A Multi-Species Haunting Auto-Ethnography
“Once upon a time……”
It starts with the end of one reality and the beginning of another. The changeling in the woods, the wolf at Wolvesey, the “Squatch” in the swamp, and the snake at the door are part of the “archaeology of me”. They form various episodes in my books. Through the years, and covering spaces of separate realities, these experiences have become a multi-species ethnography of my human consciousness. It has its beginnings with man’s best friend who I treated as an enemy, and where it might end is a “trail of tears” located along a cemetery route of memory. Along the way, I have been guided by an “archaeological poet” (Seamus Heaney) and an anthropological seer (Loren Eiseley). It has been both an “immense journey” and a caravan of extra-ordinary encounters. Foremost, it has become a wilderness trek along a path of ghosts that led to an avenue of the dead in Mexico. It is an “excavation story” of an archaeology that continues to haunt.
This “excavation story” is peopled by human and ghostly presences. It is also an exotic story framed in a familiar landscape. This makes the experiences unique and commonplace. It is walking the surface and experiencing the multiple layers of reality that are deposited there, and which continue to percolate into the present. Oft times, the journey has been an isolated one, devoid of human companionship, but not of life. As explored, I was accompanied by mythic creatures, cinematic heroes, and “speechless” animals. All of these presences (human, fictive, and animal) “voiced” their comradeship with me, and each contributed equally to my comprehension of what beauty and realism lies beyond the mundane and the habitual.
Those who have not experiences this richness, I say, have not been really blessed with the “spirit” that “haunts”! These stories, archaeological-ethnographic-theatrical in nature, are “naturally” personal. They are part of the continuing journey of my life and research, a haunting auto-ethnography of my occupation of (and cultural expression in) this world………
The Ghosts of “Indiana”……and Characterization in Fieldwork
“It’s a ruined lost city, isn’t it”? She replied sourly…. “With a God-damned lost treasure in it somewhere. All that’s lacking are pygmy natives with blowguns. Classic archaeological stuff, like those movies back in the seventies with the temples, and the big rolling stone balls and giant snakes and the idols, with emeralds in their eyes……”. (In the Courts of the Crimson Kings by S.M. Stirling 2008:137).
The saga and legend of Indiana Jones does not only haunt past presence, it also haunts the future. And it is not only ghosts! Archaeology as a science is also the spectral traces of “excavation” in science fiction.
Archaeology and movie directors also tell different stories about the past. In movies containing archaeological themes and storylines, there is always romance, danger, and violence, coupled with spectacular special effects. This “storyboard” achieves box office success, but comes at the expense of real ordinary past presence, mundane acts, and meticulous fieldwork. As S. M. Stirling further states in his book, the truth of archaeological work is often quite boring:
“And real archaeologists don’t do ruined cities and treasures. That’s for tomb robbers, not archaeologists. Archaeologists spend years excavating antique latrines and rubbish dumps with toothbrushes and whisk brooms” (2008:137).
Still, archaeologists are limited in their abilities to tell individual stories about a specific historical personage or an individual’s role in a particular event. Hollywood sometimes fills that gap, but the data is usually contrived, not historical or based on archaeological context and ethnographic situation. The past is more complicated than what archaeologists excavate or directors film. Today, we work with what remains in and of the present. This is what is, not what was. These contemporary remains are only some of what still exists. There are other material remains that lie hidden, are ignored, are misjudged, or are unable to be “recovered” (or “unearthed”) due to contemporary visions of reality or contemporary applications of technology. And some of these remains can be quite uncanny. There are stories, “excavation” ones not “ghost stories” that predate the contemporary popular cultural trend of paranormal reality TV (or movie reels). And they have occurred among archaeologists and have been documented in the historical record.
