Michael Bawaya

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A number of other archaeologists working in the Maya region and other parts of the world are also engaged in some form of this practice, which is also referred to as community archaeology. “It’s a movement,” says Freidel, “and Arthur’s at the head of it.”

“He’s a visionary when it comes to this branch of archaeology,” says Raymond Chavez, a former vice president at Counterpart International, a non-profit development organisation based in Arlington, Virginia that works with Demarest. “He perceived this and developed it as a model that could be replicated.” It began as what Chavez calls “an obscure pilot project, and in three years it was adopted by the Guatemalan government.”

Now all archaeological projects in Guatemala must have a community development component. In 2004, Demarest was awarded the National Order of Cultural Patrimony by the Guatemalan government.

Demarest describes his approach as being “bottom up – we’re working through the village,” and therein lies its success. He designed a research and community development plan that was informed by ethnographic studies of the Maya people as well as consultations with leaders from several villages near Cancuén. The intent of the plan is to enable the local people to serve as custodians of their own heritage.

The communities choose from a variety of projects in archaeology, restoration, ecotourism, reforestation and other fields that they manage under the guidance of experts. “I play the role of coordinator, raising money from many external agencies, negotiating with the Guatemalan government, state governments, local towns and above all, village men’s and women’s committees,” says Demarest, who adds that the Cancuén region is one of the poorest in this poor country.

“The cash incomes to families that participate in the tourism projects at Cancuén have increased by at least 35%,” says Chavez. There are no roads to Cancuén, so the locals started a boat service that ferries tourists down the Pasión River from the nearby village of La Union to Cancuén, which has been turned into an archaeological and ecological park.

In addition to generating revenue, the boat service attracted a variety of agencies that provided potable water, electricity and school improvements to La Union. The World Bank cited the boat service as one of the 10 most innovative rural development projects in the world in 2003.

Demarest also helped establish a visitor centre, an inn, a guide service and a campground at Cancuén. Three nearby villages manage the operations and the profits pay for water systems, school expansions and medical supplies. “The only way these things are going to succeed is if it’s theirs,” he says.

Chavez notes that doing development work in Guatemala is not easy. Part of the job is “trouble-shooting and putting out fires for the many conflicts that arise between agencies, governments, villages and most frequently between different groups within villages,” says Demarest. “My biggest job is as intra-village referee.”

He spends about 70% of his time on development work. He’s been focussed on obtaining a large grant to build a high school at Cancuén, which currently has no school. If the school is built, archaeology will be part of the curriculum.

Though it might seem that this work comes at the expense of his research, Demarest says otherwise; in fact, he incorporates the local people’s knowledge into his research methodology. In return for his help, they tell him where to dig, which has lead to some of his discoveries.

They also inform him about incidents of looting, one of which was widely covered by the international media. In 2003, several locals enlisted Demarest’s help when a member of their village was beaten severely by drug traffickers armed with automatic weapons who were searching for a 270 kg altar stone that had been looted from Cancuén.

Demarest joined forces with Guatemalan law enforcement officials to recover the altar. According to Guatemalan archaeologist Tomás Barrientos, who was then working at Cancuén, Demarest paid out of pocket for helicopters, boats and lawyers to expedite the investigation. The officials eventually recovered the monument and the looters were arrested and convicted.

Demarest and others who testified against the looters faced death threats and for a time he hired bodyguards.

The outcome was “a major triumph for conservation and the battle against looting,” he says. The recovery of the altar was also crucial to his research in that it provided important information about Cancuén’s political history and it also elucidated the subsequently discovered royal massacre evidence.

Demarest has his share of admirers – and detractors as well. Some colleagues think he has a genius for self-promotion rather than science. “He does it for his own aggrandisement,” a distinguished Mayanist says. Another Mayanist, Arlen Chase from the University of Central Florida, says, “even if you do not agree with his conclusions and models, one has to respect his ability to immediately publicise research”.

Freidel, who is a friend of Demarest’s, says researchers who practice community archaeology are sometimes derided as self-promoters because they publicise their successes in order to raise money. “Arthur’s in harm’s way in this respect,” says Freidel. “He doesn’t do it to satisfy his own ego.”

Because of his ‘derring-do’, Demarest has been portrayed in the media as a modern-day Indiana Jones. He sometimes modifies the characterisation, describing himself as “a singing, dancing Indiana Jones,” referring to how he must perform to raise money for his projects.

He thinks too many archaeologists are seduced by the ‘goodies’, those being palaces, royal tombs and other dramatic finds that attract media attention. Archaeologists have become more reliant on private money to fund their investigations, and according to Demarest “those spectacular finds are what get the attention of private donors and institutions.”

He also acknowledges that archaeologists face unreasonable pressure to publish to advance one’s career. Consequently, some archaeologists “have to spit out publications that are very light on data” to meet publication requirements.

But the singing, dancing Indiana Jones equally could have been referring to his other theatrical side. During a presentation at the SAA meeting several years ago, Demarest arrived so late that the moderator was about to introduce the next speaker.

Once on stage, Demarest abandoned his prepared remarks and the lectern, delivering an impassioned, impromptu talk spiced with expletives while roaming the large room, evoking occasional laughter.

He spoke about his belief in ethical archaeology and criticised those of his colleagues who have failed to grasp the necessity of it. During the course of his talk he also revealed that discovering royal palaces (he’s found several) bores him and that a movie produced about his work by National Geographic, who has provided him with more than $300,000 in funding, was dreadful.

As luck would have it, a National Geographic representative was in the audience. When the representative introduced herself, he regretted his candour. “Another foot in my mouth. I’m half Cajun and half Italian and I can’t control my mouth or my hands,” he said, referring to his tendency to gesture.

I attended this year’s SAA meeting, secretly hoping for a repeat performance. But other than some humorous ad-libbing – he eventually managed to whittle his paper down to size – his talks were devoid of theatrics and he stayed put at the lectern.

Freidel says Demarest is trying to balance his personal and professional lives and that “he bears the responsibility he’s taken on himself with increasing grace.” Unlike most Americans working in Guatemala, Demarest spends much of the year there, either at Cancuén or his residence in Guatemala City. He raised his two sons there and he’s now married to a Guatemalan woman.

Demarest may be mellowing, but he’s not slowing down. “He’s a very motivated person,” Freidel says. “Very high energy.”

Working in the Guatemalan jungle is hard, but Demarest says he takes pleasure in the roar of the howler monkeys, tolerates the bugs and is unfazed by cold showers. “I intend to keep digging until I’m dead.”