Category Archives: Retired To Go

Retired to go… travel the world, make new friends and have great adventures


Although I was looking forward to a soaking tub, massage and feeling dry, I was also saddened to be leaving. Would I ever know what structure 24 was that I had been digging in? We had not aged it or determined its use by the time I left. In the original 3 by 3 meter digging, we had found a plaster floor and some walls so the structure was expanded another 3 by 3 meters. We found higher floor and walls and it was decided to follow the walls. There was some conjecture that it was connected to the pyramid next to it which was also being excavated. I wanted to stay! I would also not be there for the excavation of a burial that would be excavated in the next session by the group taking the Laboratory and Field Methods: Bioarchaeology course. There was so much more to learn and observe.

Would I go again? In a heartbeat!! But I can’t imagine that I will since I have so many other places I want to see and volunteer opportunities I want to do with limited funds. It was the experience of a lifetime and as Dr. Guderjan said in our orientation, “we were creating knowledge”.

For those of you who might be interested and/or would like to see other photos of the 2018 archaeological dig, you can view the Facebook page of the Maya Research Program, a nonprofit organization associated with the University of Texas at Tyler.

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Lab Day

The last day of our dig was spent in the lab processing excavated materials. We used toothbrushes and water to clean the artifacts which were then placed on screens to dry in the sun. The artifacts were counted, weighed and inserted in large ziplock bags which included legible slips with the pertinent information of site location, layer in soil and date. The same information was written on the outside of the bag to secure the provenance of the artifact. We had excavated pottery sherds, obsidian, lithic, and shells. While we were cleaning artifacts, the staff was updating logs and documenting progress. It wasn’t possible to clean all of the artifacts excavated in the two-week session in one day.

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A Day Off

We had one day off in the two-week period and were given the choice to relax at camp or take a tour of Lamanai, one of the largest Maya cities in Belize and continuously occupied from about 1500 BC (maize cultivation) or 500 BC ( ceramic evidence) to the 1600s AD. I was able to see the three major pyramids on the site: The High Temple, The Jaguar Temple and the Mask Temple and climb the High Temple (about 30 meters high) before it started pouring. By lunchtime it had stopped raining and we had a delicious meal at a local lodge on the New River. There was a cooling breeze and it was the first time I felt “dry” since my arrival in Belize. It was a refreshing day off and a great opportunity to see another part of the country. Unfortunately, we also saw the “slash and burn” agriculture in process as a large acreage of tropical forest was smoldering and void of its trees as we drove by on our way back to camp.

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A Typical Day

I promised myself I would write in a daily journal, so every morning I was up at 5:00 am to have my first cup of coffee and write about the previous day. Breakfast was served at 6:00 am, a staff meeting was held at 6:30, and we were loaded in the trucks by 7:00ish. We were assigned a team and a structure to work on and usually arrived to the sound of howler monkeys or the antics of spider monkeys who liked to toss branches (or less desirable objects) at us from above. We took to our separate trails in the rain forest to our structures and would dig until break time at 10:00 am. We ate lunch at noon, we quit digging about 3:30 and were back at camp by 4:00 pm. Some of the group would load back in the trucks to swim at a local cenote (sink hole/natural deep well) or to shop at the local store. I chose to shower and don clean, dry clothes. Dinner was at 6:00 pm and sometimes there was a lecture at 7:00 as the sun was setting. The lectures were fascinating ranging from artist renditions of facial reconstructions from excavated burials to rock painting/art and Maya history. There was such a diverse group of professionals, doctoral candidates, graduate students, undergrads, businessmen and retirees. I so enjoyed listening to other archaeological experiences and stories, but I was exhausted by 8:30 or 9:00 pm and off to bed while others stayed up for more socializing.

Digging could be boring, hard on the back and strenuous. First we cut down trees, either with a machete or chain saw, raked the area clear and staked it 3 by 3 meters with string. We worked with two buckets, one for soil and one for rocks. We used small picks to loosen the humic and trowels and pans to scoop it up into the buckets. Root and rocks made for slow digging and we always had hand clippers nearby. In the beginning every fourth bucket was sifted through a screen. If there was a find such as obsidian, we switched to sifting every bucket. There were usually three people working a structure, two students or volunteers and one Maya who lived in the area. The Maya were extremely knowledgeable on structure construction and could interpret most of what we were finding. They were also wicked adept with a machete. My best find was a four to five-inch curved rim of a pot. It was important in dating that part of the structure to within 100 years or so. I found quite a few pottery sherds and some lithic (used for stone tools). Many of the other structures at our site were more forthcoming with the artifacts, especially in the pyramid and in the chultuns (underground storage chambers).