Let me tell you an archaeological story that stirred my interest in the relationship between “ruins” and “ghosts”, and the unearthing of haunting manifestations as part of an archaeological field approach. The story belongs long before my professional career as an archaeologist, and its origin were in books, not fieldwork. It began with my reading of various archaeological works, and historical accounts, of the Mayan Culture in Mexico and Central America. And it centered on the extensive ruins of Tikal in Guatemala.
During the Colonial Period in Mexico, there were numerous and horrific racial wars between Maya Indians and Europeans in the Yucatan Peninsula that continued into the 20th century. During the mid-19th century, a number of Mayan refugees migrated south from the Yucatan Peninsula and settled in the abandoned ruins of Tikal. Here they defaced the stone monuments and wrote graffiti on the stone walls. However, a swarm of vampire bats drove out the refugees, and perhaps saved further damage to the Tikal ruins. Were ancient Mayan deities responsible for this defense of Tikal?
In Maya cosmology, “Camazotz” was the “bat god” and was associated with night, death, and sacrifice. “Camazotz” was also considered the guardian of the Mayan underworld. Glyph 56 is considered the “bat sign”, and is a reasonable representation of the vampire bat. The glyph was a powerful symbol to mark against enemies. But was it more than just a symbol? During the 1880’s and 1890’s, Englishman Alfred Maudsley made numerous visits to all of the known Maya sites in the region. His meticulous drawings and photographs of Tikal are still used by archaeologists today. In a passage, Maudslay writes:
“All the mozos had fled back to the plain being frightened to sleep in the ruins because of the ‘Spirits of the House’” (quoted in Norman 1988:179).
In the Mayan language the name “Tikal” means “the place where spirit voices are heard” (Ibid:179), or “Place of the Voices”. The name “Tikal” probably dates from the time of the defacement of the monuments by the Mayan refugees (cf. Tickell 1991:110). Were these “spirit voices” the God “Camazotz” who sent vampire bats to stop the destruction of the ruins? Teobert Maler, an archaeologist who did extensive surveys of the ruins of Tikal some 20 years after Maudslay wrote:
“The Mayans believe that at midnight….their ancestors return to earth and, adorned as in the days of their glory, wander about in the forsaken temples and palaces, where their spirit voices are heard in the air” (Norman 1988:179).
Whether these “voices” were the “ancestors” of the contemporary Maya, or their god, “Camazotz” (in the form of vampire bats) makes no difference. A connection was made, more than 150 years ago, between archaeological ruins, an ethnographic culture, and specific haunting phenomenon! This is a connection that I continue in my fieldwork at locations perceived to be haunted by past presence. And for me, one does NOT need a “Hollywood” script to make it interesting, entertaining, and adventurous. One merely needs a “resonating contextual cultural” script!
How infrequently we have overlooked the “excavation stories” that have come out of fieldwork, especially those dealing with the ordinary or mundane field methodologies that do “unearth” past presence. But we must go beyond the surface “digs” of Hollywood’s versions of archaeological adventure, intrigue, and spectacle (aka “Indiana Jones”). By deepening our excavations into what (and who) does remain from the past, we can alter the contemporary reality of our views of past presence.
This, I propose, is a return to the “art” of excavation, a re-assessment of theatrics, and a re-focus on directing our energies, cameras, and audio equipment to what lies on the surface of the mundane regarding “active” past presence. Though focusing on the ordinary and mundane of the past, we can still unearth and record spectacular finds in unique, thrilling, and scientific ways. We don’t need the “ghosts” of “Indie” to guide us, just to show us that there is something more to re-cover in our archaeological fieldwork!
Archaeology has always been framed by its perceived limitations on what is considered “remains” from the past, and reflective of an “archaeological record”. Couched into this narrow perspective is the practice of excavation as ideally objective. That objective aspect hinders a personal approach to “who” remains and what may still lie hidden but recoverable. Filmmaking is also subjective. It involves choices. This makes it intensely personal.
