A Modern-day Indiana Jones

Mayan expert Dr. Edwin Barnhart speaks in Dorsey Hall.

Dr. Ed Barnhart, director of the Texas-based Maya Exploration Center, is one of the leading experts in Mayan archaeology. His exploits include discovering the ancient Mayan city of Ma’ax Na and directing the Mexican government’s Palenque Mapping Project, which was a three-year endeavor to map the ruins of Palenque.

In addition to teaching courses in Maya astronomy and sacred geometry at the National Science Foundation, Barnhart is a Fellow of the Explorer’s Club. He’s made appearances on the History Channel, Fox News and the Discovery Channel.
“For a robbery, I thought it was pretty amiable.” – Edwin Barnhart, after being held at gunpoint near Palenque.

Barnhart spoke to an audience of more than 100 people in Dorsey Gym on Main Campus on Jan. 29. Many of those in attendance are planning to travel to Tikal during a Columbia College-sponsored trip to Belize in May (registration deadline extended to Feb. 10).

Prior to his lecture about Mayan history, Barnhart spoke to 93.9 The Eagle’s Matt Tarnawa. The interview below originally aired on “The Eagle Eye Drive at Five.”

Dr. Edwin Barnhart lecturing
Where is your research centered?
Over the last few years it’s been focused on trying to tease out what was scientific about the Maya culture. I look to things like their mathematical system. What do they know about astronomy? How can we figure out what they knew about geometry by analyzing the buildings?

What have you learned about the Mayans in recent years?
For one thing, they are an incredibly methodical culture. The way that they were able to collect, hold and process data was something that stood them apart from every other culture in the Americas.

A lot of folks automatically think of end-of-the-world doomsday prophesies, but their culture really wasn’t about that.
One of the reasons we can even strongheadedly say that they could predict the end of the world was their ability to project dates and astronomical phenomena far into the future or into the past. One of our misunderstandings is that they were using their calendar to make projections of where the planets would be or when a particular solstice would fall in their calendar far into the future, and we misunderstood that they were using that to try to predict some kind of end.

You’ve mapped out ruins that have been discovered. Can you talk about that?
One of my larger contributions to the field has been the survey and mapping of buildings that are hiding out there in the jungle. Not everybody wants to go out there and be in the middle of the jungle getting bitten by bugs and sweating as you chop away jungle, looking for these buildings. It’s something I love. To date, I’ve found about 4,000 buildings out there in the jungle between Belize, Guatemala and Mexico.

What got you started in the field?
I grew up as a boy just dreaming of being an explorer. Where would I explore? Where else in the world is
left to explore? It lead me first to South America where I dreamed of hiking the Andes ‘til I found another Machu Picchu. When I got to college (I chose the University of Colorado because I like to ski – that’s the kind of decision an 18-year-old man makes), there was no one there who knew about South America, but there were Mayanists. They introduced me to this brand new world that I knew nothing about. I went down on a field school and fell in love with it. Here I am 20 years later, still poking around in the jungle.

What is the Explorer’s Club? It sounds like something out of the movies – a bunch of people in a room with a bunch of leather bound books and pipes.
They have been around for 100 years, and they are a rather exclusive club. You’ve got to have three recommendations of people who are in the club to get in there. One of the presidents was Sir Edmund Hillary. James Cameron just won the award for his work in underwater exploration. It’s a group of folks who’ve made major contributions in the field of exploration, and I happen to be in the club. It often times is a group of people sitting in big leather chairs saying “Let me tell you about the time I was trapped in the African jungle...” It’s a fun group, it’s an eccentric group, and I’m proud to be part of it.

Do you have any stories like that from your trips in the jungle?
I have a number of interesting stories from my years in the jungle. Usually they’re told at the dinner table to my kids. I’ve had my share of adventures; most of them have been fun. There haven’t been that many times I’ve seen guns out there, but now and again. I was robbed at gunpoint one time while doing surveys in the jungle around Palenque. They were young kids, and they were pretty nice about it. I told them to talk slower because they were scaring me, and I couldn’t understand their Spanish. We got along pretty well. They did not take the ring of the girl who was surveying with me, and at the end, they gave me 50 pesos back. They said it was for my patience. For a robbery, I thought it was pretty amiable.

Mayan sculpture from Palenque
What’s next in the area of Maya culture? What will we discover?
That’s one of the most exciting things about Maya archaeology. For as much as we’ve found – and we’ve been at it for 150 years now – I estimate we’ve found less than 1 percent of the ruins that represent Maya culture. It is a huge, vast jungle. You can be standing 10 meters away from a building that’s 20 meters tall and not see it. And the trees are so tall; they even cover buildings from the sky. We’re going to have to ground truth out what’s going on in Guatemala’s jungle and Mexico’s jungle for centuries to come. Every single year we come back with astounding temples and beautiful pieces of art that have been hiding out there for thousands of years. We’ve barely begun to scratch the surface.

If you are interested in visiting the ancient Mayan city of Tikal, consider joining Columbia College’s 10-day study tour to Belize this summer. The trip starts May 24 and ends June 2; prices start at $2,999 and include airfare, lodging and 1 to 2 meals per day. All members of the College community at all venues are welcome, as are friends and relatives. Visit www.ccis.edu/studyabroad to learn more about the trip.