You Call This Archaeology?
Location: Somewhere on the Bolivian-Brazilian border
A shaggy, bearded gentleman pushes and fights his way through thick jungle vegetation. He gains only half-steps before having to hack and cut with a machete at the green wall of leaves and vines before him. His heavy khaki shirt is soaked with the sweat of work and tropical humidity. He wears also a pair of loose fitting dark breeches held up by a heavy utility belt, tall brown riding boots, and a hat–always the hat. He never seems to go anywhere without it. It is large and peaked, with a full brim. It protects him from the sun, keeps the sweat from his eyes, but most importantly, gives him a rakish appearance when worn cocked to one side.
Behind him is a small army of locals who are there to help him. Some are porters, hefting baggage and crates on their backs. Others follow more closely. They are his guides who know the jungle. They show him the way and see to his safety. These locals see him as more than a client. Unlike most Europeans, he speaks with them and not at them. He is thoughtful and aware of each person who travels with him. He pays them well because he respects them, and gives them gifts because he likes them. The loyalty that this adventurer enjoys is not purchased, however. Percy Fawcett is charming and genuine, personable, and every bit the swashbuckler.
As the expedition pushes ahead, slowly and deliberately, the group becomes suddenly stunned–and then everyone is sent into a panic. An enormous anaconda—sixty-two feet by Fawcett’s estimation—is slithering towards him. It is a man-eater. It means to kill him or someone near him. Fear takes hold of his crowd—shouts, scrambling, dropping of boxes. Fawcett stays put and coolly reaches for his holster, draws his pistol, and dispatches the interloper with hardly a shrug. He calmly turns to see and make sense of the pandemonium that has developed behind him.
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Shooting this snake would actually become one of his greatest misadventures. When he returned to England from his expedition, he reported to the Royal Geographic Society—the ones who paid for his expedition. When standing before the committee who was responsible for him, he relayed this moment of the trip. The tuxedoed members of the society became incensed–furious, in fact. One can imagine their stuffy annoyance: “My god, Fawcett, you mean to say you really shot it?! A sixty-two foot specimen, and you just shot it!” Of course he did. And they could only ask such a question from the safety of their offices. But they wanted it for a collection, and his bullet had spoiled it.
Besides, Percy Fawcett had not been sent to South America to collect specimens of plants or animals. He was an archaeologist and sometimes cartographer. He had been sent to South America to help settle a disputed territory and its borders. His stock in trade was the cultural history and homelands of South American tribe’s people.
Percy Fawcett was sent on this mission because he was an expert of the territory. He had made several extended expeditions to the interior of the South American continent over his lifetime. It was not infrequent for him to make contact with people who had never before seen a European. He specialized in learning customs and languages. He made friends easily, and locals looked out for him.
His knack for adventure was, by all measures, impressive. Possibly he pushed himself because he had very large shoes to fill. Percy’s father was born and raised in India, a world adventurer, and a fellow of the Royal Geographic Society. His brother was a famous mountain climber and adventure writer. To get a word in at a family dinner-table such as this, one must have something exceptional to contribute.
As an archaeologist and historian of South American cultures, Percy Fawcett learned of many local legends and myths. Among these, he learned of a supposed lost city in the uncharted territories of Western Brazil. There was little known about the city, not even a name. In fact, when he began pitching a new expedition to prospective financiers, he was forced to call this lost city simply “Z.” His experience, his connections to the Royal Geographic Society (if sometimes strained), and his engaging personality earned him a fully-funded expedition to seek out “Z.”
In 1925, Fawcett’s expedition broke through the dense exterior of the Brazilian jungle, and he was never heard from again. No one knows exactly what happened to him. Some think that an aggressive tribe killed him and his party. Others believed that he established a commune in the jungle and never intended or expected to return to England. Most likely, he and his companions perished from jungle disease. No one will ever know for sure. However, his life and persona have lived on to inspire a similar though fictional adventurer. My guess is, at some point during this contribution, the theme song of this character has reverberated in your head.
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For further reading about the adventures of Percy Fawcett, I recommend The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon (2009) David Grann