Chris Begley, AM’92, PhD’99, is an archaeologist with a taste for adventure. Just don’t call him Indiana Jones.
Chris Begley and I are on a drive, a little outside Lexington, Kentucky, when he gets an idea. “I want to show you a shipwreck,” he says. Begley doesn’t need a map as he navigates his tan Jeep Cherokee toward the banks of the Kentucky River. We pull over and clamber to the water’s edge. It’s late November and the riverbank is slippery with dead leaves. Thirty feet or so ahead, the promised shipwreck is just visible above the water’s surface.
The Brooklyn, a 1903 stern-wheeler, was once a floating restaurant. The vessel met an unhappy end in 1988, when, after a bad drought, its hull was punctured by the river’s rocky bottom. Since then the Brooklyn has slid deeper and deeper below the water’s surface.
An archaeologist whose recent work focuses on shipwrecks, Begley, AM’92, PhD’99, has his eye on this one. There’s been relatively little archaeological investigation of life along Kentucky’s water routes, and he’d like to take students and fellow scholars out to study the Brooklyn and other craft submerged in the state’s rivers and canals, as well as the remnants of historic water infrastructure, such as water lines and pumping stations. He likes shipwrecks because they help you understand what people valued: What did they buy and sell, and what were they willing to ship over long distances?
But Begley, an associate professor at Transylvania University in Lexington, hasn’t as much time to devote to the fledgling Kentucky Waterways Project as he’d like, in part because he’s been busy doing research on shipwrecks in the Mediterranean and El Salvador.
It’s worth pausing here to consider that, in Begley’s world, this constitutes an entirely unexceptional explanation: I have not had enough time to devote to domestic shipwrecks, because I have been too busy diving for shipwrecks internationally. Begley’s work and the stories it generates are so abundant and so entertaining that talking to him is like meeting the guy from the Dos Equis “Most Interesting Man in the World” commercials. He had a run-in with a famous Honduran bandit! His grandfather was an Appalachian folk hero! He was one of Men’s Journal’s “50 Most Adventurous Men”! He explored the jungle with Ewan McGregor for a BBC documentary!
When, a couple of days into my visit, Begley mentions offhandedly the underwater search-and-recovery missions he’s done, it barely registers. That he searches for murder victims in the deep is not even the most exciting thing he’s said that day.
So, yes: Begley does in many ways resemble the swashbuckling Indiana Jones archaeologist archetype, and he knows it. Yet this archetype and the way he so tidily fulfills it make Begley nervous too. In fact, when he teaches Intro to Archaeology at Transylvania (“Transy,”as it’s also called, is named for a short-lived colony established in Kentucky in 1775), he devotes an entire class session to Indiana Jones and whether he’s ultimately good or bad for the field.
He admits he loves the movies, archaeological flaws and all, and the interest they’ve generated in his field. But he fears the stereotype discourages those who don’t see themselves reflected in it: people of color, for example.
When journalists write about him, they tend to focus on the most Indy-esque elements of his work, adventure and danger. It’s understandable—Begley is best known for his research in eastern Honduras, including the Mosquitia, a roughly 32,000 square mile rainforest region often characterized as forbidding and difficult.
Begley doesn’t fundamentally disagree with these descriptions, though he’s careful to point out that danger isn’t what drew him to archaeology. He went to eastern Honduras because he wanted to know about the people who once made it their home, and he dives for shipwrecks because they tell us how people lived and what mattered to them. To answer those questions requires a certain amount of adventure, but it isn’t the point. Nor is discovery, a word that provokes an almost allergic reaction from Begley: everything he’s studied and documented, he tells me more than once during my visit, was known about and pointed out to him by the local and indigenous populations who have been indispensable to his work.
“I don’t know that I’ve discovered anything. … I don’t even know which sites I first documented, or some other archaeologist,” he says. “It just doesn’t matter.” He’s fond of a phrase credited to the archaeologist David Hurst Thomas: it’s not what you find, it’s what you find out.
Begley isn’t shadowboxing when he expresses frustration about the portrayal of archaeology in the media. For several years the area in Honduras where he began his career has been at the center of a dispute about exactly these issues: the sometimes distorting force of publicity on complex scholarly work, the media’s love of danger, discoveries, and firsts. He’s seen up close what happens when the popular appetite for a great story devours a more nuanced reality—when it gets in the way of the truth.
From his grandfather Joe, Begley inherited not only a deep connection to his home state of Kentucky but also the idea that you should fight for regular folks against the powerful. (His grandmother Evelyn Gaynell Caudill Begley, EX’39, attended the University of Chicago.)
