Chapter 14Modularity

I just dropped a 1,500-year-old Maya ceramic.

It was already mostly broken…but the sinking feeling in my heart was indescribable. Beneath the giant palapa (open thatched hut) at the Martz farm just south of Benque Viejo del Carmen, a carefully choreographed archaeological dance of sorts had been underway for several hours.

Minanhá, Belize. The Late Classic Maya city center situated between Xunantunich and Caracol was little more than unceremonious piles of rubble amid the milpa (terraced fields of maize and beans), but the dig site would be the summer home of our expedition.

We surveyed and mapped hillsides, selected dig sites, and forged ephemeral canopies from palm fronds to protect us from the tropical sun and our excavations from the tropical downpours.

By day, the dig—excavating for hours, measuring, photographing, sketching, and slowly excising the hillside. Tiny trowels and pickaxes delicately chipping away at the past. Balancing soil on large screens, we sifted dirt from potsherds, from bone, from Belizean bugs, from bottles. If you ever find an empty bottle of One Barrel rum at the bottom of your dig, you've wasted hours if not days of effort—it's the telltale sign that the site has been excavated and subsequently filled in.

By night, the dance—the giant palapa aglow with the flicker of kerosene, a mix of frenetic yet coordinated activity as the day's plunder was brushed, washed, rinsed, photographed, typed, documented, and bagged for transport ...

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