Mostly, when someone asks you if archaeology is like Indiana Jones, you laugh and tell them how boring it is and how much paperwork there is. But sometimes, crazy stuff happens and you find yourself getting chased by boulders and fighting Nazis. I had a lecturer who had just such a life, here’s the story of when he got kidnapped and escaped through the Guatemalan jungle, and what he was actually like as a lecturer.
Peter Mathews is a bit of an eccentric, has a walrus moustache, bad hair, and loves the Geelong Cats AFL team more than anything else on this planet. As a younger man, he received a MacArthur Genius grant, and helped decipher Mayan hieroglyphs. He was also an academic, and was one of my professors during my undergrad. I did all of his classes, and he had some incredible stories. I tried to relate to my friend the story about the time Peter Mathews was kidnapped over the removal of an ancient Mayan monument, but I had forgotten most of the details. So here it is in full, taken directly from his walrus moustache (I found the story in Archaeology magazine)
“When we were in El Cayo in mid-June to plan our upcoming field season, we were told that monuments at the site, particularly an altar we had found in 1993, were at risk of being stolen,” says Mathews. “As it turned out, logistical problems precluded our scheduled work at the site, but there was still time to move the altar to safety if the Chol Maya elders and INAH agreed.” With the appropriate documents in hand, Mathews and the others, along with several Chol officials from Frontera Corozal, returned to the site on Thursday, June 26, to reexcavate the altar, which they had buried protectively with fine dirt and a cairn of stones the previous season, and crate it for removal by helicopter.
“When we arrived at the site,” says Mathews, “some of the protective covering had been removed, and there were three-foot-long pickax gouges in the altar. We felt that we got to the site just in time.” The following morning more than 60 angry villagers arrived at the site and demanded that Mathews and his team stop what they were doing, telling them that the altar was to go nowhere. By midday, says Mathews, the situation had deteriorated. “We told them that we would leave the altar right where it was but that it should be reburied to protect it. By this time, however, the group had broken down into different factions with no one in charge. There was just a lot of confusion. We were held in the main plaza of the ruins a few feet from the altar. By nightfall, several guys armed with rifles had arrived and begun dividing up our things. They took our money and anything of value. By this time the altar had ceased to be part of the discussion. We were told to remove our boots and get lost; our Chol field crew got to keep their boots. At that point we fled to the beach. Soon shots rang out, however, and we were told to stop in our tracks, leave our knapsacks in a pile, and line up on the bank of the river. We believed at the time that we would be shot and our bodies left to float downstream. As it turned out, they preferred to beat us up, hitting us with the butts of their rifles and kicking us. They got me in the eye with a rifle and broke my nose. After the beatings, six of our field workers managed to flee on foot along the river. Five of us–four archaeologists and Martín Arcos, one of the authorities from Frontera Corozal–realized that we had to cross the river to Guatemala if we were to make it out alive. Two of our party, Martín and Mario, couldn’t swim. We spent some time trying to figure out how to make some a flotation device out of a plastic poncho we had. Martín, who had suffered the worst–as we would later find out, he had three broken ribs and a ruptured spleen–walked downstream a little and tripped over a small canoe at the water’s edge. It was just big enough for him and Mario. Three of us swam across the river with the canoe. Being without boots, we were really worried about snakes and we were also very cold. The rains had started, so we could not dry out after we swam across the river. We shivered through the night, but we did not want to light a fire and give away our location. We decided to try to make Piedras Negras, where Stephen Houston [of Brigham Young University] was working; they would have clothes and food and perhaps be in radio contact with the outside world. To hike there would be difficult. We hiked Saturday and most of Sunday. Luckily, late Sunday afternoon a motor launch supplying the Piedras Negras camp gave us a lift to the site, where we spent the night. The next morning (Monday), the boatman gave us a lift to Frontera Corozal, where we were met by Mexican government officials, who drove us to Palenque. That night Martín was operated on at a clinic in town.” According to Mathews, the fate of the altar is uncertain. “We left it buried at the site, but given that someone had tried to remove it before, who knows if it is still there?”
Where Peter Mathews went, from the site across the river to Guatemala, north to Piedras Negras, south to Frontera Corozal and then a military escort to Palenque
The funny thing is, Peter Mathews only ever mentioned this incident in passing once during class. The first time I heard more about it was from another archaeologist, Jay Silverstein, who also knew Peter, and said to me “Tell him I say hello, I haven’t seen him in years, not since my wife and I had dinner with him after he was kidnapped.” like it was no big deal. (Although Jay once fell down an ancient well in Mexico and had to climb out, so maybe for him it really isn’t a big deal to get kidnapped).
What Indiana Jones Might Have Been Like As A Lecturer
Peter Mathews was a great lecturer, he effortlessly held our captivated attention for 3 hours a week. He wasn’t supposed to lecture for 3 hours a week, but he felt he was above the system, and always explained on day one that the two hour “seminar” was in fact two 1 hour lectures, on top of the timetabled lecture.
Every semester he would give one student 99 or 100 for the semester, because the university had told him he couldn’t.
The archaeology department had an IT guy employed specifically to follow Peter around, because he was hopeless with computers. He referred to his slides as PointyPowers and when he gave them to us via the computer in the corridor we discovered that they were also named PointyPowers.
The multiple choice component of his exams always had 5 answers, four serious ones, and one about the Geelong Cats. eg; Why did the Egyptians worship cats? C) Because CATS FOR PREMIERS 2009.
If you managed to work the Geelong Cats into your essay answers during an exam, you would receive extra marks. (I once wrote an essay about the deciphering of Mayan hieroglyphs, and described Peter Mathews as “… professor, decipherer, snappy dresser and all around nice guy.” and got an extra mark for my troubles.
However, Peter Mathews was kind of useless as a teacher. He really didn’t want anything to do with us outside of lectures. He didn’t know our names and had no desire to know them. He hated interacting with us face to face, but appreciated seat fillers in his lectures. He despised anyone coming in late, because it was distracting, but what was more distracting was his fuming and ranting Every Single Time someone came late. One semester we had a lecture theatre with a wall between the lecturer and the door (see Fig below).
Peter Mathews and terrified student, can’t see each other, but we can all see both of them. Awkward…
The unfortunate late student would open the creaky door, alerting everyone to their lateness. From the audience, we could see Peter and the late student, but they couldn’t see each other, and there was always one endless moment when the student would look at the rest of us, desperate for some kind of sign that everything would be OK, the lecture hadn’t started yet, he’s in a good mood today, he popped out for a second. But every time, all they got back was a sea of faces saying “well, you’re screwed, may as well try to sneak in.” Meanwhile, Peter is standing there fuming, breathing hard, breaking into a sweat and gripping the lectern. He would always ask for the student’s name as they tried to sneak in, but he never told us what he was doing with this list. I was late a few times, until I decided that I wouldn’t go to the lecture if I was more than 5 minutes late, and just wait for the next one. I couldn’t help but feel that all his problems could be solved by locking the door and putting a note on it explaining his disdain for lateness.
The last time I saw Peter Mathews, I was submitting my final assignment for one of his classes. It was an emotional sort of moment, I’d been doing his classes for 2 years, and there I was, submitting my last assignment, the end of an era. As I walked down the hall to go home, he was walking the other way. I smiled at him and he stared at me blankly and rushed past. I felt like that moment defined Peter Mathews’ teaching philosophy, but I don’t hold it against him. He did some amazing things and it was pretty cool hearing about them, but he wasn’t a teacher and probably shouldn’t have been expected to be one.