What is needed (in both archaeology and archaeologically-themed filmmaking) is a documented process that involves choice, is highly personal, and recovers what a “typical” excavation has missed. At the same time, we must seek data in such a way that is both exciting and advances the science of archaeology as a discipline that recovers past cultural behaviors and patterns. This must be participatory in the adventurous journey of cultural immersions into the past, and objectively observing and recording the results of our personal (and emotional) efforts. This stance lies beyond the documentary record and expands to that of a continuing human record of past presence. This is “storytelling”, not just “movie-making” for profitable ends. This is:
“…following the guidance of one’s own experience, intuition, and imagination beyond the limits of basic empirical evidence toward the creation of a more compelling presentation of our rather lifeless archaeological data” (Noble 2007:241).
I do not agree, however, with the notion that “it is unlikely that we can ever present the products of archaeology in a fashion that is as entertaining as the visual artistry of good film….” (Noble 2007:241). We can present a feel and vision of the past that archaeologists have not previously excavated, or film directors have exhibited through their cinematic productions. This must be, however, the approach of a trained archaeologist who uses immersions into other cultural worlds to recover what is lost, has been forgotten, or even previously ignored.
The way to the past, and the unearthing of its presence is not cinematic, though it does involve acting, and it does utilize camera work (both video and photographic) to record the journey to and from. This trek, through excavation, is no “flight of fancy”, though it does require an “out of body” experience and direction. And this experience is a “possession”, of having the body “possessed” by another. This is not paranormal or demonic. It is the “way of the actor” (Bates 1987):
“…for some actors possession is not only what they experience, it is what they seek to experience” (1987:69).
This “possession experience” is “getting into” the character. At a haunted location, it is the historical character that may still be actively present. It is behavioral (contextual) acts so participated in/performed that the historical personage “speaks” as that active presence. This is not an “Indiana Jones” scripted sub-plot. It is real, and it occurs during fieldwork!
This experience of being “possessed” or “taken over” is a method to identify with an historical character, such that the cultural resonance (“possession”) stimulates a past memory, and creates an “identity”. The investigator has an internal presence (one of his own) that is expressed externally to the entity. During this process of internalization/externalization, an “eternal present” emerges, changing contemporary reality. This is a “treasured” moment, and a recovery of the past. And I believe it is more exciting and eventful than any Indiana Jones exploit that is preserved on celluloid!
If our performance acts do affect what is occurring (manifesting) in the present, then these actions, focused on specific past situations and spaces, allow events and individuals from that past to become present. Past experience is also brought to “light” (and “life”), however fragmented it may be. The development of past character and identity in fieldwork involves the investigator assuming the role, as actors do, of a “psychic explorer”, a real character, not quite like the reel character of Indiana Jones! In this authentic real-life investigative role, the fieldworker (as actor) is acting “psychic”:
“When people sense what we mean without any outward sign from us, we assume they are psychic. Actors are attempting to be psychic all the time. They are transmitting thoughts, experiencing desires, exerting wills, inducing states – and sending out all varieties of emanations to an audience…..” (Marowirz 1978:103).
In fieldwork, that “audience” is the “interactive cultural apparition”. If they respond to our participatory acts, this psychic link is achieved through cultural resonance with what occurred in the past. What was once “buried” is now exposed, a cinematic touch that “Indiana Jones” would appreciate! The manifesting past is not imagined (as in a movie script), it is recalled, relived, and reproduced as “live” event. This event is not paranormal. It is the preparation and execution of a specific role by an actor/investigator in fieldwork!
This investigative “acting act” is a demonstration of a degree of sensory communication “beyond those we normally accept” (Bates 1987:203). Yet, it is not beyond our present notions of reality! It is the investigator (as actor) “extending the powers of communication” (Ibid:203). This communication is a resonance between present and past, the living and the “dead”, and between two or more human beings. And it is an experience that “keeps us in contact with the mystery which lies at the heart of life” (Bates 1987:205).
“…..modern actors are bringing to us powers from the beyond. Healing energies. Spirits………”.
- Brian Bates
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