Joe Begley was among the earliest anti-strip-mining activists in Kentucky. When Joe settled in eastern Kentucky, “immediately he saw people being abused by coal companies,” Begley says. His grandfather found ways to get things done: Joe Begley knew everyone, talked to everyone, worked with everyone. “It was that connection that really allowed his effectiveness,” he says. Without those relationships, you “just end up screaming from the sidelines.”
Joe was also comfortable working outside the system when it suited his purposes: during one particularly cold winter, when county residents couldn’t get enough fuel to heat their homes, he convinced the railroad to illegally dump an entire carload of coal by the side of the tracks, which he distributed to locals like an Appalachian Robin Hood.
Begley’s father, J.T., continued the family’s social justice tradition by working as a poverty lawyer. When former president Jimmy Carter signed the law authorizing the creation of the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, both Joe and J. T. were there. Later J. T. became a lawyer for the office.
Begley got his first taste of adventure exploring the hilly outskirts of his grandparents’ house in Blackey, Kentucky (present day population: 156). Sometimes he’d find his way into abandoned coal mines, or happen on an old mine car. During those backyard excursions, he felt a visceral connection to the past. When he got dropped off back home in Lexington, dirty and exhilarated, he’d watch Jacques Cousteau on television. That was what he wanted to do, he decided: go places he’d never been, see things he’d never seen.
Begley picked up field techniques as an undergraduate at Transy, with the help of summer field schools and volunteer work with University of Kentucky archaeologists. By the time he enrolled in graduate school in anthropology, he felt well prepared for fieldwork. At UChicago he bulked up on postmodern theory and absorbed everything he could from his professors, including Marshall Sahlins, the Charles F. Grey Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of Anthropology, with whom he played basketball a few times a week.
In graduate school Begley heard Instituto Hondureño de Antropología e Historia (IHAH), the government agency responsible for archaeology in Honduras, was looking for someone to document prehistoric sites in the eastern part of the country.
He knew relatively little about the area, and his Spanish was rudimentary. His first field season was rough—not so much a baptism by fire as a baptism by constant, unending dampness. But Begley discovered he was well suited to working in challenging conditions. “I don’t have any particular skill that makes me any good at this stuff, except that I can just stand being uncomfortable forever,” he says. (Physical fitness helps, but “sometimes you imagine that getting in shape will make something easy. It just makes it possible.”)
In its early stages, the research consisted of what Begley’s dissertation describes, decorously, as “pedestrian survey” and “pedestrian reconnaissance”—essentially, walking around in the jungle, looking for ruins, and trying not to die.
Getting yourself killed is easier in eastern Honduras than in many places, thanks to its arsenal of poisonous snakes, including the deadly fer-de-lance, and insect-borne tropical diseases. Bad luck and quotidian disasters (sprained ankles, sunken canoes) can also add up.
On rare occasions, people posed as much of a threat as the snakes and bugs. During one of his last field seasons in graduate school, Begley and his local guides, one of whom was just 15, encountered a well-known bandit—the Jesse James of Honduras, “the boogeyman you scare the kids with”—brandishing a gun. The bandit had been hiding in the jungle to evade law enforcement and was less than thrilled to cross paths with an American academic who might reveal his whereabouts. Begley and his companions got away by sneaking off at night. To avoid leaving footprints, they waded through a river.
Begley tells this story over a beer at a nearly deserted bar not far from the wreck of the Brooklyn. His shoulders suddenly drawn tight, he says he doesn’t know how to reckon with this memory, so he tries mostly not to think about it, how it would have taken days or weeks for anyone to find their bodies. For hours they had no idea whether they’d gotten away or not.
As they walked, Begley found himself imagining the movie version of the escape, where he’d come up with some ingenious plan if the bandits caught up with them. But no scheme announced itself. He was just tired and afraid. “I remember thinking, I could have gone to law school.”
When Begley started his fieldwork, archaeologists had been working in eastern Honduras for about 70 years. There was a lot they still didn’t know about the people who had lived there centuries earlier. But they had an essential source of information all around them—the indigenous Pech, the group’s likely descendants.
Begley turned to the Pech for help throughout his research. He was part of an early wave of archaeologists paying close attention to the needs and knowledge of local populations, says Rosemary Joyce, an archaeologist at the University of California, Berkeley. “We needed to learn to be collaborative. We needed to learn to talk to the local people, to listen to them,” Joyce says. Begley was “consistently already there.” Others have written about the Pech, but “Chris is the person who has spent the most time with them, and that definitely comes out in his writing,” says Mark Bonta, a geographer at Penn State Altoona.
