My Field Seasons with Ian Graham

IMS 2013 04 page1 image1My Field  Seasons with  Ian Graham

by Lee Jones

(The following is an article in the April 2013 IMS Explorer)

Maya enthusiasts have had to attach themselves to scholars or experienced guides, or else they roam the Maya area lost and unable to appreciate the full passion of that magical ancient kingdom. Fortunately, this ruinhunter spent nine years of mini-field seasons with Ian Graham, then Director of the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions Project of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University in Cambridge. Usually in mid-December, he would call me from his office in the museum in Cambridge, just before going to England for Christmas times, and request my presence at a certain place and at a certain time, usually in the following February, to which I always “gulped”, and then agreeably agreed.


I won’t go into a lengthy description of his many discoveries and contributions to the advancement of Maya hieroglyphic studies and discoveries – that has been well covered in previous publications. But Ian, the human behind the persona, may not be as well known. My field seasons spent with Ian were usually four to fourteen days each, and took place during the years between 1988 and 1997 (excluding 1991). I was usually assisting him with mapping.

We first explored Uxmal, then Xcalumkin, Coba, El Resbalon, Okop (Yo'okop), along with several other sites, and investigated potential ancient sites, like caves, colonial churches with stones from ancient buildings, or whatever Ian had on his agenda. Field season nights could be boring, and Ian would “run” excerpts from the three books he was then preparing, by me. These consisted of an Alfred Maudslay biography, his own autobiography, and a biography on Teobert Maler (that is currently in print). He was meticulous to a fault (I thought) in accuracy, and in everything else he did.

While mapping an ugly, overgrown, and forgotten site, he would say in his “veddy-veddy” British (with a touch of Scottish) accent: “Oh, Lee, not to worry that you’re holding the transit rod tilted. This isn’t Manhatten Island real estate”. But in the end, he would demand that I hold a steady and perpendicular rod.

In nine years, he never allowed me to carry his transit or drive his Land Rover!

An IMS Explorer article should have a finite number of words. So, I will give a few bare facts and observations about Ian Graham during field seasons:

1) He had three ancient Land Rovers, stationed at his house in San Andrés, department of Petén, Guatemala. He  swapped parts from all to construct a usable one for each field season.

2) At least while in Mexico, he preferred to stay at hotels, if possible, and get up an hour earlier and come back an hour later to, and from, a site, rather than set up camp at the site. He would only camp out if he had to, because he felt that it took more effort and time to construct and cook at a camp, taking time away from the work in the ruins.

3) At least until the time Ian was seventy-five, he didn’t need to use glasses, even to use his transit. He had great powers of observation, even in the dense and thorny bush of the Yucatán, to find hidden objects of interest while mapping. He could find a hidden chultun, pieces of Maya sculpture, or investigate a rise on the horizon that woud later turn out to be a mound.

I remember when he discovered a round masonry structure at Uxmal. I had been sitting on cut stone at the base of the construction and didn’t recognize at first that the stone I was sitting on was just a small part of a much larger structure.

4) A typical day: We’d get up before dawn; consume two or three oranges each to get us going; then head off to the site and wait for the sun to come up. Once we could see what we were doing, there was always a lot of hard machete work to cut a straight line course through the bush to who knows where.

Then we’d partake of a breakfast, either at our hotel, if it was close by, or just sharing egg sandwiches in his Land Rover. After that, we’d continue mapping whatever we had chopped and cleared. Of course we’d take a lunch break, however and whenever possible. Afterwards, we’d continue exploring and mapping, checking all of the structures we had come in contact with while he maintained his proper field notes. He loved to make time for his “three square meals a day”, but somehow was also able to maintain a 34" waistline.

5) When back at the home base, he showered (if available), took a 30 -45 minute nap, then worked on his notes for an hour or so. If we were at a hotel, this gave me a chance to be an archaeologist of note to the other travelers gathered around the dinner tables.

I remember an IMS group visiting Coba in the mid 1990s. They observed Ian and me mapping one of the ballcourts. At the little Club Med hotel there, where we were all staying, while Ian was still in his room recording his mapping, I pontificated to them about my knowledge of the ancient Maya, until Ian appeared. Then, I was abandoned, as he was flooded with questions that he patiently answered. I loved swaggering into hotels after a hard day (it was hard) in the ruins with my machete at my side and bandana around my forehead. I was treated like a rock star by the tourists until Ian appeared!

6) When mapping in the large sites – Uxmal and Coba come to mind – tourists would walk up and ask questions. Ian was always patient with his answers (unless the tourists had horrible T-shirts on), but more patient with Mexican citizens, and especially pretty Mexican or Guatemalan ladies (may have been my imagination).

After a hard day at Uxmal, possibly the most beautiful of Maya sites, after Palenque, but perhaps the most difficult and exhausting to map, Ian and I used to make the little trip to the nearby Maya town of Opichén. We’d sit with a cold beer from my ice chest and observe the especially pretty Maya ladies walking around the square. I’m not sure why Opichén has such pretty ladies.

7) Ian had some strong convictions and opinions. He was adamant that people show responsibility to practice civilized behavior. At Coba, he admonished a tour bus group, who threw the garbage that had accumulated in their bus, on the ground by the site entrance. He lectured a horrible man at Felipe Carrillo Puerto, Quintana Roo, who had a spider monkey roped and left outside during a rainstorm. I can go on. He did not like restoration of ruins, but appreciated conservation. He could get mad in English, but he could also get mad in Spanish. At Coba, while mapping a minor ballcourt by the, so called, Cono structure, a huge man, leading a small frightened tour group of Mexicans, charged him, wanting to know why he was destroying Coba (the only weapon of mass destruction was my machete). It got ugly. Ian didn’t suffer fools.

8) At Coba one day, an Italian man, with a beautiful Spanish wife,showed up with a small airplane run by what appeared to be a lawnmower motor. He wanted to take tourists up, for a fee. No one would go up with him. Ian agreed, went up and from the air found the “lost” pier (jutting out into Lake Macanxoc) that the aviator Charles Lindbergh reported sixty-five years earlier. Ian always believed that it existed. Earlier explorers always ended their reports with “Lindbergh pier not found”.

Well, I’ve run out of space – perhaps I’ll send more for another issue if Editor Jim Reed approves.

But – a hidden fact – Ian Graham, whose ancestor killed the King of England, was very instrumental in Eric Thompson becoming Sir Eric Thompson. Ian, I hope you don’t hold it against me for revealing this!

Enough for now . . .
Lee Jones, Ruinhunter

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Copyright 2012 My Field Seasons with Ian Graham. The Institute of Maya Studies is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization. Your charitable contributions are tax-deductible to the extent permitted by law.
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