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First Impressions

Our camp is located on a rise of an escarpment in northern Belize. There are several buildings with electricity: a main building with kitchen, dining and living areas, a separate bathroom building with 2 each of women’s and men’s showers, toilets and sinks. There are three outside shower stalls as well. No hot water. There is also a separate lab building where artifacts are sorted, cleaned, examined and stored, logs are updated and sketches are drawn. The rest of the camp is comprised of sleeping cabins, mostly 8’ by 12′? metal structures with four windows for ventilation, two beds, two chairs, some shelves and no electricity. My first thought when I find my assigned cabana is why are the men closer to the bathrooms then the women. I wasn’t looking forward to middle of the night treks to the toilet.

For first timers, we spend the first full day in orientation and a three-hour site tour of previously excavated Blue Creek. The orientation includes an abbreviated history of the program, the ongoing association with the local community and Belize‘s National Institute of Culture and History, protocol, preservation of artifacts, security, safety and health issues to name a few.

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So Was I Prepared?

When friends heard I was going to Belize, they spoke of the beaches, snorkeling and scuba diving, and were envious of my destination. But my destination was the rain forest, not the beaches of the Caribbean. I knew it would be humid, hot and buggy. It was the beginning of the rainy season. I was not surprised to feel the humidity as soon as I set foot on the tarmac. Having lived in Arizona for the past seventeen years, humidity would be my nemesis. Unfortunately in my two weeks’s stay, I never acclimated to the humidity. Within minutes of walking in the forest, I was drenched, not from rain, but from perspiration. A bandana around my head and one around my neck were wringing wet all day long. I do wish I had brought hand towels for better absorption and a cooling wrap for my neck.

I took three bottles of insect repellent and used two during my stay. This was not so much for mosquitoes. It was for all the other bugs, especially chiggers. I was not prepared for these microscopic buggers who attacked my ankles with a vengeance. I couldn’t find hiking boots comfortable enough and wore hiking shoes. Unfortunately they left my ankles protected only by socks which weren’t enough. Some of my fellow diggers suggested dryer sheets which did seem to help against further ankle bites. The day I got home they had spread to my fingers, hands and arms, probably from scratching. I drenched myself with rubbing alcohol which seemed to stop the spreading. What would I have done differently? I would have brought more tightly woven socks and dryer sheets. I would have packed sulfur powder. I should probably add hiking boots, but honestly, I’m a penny pincher and wouldn’t spend the money for something I probably wouldn’t use again. A hiker I am not.

I wasn’t prepared for the change in diet. I usually have a smoothie of Greek yogurt and fruit for breakfast and salads or veggies with chicken or tuna for dinner. My body was assaulted by all the rice and beans and lack of vegetables. I craved vegetables. There’s no delicate way to say I had intestinal distress. And bathroom facilities in the forest were nonexistent… ribbons designated a bathroom area. We were told to drink lots of water, but water makes you pee. I tried to balance my intake versus having to crouch behind a tree. I’m not sure what I could have done other than pack dried fruits and vegetables.

Lastly, I hadn’t continued my strength training and wished that I had. We filled five gallon buckets with dirt or rocks and carried them twenty feet or so to either be sifted or dumped in a pile. Although I was able to lift and carry forty pound water bottles to set in water coolers where I volunteered, I had difficulty carrying these buckets, even two thirds full. I was envious of the “youngsters” and men close to my age who threw the pails on their shoulders, dumped them in the screens and sifted for the pottery sherds and obsidian. I do believe the cardio training enabled me to keep up the stamina. There were only two days where by the end of the day, I wanted to drop, but that was probably as much from the humidity and the heat.

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You Can Do This

As far back as I can remember I’ve had a fascination with Anthropology and Archaeology. After I retired, I subscribed to Archaeological magazines and learned that amateurs could volunteer for and participate in archaeological digs. The race was on… a race against aging. I felt I needed to do this before age 70, before my knees gave out, arthritis set in or my occasional senior moments became one continuous moment. Now I ‘m not the picture of health, having had a sedentary career in corporate taxation. I was overweight and felt unfit so a year and a half before I volunteered, I joined a gym. I engaged a personal trainer and started a cardio fitness program to increase my stamina and strength training to build up my muscles. As my brother said viewing photos of the program, “the pictures I’ve seen show young college age kids, not people in their late 60’s”.

Since I wanted to dig in one of the Cradles of Civilization, the best possibility seemed to be the Maya Civilization. It was closer to home, safer than others, and a civilization less known to me. One of the best preparations was reading. Not only did I take a course on the Maya, but also read several books. And I traveled to Guatemala and Honduras to visit the restored ruins of Tikal, Copan, Yaxha, and Quiriqua.

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Picture This

Picture this… I’m standing in Cabela’s with mosquito netting and insect repellent in one hand and a battery operated lantern in the other, necessities for my upcoming archaeological dig. My brother saunters up to me, eyes what’s in my hands and says “you’re @? %$& nuts”!! And even today after returning from an adventure of a lifetime, he still can’t fathom that I actually paid money to dig in the dirt.

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When I first began my international vacations in 2010 some friends and acquaintances suggested that I blog about my travels. Now there are those people who take magical photos and tell entertaining stories about their travels. I’m not one of them. But, an amateur on an archaeological dig… well that might be just a wee bit bloggable.

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