Without their help, Begley says he would never have found the 125 sites he documented in his dissertation. (He estimates that since completing his dissertation he’s documented another 75 and that around 400 sites belonging to this group have been identified in total.) His Pech collaborators knew where all the sites were, big and small. They also helped Begley interpret what he was seeing. When he found the remains of grinding stones at some of the sites he excavated, he assumed they must have been used to mill corn. The Pech corrected him, saying they used grinding stones for manioc, or cassava, as well.
Completed in 1999, Begley’s dissertation offered the most reliable modern data about the archaeology of the Mosquitia, according to Joyce. “He’s the one person who’s actually done extensive work in this area,” she says.
Begley’s research helped pin down basic information about the group—what they ate (probably manioc), what language they spoke (most likely something in the Macro-Chibchan family, like the Pech today), when their culture reached its height (1000–1200 AD, give or take). The culture appears to have declined drastically by the 16th century, though some of the larger sites were abandoned even earlier, before the arrival of Spanish explorers.
There’s no modern-day name for the group. When Begley was writing his dissertation, he considered coming up with one, just for convenience, but decided it wasn’t his place to do so. “If the Pech want to come up with some name for their own ancestors, that’s great,” he says. “I’ll be glad to use that.”
For years scholars defined these ancient Mosquitians mostly by what and who they weren’t. The architecture and pottery they left behind didn’t look quite South American, but it wasn’t quite Mayan either—though there were clear signs of trade and cultural exchange with their neighbors to the north. As occupants of a border region, the people of the Mosquitia had their own distinct identity and material culture, but they adopted some characteristics of the powerful societies around them.
Begley’s research revealed one big surprise: the sites he studied contained ball courts—rectangular arenas bordered by two parallel mounds with sloping walls. Ball courts were used to play the Mesoamerican ball game, a sport used for recreation, diplomacy, and ritual. At times it ended with human sacrifice, though some believe this element has been overemphasized. (One scholar I spoke with recalled hearing a guide at a major Mayan ruin tell tourists that the winners of the ball game were always sacrificed. She found this hard to believe: “That would seem to lead to low-scoring games.”)
To archaeologists, finding ball courts in the Mosquitia was a big deal. According to the prevailing theories at the time, they simply didn’t belong so far east. But there they were. “It really required us to rethink the way that ball courts figured into social life,” Joyce says. Building them was not an arbitrary architectural choice. “It has implications for your belief system, for your cosmology, for everything,” Begley says. To him it suggested that the upper crust of the ancient Mosquitia had imported the game from the Maya and used it to prove they were the source of mystical knowledge from faraway lands. “Elites were borrowing certain elite public elements—ball courts, site plans—from their powerful neighbors as a way of gaining and maintaining power,” he explains.
The presence of ball courts also shed light on the social relationships between the various cultures that inhabited lower central America. “That says to me that they were very closely related to their neighbors to the west,” says John Henderson, an archaeologist at Cornell University. “Once Chris began to make it clear there are some really big sites out there, then the fact they had ball courts in them was really interesting.”
If you work in Honduras for a little while, you’ll start to hear stories about the White City, or Ciudad Blanca—a mysterious place, tucked away in some remote part of the Mosquitia, perhaps full of treasure. Stick around long enough and you’ll meet people who claim to have found it. (“Somehow they never seem to have photographs,” says Henderson, his eye roll nearly audible through the phone.)
No one knows exactly when or how the present-day White City legend emerged. The myth has some similarities to Pech stories about a place called Kao Kamasa (the White House), filled with gods who fled their villages after Europeans arrived in Honduras. The only people who can enter the “Place of the Ancestors,” as the Pech also call it, are those who speak all seven indigenous languages. And since no one does anymore, Kao Kamasa remains inaccessible. Another local indigenous group, the Tawahka, also have a legend about a lost place special to them.
Early Spanish explorers told a story of their own. In 1526 Hernán Cortés wrote to Emperor Charles V about a town “eight or ten days’ march from that town of Trujillo. … So wonderful are the reports about this particular province, that even allowing largely for exaggeration, it will exceed Mexico in riches.” Nearly two decades later, a Spanish priest named Friar Pedraza wrote about a wealthy civilization living on the north coast of Honduras.
Somewhere along the way, the indigenous tales of Kao Kamasa got conflated with these Spanish reports, resulting in an El Dorado–like legend, one that has proved irresistible to generations of explorers and treasure hunters. Their hunts for a singular, fixed location belied the shifting, elusive quality of the White City legend. It wasn’t clear which version of the story guided these adventurers in their searches—was it the Spanish accounts of cities filled with gold, or one of the many indigenous versions? For the hunters, it seemed not to matter.
