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Excavating at Copan Ruins

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Excavating at Copan Ruins

I finally asked the Honduran field archaeologists why they call me Mario, and what is so funny about that name anyway. They just laughed. I can only imagine that this stretch of humor is found in that they think that I look Italian or possibly that the name Mario is a little too close to maricon- the Hispanic word for homosexual- to not provoke a grade school snicker. This is only my guess, but these Honduran men really like calling people maricons. It seems to be a never failing nor faltering joke. If work is looking a little dull on the horizon all you have to do is point to a normally astute man and say, “Maricon.” Everyone then bursts out in waves of laugher and the dullness of the day vanishes into no more. Field archaeologist are the same all over the world.

One of the archaeologist on this crew especially likes calling me Mario. He has really light skin and the other archaeologist call him “Chele,” which is the Spanish word for milk misspelled. He was the one who gave me the nickname one day because he could not manage to pronounce nor remember my real name. Wade is a difficult name for many people in Latin America to say. So rather than learning to pronounce a word that comes from a different language, Chele has reverted to calling me Mario. When he does this everybody laughs. “Hey Mario, hahaha, give me some nails, hahaha.” I give him some nails.

It is a little funny though, because I think that Mario IS a decent equivalent to Wade, as they are both water names. Mario essentially means “from the sea,” Wade means to “cross a river to the other shore.”

Sitting on a pyramid, writing on my Alphasmart, I am looking out at the northern residential section of the massive Copan archaeology site. Everything is going just like archaeology excavations tend to go: the techs come in on Monday morning and ask each other if they are hung over, jokes are made all day long- laughter is perpetually heard out of every vestige of the ruins- the men talk about women, the women are tough as nails, and I walk around all day just looking around. This ain’t bad.

The part of the excavation that I am working on includes two trenches in which ancient burials are located. The digging archaeologist are digging them up. I walk from trench to trench making maps. An old Honduran man with a hooked over Mayan nose is the primary excavator of the skeletons. One day he looked up at Mira and I and exclaimed, “This skeleton looks just like me!” We looked at him, we looked at the skeleton, we tried to figure out how a little bundle of ancient bones could possibly look like the man who was crouching over them. He then let us in on the joke. “It ain’t got no teeth,” while he flashed us a big toothless smile. I like these Honduran Mayans. They like to laugh. They like to smile.

Concurrently with the excavation, work crews are continuously renovating parts of the site that have been destroyed by time and by bulldozers. These men are rugged, wear big white cowboy hats, and seem to have been born with shovels in-hand. I often try to go over and talk to these men, but we usually only exchange more smiles than words. We both seem to be a little shy. They remind me of my father. I want to get dirty and work with them, but I probably will not be any good at it. I suppose I will just stick to drawing maps.

This go on Copan is probably the most extensive archaeology site that I have yet worked on. Copan is a city, though one that has been un-peopled for a millennium. Pyramids soar into the sky, intricately carved minarets are scattered through the old plazas, and the ball courts that once were the stage for ritual blood sports. Down beneath the mammoth pyramid-like structures are multiple layers of more pyramids and other colossal buildings of past glory. The Maya built on top of their own ruins into infinitum. When a new king would come to power he would build right over the top of the last king’s structures. The Mayan empire was ancient even in their own time, and their sense of history was as extensive as their ruins. Copan is amazing. Archaeology does not get any more interesting than this.

Wade from Vagabond Journey.com
Copan Ruinas, Honduras
March 6, 2008

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Filed under: Archaeology, Central America, Honduras

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 76 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3054 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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