Thursday, March 15, 2012

Police Destroy Classic Maya Mortuary Cave in Chiapas

A few days ago, my wife asked me if I had heard the news report on National Public Radio about a cave full of bodies found in Chiapas, Mexico. I hadn't, and my wife's account of the report seemed garbled and contradictory. So, I searched the NPR news site and found the text of the report, which turned out to be garbled and contradictory. Thus, my wife's account was an accurate rendition of what she had in fact heard on the radio. The obfuscatory problem was that they reported a lot bodies that were more than 50 years old but also implied that they might be the cadavers (or maybe skeletons; it wasn't clear) of murdered Central Americans. It all sounded very muddy and improbable.

Now the BBC is reporting that the cave was an archaeological site, and the skeletal remains--of 167 individuals--were prehistoric. Unfortunately, law enforcement apparently collected the remains haphazardly by dumping them into large plastic bags without recording much, if any, spatial or contextual information. That doesn't sound like the right way to conduct a forensic investigation. I can attest without fear of contradiction that it is the wrong way to recover archaeological materials and data. We have probably lost any hope of interpreting the ritual and religious function of the cave because those inferences usually rely to a great extent on the spatial organization of the materials in the cave (see, for example, Medina and Sánchez [2007] and Tiesler [2007]).

This is a shocking and extreme case of police destroying a hugely significant archaeological site, albeit unintentionally. But we should remember that this is a perennial issue in archaeology. Something similar happened with Ötzi, the "Ice Man" found in the Alps. The police manhandled him pretty roughly before they realized he was not old but truly ancient.

In most jurisdictions in the United States, for example, when you find human remains, regardless of how old you may think they are, you are required by law to contact police or the local medical examiner. If you are lucky, they are careful and professional enough not to mess up the site if it is archaeological. In my experience, law enforcement is usually respectful of an archaeologist's opinion, when one has actually found the remains. By the same token, law enforcement personnel probably fear, with some justice, that archaeologists might accidentally mess up a crime scene, and, somewhere, sometime, it probably has happened, although we surely all hope that archaeologists are by default meticulous enough to avoid doing too much damage to medico-legal evidence. I do know cases in which archaeologists on survey have found murder victims, or parts of them. I once worked with a young woman who seemed to be fated to always be the one who found the body parts from Mob hits.

Law enforcement agencies should have a plan in place to coordinate with appropriate archaeological authorities when there is any doubt about the age of remains. When I worked for the Navy in Washington, D.C., I was tasked with working out such protocols with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. (Yes, that is the same NCIS that is portrayed in the long-running television series starring Mark Harmon. Their building was right next to mine. Both are beautifully restored historic buildings at the Washington Navy Yard, which itself is a National Historic Landmark District. It's worth a visit if you're touring D.C.) The Navy was fortunate to have at that time some thoughtful and effective leaders who worried about such things.

I'm not aware of any guidance or policies promulgated by any body, such as professional societies for example, that deal with this issue. Do you know of policies or protocols for coordination between law enforcement and archaeologists? It's a more important issue than it may seem, as this newest incident in Chiapas sadly illustrates.

References cited

Medina Martín, Cecilia and Mirna Sánchez Vargas (2007) Posthumous Body Treatments and Ritual Meaning in the Classic Period Northern Peten: A Taphonomic Approach, in New Perspectives on Human Sacrifice and Ritual Body Treatments in Ancient Maya Society, edited by Vera Tiesler and Andrea Cucina, pp. 102-119. New York: Springer.

Tiesler, Vera (2007). Funerary or Nonfunerary? New References in Identifying Ancient Maya Sacrificial and Postsacrificial Behaviors from Human Assemblages, in New Perspectives on Human Sacrifice and Ritual Body Treatments in Ancient Maya Society, edited by Vera Tiesler and Andrea Cucina, pp14-44. New York: Springer.

No comments:

Post a Comment