recent Yucatán discoveries, the city of Chactún in 2013 and the lakeside Lagunita in 2014, are helping to fill in what is perhaps the greatest blank in the Maya landscape: the trackless 2,800-square-mile wilderness known as the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve in the southern Yucatán. Land once contested by two great city powers—Calakmul, in modern Mexico, and Tikal, 60 miles south in present-day Guatemala—this former home to thousands emptied in the course of just 200 years, in the 9th and 10th centuries. Secondary growth reclaimed cities with a verdant vengeance, wrapping temples in vines even as later, Post-Classic sites, like Chichén Itzá in the north, continued to thrive. It’s a historical and perhaps environmental mystery that draws Šprajc to machete away the jungle shroud and reveal the story of a great civilization’s collapse.
“The fact that you can find a city like Chactún that nobody knew existed is mind-boggling,” says Chicago-based philanthropist Ken Jones, who helped fund Šprajc’s 2014 trip. “They are not finding these things in Egypt or England, but in the Maya world we’re still finding major cities that were centers of civilization.”
Both Lagunita and Chactún feature broken monuments, upended and repurposed, that point to political fracture and invasion. As Šprajc puts it over his fortifying desayuno Maya, “We are mapping political geography. Two of the most powerful dynasties were ruling from Calakmul and Tikal, and they were always enemies. And now it is getting clearer what coverage their governments had. There are questions of history, development, evolution, and even collapse.” He modestly calls his work “details,” saying, “We need the details to understand the big picture.”
Elusive funding allows a research trip only about every other year, which is why the most polite archaeologist you could ever hope to meet apologized, earlier via email, that he couldn’t take me on one, noting, “To get to any of our sites would take several days.” But in a rare gap between guiding a group of Slovenian tourists around the Yucatán and a Mexican government research project mapping the astronomical orientation of Maya coastal ruins, he has offered to accompany me to Coba, a Late Classic ruin with at least a similar “jungle environment,” about 30 miles inland from the town of Tulum, to survey the big picture, blank spots and all. But before we depart he requires sustenance, and a cigarette tapped from a crumpled pack, and a word about that Indiana Jones thing.
“The only thing I don’t know is what an archaeologist does with a bullwhip,” he offers, folding his long frame into our rental RAV4. “With the machete, you never get lost.”
E xcept for occasional marked-by-a-speed-bump villages, the jungle-edged road from Tulum to Coba is not unlike the one that runs across the peninsula about 160 miles south, where I first encountered the legend of Ivan Šprajc, six years ago, at a seven-cabin oasis called Rio Bec Dreams. I came for Calakmul, home to more than 6,000 buildings once inhabited by some 50,000 Maya. But I quickly learned, at the open-air bar, sloppy with worn guidebooks and well-thumbed National Geographic magazines, that there was much more to the Maya story. In fact, one explorer was still writing it.
Captivated by indigenous cultures as seen in American westerns as a teenager in Slovenia, Šprajc came to Mexico in 1985 to complete his master’s degree in archaeology, and he was stranded in 1991 when war broke out in Yugoslavia. In 1996, working with Mexico’s prestigious Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, he began reconnaissance forays, and he has since mapped more than 80 new Maya sites in research trips that usually last three weeks—about as long as the money and his body can hold out in the sweltering jungle, which he calls “aggressive but beautiful,” and where everything, animal and vegetal, seems designed to bite you.
“What he’s doing isn’t far from Catherwood,” says Diane Lalonde, co-owner of Rio Bec Dreams, referring to the illustrator Frederick Catherwood, who, with author John Lloyd Stephens, created Incidents of Travel in Yucatán, the seminal 19th-century account of the team’s visits to more than 40 Maya sites. “The difference is he has anti-venom, because if something does happen you’re not going to get anyone to a hospital.”
Now in our air-conditioned Toyota, Šprajc apologizes for not wearing his snake boots—knee-high, thick leather lace-ups that resemble footwear from Catherwood’s age, perfect for the swashbuckling archaeologist. They resist strikes from coral snakes, rattlesnakes, moccasins, and the dreaded fer-de-lance, or barba amarilla—assuming Šprajc’s machete doesn’t get them first. His long sleeves and pants ward off insects (he has had some burrow under his skin and lay eggs, and others have caused surface-spreading ulcers). A column of beige, he doesn’t so much stand out as recede in camouflaged calm from the crowds that are now bursting from tour buses in the parking lot at Coba dressed in perspiration-plastered shorts, neon T-shirts, and flip-flops. They rent cruiser bikes or pedicabs called triciclos to coast down the ancient limestone roads the Maya scraped clean of the jungle, a network linking palaces and temples and even another ancient city 60 miles off, interspersed with agricultural plots. We walk so as not to miss the numerous, suspiciously ordered rock piles that Šprajc explains are unexcavated ruins. “They are safely preserved this way,” he says. “If you rebuild them, you have to maintain them.”
Nearly a mile in, we reach Coba’s heart, the towering Nohoch Mul, a 138-foot-tall pyramid that by its sheer scale is marked as a feat of the Classic period, when architecture mirrored feudal society, with grand buildings restricted to elites to symbolize their dominance. At the summit, the temple, one of the tallest in the Yucatán, breaks the canopy, and our panting party of two is surrounded by a sea of green as far as the eye can see. From this vantage point, the jungle is suggestive, hinting at undiscovered cities with every bouclé blip on the horizon. “I once found two temples that turned out to be natural hills,” Šprajc offers. “That is why you always have to ground-proof it.”
