A LEADING Mayan specialist, who nearly lost his life while on an archaeological dig, has found out the hard way that cultural sensitivity and diligent preparation can only go so far.
University of Calgary professor Peter Mathews set out for a trip last month to the southern Mexican region of Chiapas to retrieve an 8th-century altar he had first discovered in 1993.
He was originally expecting it to remain in the village of El Cayo, near the Guatemalan border. But after talking to local village leaders over the increasing likelihood of the religious altar being stolen, he was given full approval to move the 500kg carved stone plate to a specially built site in a neighbouring village.
Professor Mathews, an Australian, has been a golden boy for those who decipher Maya hieroglyphs after helping to unravel a dynastic sequence of the Mayan rulers in 1974, while an undergraduate at Calgary.
Pelenque, 30 to 50 miles inland from El Cayo, has been the site for some of the richest Mayan artefacts.
The thousands of books, monuments and political and religious artefacts found there have mostly remained in Mexico, with most others stored in Guatemala, Honduras and Belize.
Professor Mathews cut short his last dig due to the unrest in the area known for the 1994 Zapatista uprising.
But when pick-axe marks were discovered on the altar, which could fetch upwards of a million dollars on the black market, Professor Mathews and his team went to the site to begin their excavation.
The seven-member team never finished the work. After negotiating for a day with dozens of protesters, five of the team were held captive by a rogue band of Chol Indians from other villages.
They stole their money, equipment and boots, beat them with rifle butts and forced them into the Usmacinte River.
The archaeologists swam and walked across the river, where they dodged gunfire and then made their way through the mountainous jungles of Guatemala in bare feet, equipped with only a penknife. After two days and nights they were finally rescued.
Afterwards Professor Mathews said: "We thought we had done our homework, talking to local authorities, but what these people told us later, when they held us captive, is that they don't respect any authority. This is not a case of foreign people coming in and dealing in a cavalier way," he said, adding that his captors were more interested in robbery.
He says his immediate goal is to find out what happened to the Mayan altar.
Despite being keen to return to Mexico, Professor Mathews does not want to endanger his colleagues in El Cayo.