National Geographic : 1942 Nov
Finding Jewels of Jade in a Mexican Swamp BY MATTHEI'IW W. ANI MARION STIRLING With Illustrations by Staff PhotographerRichard II. Stewart IN THE depths of the vast coastal swamps of Tabasco, we sat somewhat dazed in the comparative luxury of a two-room corru gated-iron house. Near by, in an armchair, was Richard H. Stewart, National Geographic Society staff photographer, who shared our magic-carpet experience. Only twelve hours before, the three of us had eaten breakfast in Mexico City. We still wore our best clothes, in which we had boarded a Pan American plane. Two years before (1940), we had come to this very swamp, but had spent five days in arduous travel to reach it from our near-by camp in southern Veracruz. On the last lap we had wallowed afoot in the muck. On that National Geographic Society-Smithsonian ex pedition, we lived here for two weeks in an Indian's uncomfortable thatched hut while we were uncovering an impressive group of an cient stone monuments. In 1941 the National Geographic Society Smithsonian Institution Expedition to South ern Mexico had found 782 pieces of jade at Cerro de las Mesas.* This evening, had we known that within a few days we were to unearth another magnifi cent collection of pre-Columbian jade objects, we would have been even more amazed. But sufficient for the day was our wonder ment at the swift journey and such pleasant quarters. The Petroleos Mexicanos, in our absence, had sunk a wildcat well here in the swamp, only a mile from the archeological site of La Venta. A camp had been established and a canal dredged to it from the Tonala River (map, page 642). Orizaba Casts Its Veil Aside So we had boarded a plane in the Mexican capital, flown across Lake Texcoco, and then on to Veracruz over the rugged mountains which separate the central plain from the coastal plateau. We caught a rare glimpse of the snow-clad peak of Orizaba (Citlalte petl) gleaming in its white mantle and com pletely free of the clouds which usually cling to it. Leaving Veracruz, we flew south to Mina titlan. We had hoped to obtain an aerial view of the village of Tres Zapotes, which had been our home for two winters. Unfortu nately, the entire area south of Veracruz was wrapped in clouds. Not even the peaks of Tuxtla or San Martin appeared above the white blanket. Only when our plane ducked below the misty screen to land at Minatitlin did we know our whereabouts. Through the courtesy of the oil company we found another plane awaiting us, so we piled in immediately and flew to Coatzacoalcos (Puerto Mexico). Landing in a little cow pasture behind the sand dunes, we motored to town and met Alfonso M. de Ibarrola, super intendent of the new oil camp at La Venta. By station wagon and boat we completed our trip to the camp before dark. Awaiting us were two of our old workmen from La Venta. We dispatched them to re port our arrival to Dr. Philip Drucker, who had been sent ahead more than a month be fore to continue the excavations at the arche ological site on this island in the heart of the swamp. Explorers Acquire a Modern Home Ibarrola, who had accompanied us, insisted on turning over to us his two-room house, complete with shower, while he moved into the radio house. Just as we were getting settled, Dr. Drucker hiked over from his camp on the island. We had a reunion, catching up on news from our respective ends of the world. We were eager to see La Venta again, so early the next morning we set out for Druck er's camp, built in the clearing of Sebastian, native headman of La Venta. Sebastian's ample wife, with commendable conservatism, refused to recognize recent en croachment of civilization by donning a shirt. She listened with coy pleasure to her vigorous 85-year-old husband while Sebastiin told us, "She's not much to look at, but is a fine worker, loyal, and the best wife I ever had." Drucker had finished his work on the strati graphic trenches and we looked over the col lection of pottery and figurines he had recov ered. One interesting specimen was the clay model of a human skull on a platter. La Venta's huge central mound is 105 feet high. From the summit a view may be had over the coastal swamp as far as the eye can * See "Great Stone Faces of the Mexican Jungle," NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, September, 1940, and "Expedition Unearths Buried Masterpieces of Carved Jade," September, 1941, both by Matthew W. Stirling.