Ground-proofing, or mapping, is Šprajc’s rare specialty. When he’s not in this jungle, when he’s back in the Baroque heart of Central Europe at the Scientific Research Centre of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts in Ljubljana, Šprajc plots his quests over a series of aerial photographs purchased for roughly $25,000 from a Canadian survey company that uses stereoscopy to look for suspicious protrusions. The technique, also employed by NASA in its Mars Exploration Rovers, involves two slightly different but overlapping two-dimensional images that, when viewed together through a stereoscope, create a three-dimensional view. They give Šprajc an idea of where to search, leads that must be investigated in person. Dead ends are not uncommon. Nor, on 80-plus occasions, are messy, fulfilling ends.
As we descend the steep and narrow steps of Nohoch Mul—me, bum-sliding; Šprajc, erect and sure—it begins to rain. The shower scatters the tourists and reminds Šprajc, who lends me a plastic poncho from his backpack, of his last research camp.
It rained a lot during 2014’s usual dry season. Roads flooded. Trucks got stuck. Videos on Šprajc’s Samsung smartphone, which we shelter from the downpour under the poncho, show workers wading in a chocolatey, knee-high river that was their recently cleared road; it had been a three-week challenge to open roughly 10 miles of jungle for the expedition’s four-wheel-drive trucks, including one devoted entirely to drums filled with drinking water. At some less-than-patient point, Šprajc decided to abandon the road and machete his way more than two miles as the toucan flies in the direction suggested by stereoscopy. It took the team of 11 two days. A Maya researcher in his own right, sponsor Ken Jones was among the first to discover an imposing 65-foot pyramid sprouting trees, altars covered in hieroglyphs, standing stellae carved with messages, and a massive doorway in the shape of an underworld monster. It was Lagunita, a Late Classic city recorded in the 1970s that had since been lost again.
Jones describes the discovery to me this way: “Myself and Enrique, the head machetero, find the zoomorphic portal, and he starts screaming in Spanish, I’m screaming in English, and someone else is screaming in Chol Maya, and finally the rest of our party comes around.” Šprajc walked backward through the portal, says Jones, turned to face the stone monster’s maw, and calmly smiled.
“I had a few rum and Cokes later,” Šprajc admits.
Water may have made the difference between the survival of sites like Coba and the decline of Calakmul. Coba and the cities in the northern Yucatán, including Chichén Itzá, were still thriving when those in the south—Chactún, Lagunita, Calakmul—were abandoned. Many archaeologists now believe a long drought throughout the Yucatán may have led to famine, warfare, and the breakdown of the feudal system, sparking a 200-year collapse beginning in the 9th century.
But the north is necklaced in cenotes, natural sinkholes in the Yucatán’s porous limestone created by the same Mesozoic meteorite that doomed the dinosaurs. The impact exposed underground rivers through a series of perforations, but it did not reach the southern Yucatán, which largely lacks cenotes. Near Tulum, rental cars in front of us turn left into Gran Cenote, disgorging swimmers eager to cool off after crawling up Nohoch Mul. Cold and clear, the aquamarine freshwater recedes into a dark cave, one of the vital reservoirs that was perhaps responsible for the survival of Maya civilization in the north until the Spanish conquest of the late 17th century.
North, south, or neighboring, Maya sites remained separate, more like the city states of ancient Greece than the empire of Rome. “They were not united ever,” explains Šprajc, as he drives me to the coastal area of Tulum. “They probably didn’t even feel like they belonged to the same nation. They had a lot of trade networks. But that doesn’t mean we are all friends. We have war, but trade goes on, just like now.”
Tulum served Coba as its port on a vital trade network that extended as far as Honduras. In early drawings by Catherwood, Tulum featured vegetation growing from atop the main castillo and trees sprouting from pavilions, much like the jungle-shrouded ruins of the southern Yucatán today. Now reconstructed, Tulum’s tropical-paradise-meets-archaeological-site attracts visitors who stream in with beach towels, oblivious to the lean scientist among them who once mapped the astronomical alignment of these buildings.
Šprajc points out a structure devoted to the planet Venus and another with monster figures carved into the corners. Artistic but practical, the Maya often buried their dead under their houses, with offerings of pottery, jade, and other treasures. When they expanded, they did so directly atop existing buildings. Houses turned into mansions turned into palaces in this recycling practice, which sealed off one age after another, entombing treasures nested like Russian dolls and vulnerable, today, to raiders who often display a sophisticated understanding of Maya practices by tunneling within buildings. “They sawed off the carved surfaces,” says Šprajc. “It’s limestone, so they could cut it. If they couldn’t take the whole monument, they would carve it off.”
Though looting and the sale of antiquities is illegal, a black market persists, which is why Šprajc often destroys the paths to newly discovered sites. He’s been known to provide false GPS coordinates to journalists. Accurate information published in scientific journals is used by other archaeologists, who return to excavate, with luck finding the jade masks and polychrome pottery before thieves do. “First, I rescue the information,” explains Šprajc in the most impassioned pitch his even tenor allows. “Then, once we publish, if they steal it later they cannot at least publicly sell it, because we will know where it came from.”
There’s no jungle to shroud potential plunderers at Tulum, where iguanas sun themselves atop off-limits temples. The dutiful stop to read plaques about the decorated Temple of the Frescoes, but most make for the clifftop stairway that takes them 40 feet down to the beach. “Museums now have to compete with Disneyland,” Šprajc says. “As long as it’s authentic, exposure is good.”
His personal tolerance for beaches is limited. Emerging from the jungle after an expedition, Šprajc seeks “a good bar and a good restaurant, and you swim a little bit but then, OK, let’s go back.” But now he has a bus to catch and money to raise. “I’m 60 years old in a few days. I will probably have only the next few years if I want to do some tough jobs.”
A month later, I hear from Šprajc. Backing secured, he’s planning another recon mission in the biosphere in March. As much as he trusts me with his story, he won’t say precisely where.
Elaine Glusac writes regularly for The New York Times. Like Indiana Jones, she hates snakes.