The early 20th century saw a succession of American explorers setting out in search of the White City. One of these adventurers, Frederick Mitchell-Hedges, didn’t find it but said he’d heard from locals of a place called the Lost City of the Monkey God. Another, R. Stuart Murray, got closer. He reported that a local had brought him several stone artifacts from the Lost City of the Monkey God, but the man was bitten by a fer-de-lance and died before he could reveal the city’s location. Next came Theodore Morde, who, after a four-month search, claimed to have seen the lost city with his own eyes. The media went wild. But key excerpts of Morde’s journals, rediscovered in 2016, show him to be a fraud: he never found the city, or even got close.
Begley had heard the stories, and like many scholars of Honduras, he didn’t put much stock in them. He knew there were lots of large and interesting archaeological sites in eastern Honduras, but as far as he was concerned, none of them could be the White City, because the very idea of the White City is an assemblage of fact, fiction, and misunderstanding. Even the indigenous versions of the legend, he argues, may not be tied to a single location, or a site of any size: for the Pech and the Tawahka, Kao Kamasa represents an idealized past, a golden age before the arrival of Spanish explorers and other outside threats.
But the probable nonexistence of the White City hasn’t stopped people from continuing to look for it. In fact, it was a recent quest for the elusive site that sparked a scholarly debate about archaeology’s relationship with the media.
Documentary filmmaker Steve Elkins had long been fascinated by the White City legend and, in 2012, decided to take a high-tech approach to the hunt using lidar, or light detection and ranging. It was a long shot; even some involved in Elkins’s mission suspected it wouldn’t work, given the density of the rainforest in eastern Honduras.
But the technology did its job. When Elkins’s team, accompanied by journalist Douglas Preston, flew a lidar-equipped plane over a 55-square-mile region of the jungle, the imaging system penetrated the canopy of trees and revealed, among other things, what they believed to be a major archaeological site.
Initially Begley was thrilled by the news. The Under the Lidar (UTL) group, as Elkins’s team came to be called, had found important remains of the culture he’d been studying for years. “With lidar, you can find archeological sites that you could never before,” Begley told Preston in a New Yorker article published in 2013. “There is incredibly valuable information in those images.” He offered to help the team interpret the lidar results, but no one took him up on it.
Meanwhile the press got the bit between its teeth and ran. The UTL team announced in a press release that they had located “what appears to be evidence of archaeological ruins in an area long rumored to contain the legendary lost city of Ciudad Blanca.” The wording was cautious—and largely ignored. A typical headline was this, from the Daily Mail: “Scientists ‘discover’ legendary lost White City of gold in dense Central American jungle thanks to advanced laser mapping.”
Three years later, Douglas Preston, who had continued to follow the UTL team’s work, wrote an article in National Geographic that described the lidar-located site as the “never before explored” remnants of a “vanished culture.” (In the same article, the team was more careful to reject association with the White City appellation. “Archaeologists … no longer believe in the existence of a single ‘lost city,’ or Ciudad Blanca, as described in the legend,” Preston wrote.) Another wave of sensationalized media coverage followed.
To Begley and other archaeologists specializing in Honduras, the tenor of the media coverage and the UTL team’s willingness to cooperate with it violated fundamental principles of their field. Begley cowrote an open letter outlining his objections. Twenty-six scholars including Joyce, of UC Berkeley, signed it. They were troubled by the language of discovery used to describe the newly located site, and by the characterization of the culture that inhabited it as unknown and vanished—how vanished could it be, given that the culture’s likely descendants, the Pech, were still living in the area?
Henderson, of Cornell, didn’t sign the open letter Begley cowrote—“I was kind of irritated at the politically correct quality of the objection,” he says—but shared some of the same frustrations. He took particular issue with articles in which the find was “pitched as astonishing and entirely new.”
In fact, “there had been a whole lot of work out there, much of it done by Chris,” Henderson says. He believes the archaeologists studying the site should have intervened more forcefully to point out how much was already known about the ancient residents of the Mosquitia. “They were happy to let the publicity machine generate a lost civilization,” he says.
Throughout 2015 Begley and others traded barbs with the archaeologists involved with the UTL team. Preston, who’d covered the team’s work in the New Yorker and National Geographic, went on to write a book about it, The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story (Grand Central Publishing, 2017). In the book Preston alleged Begley didn’t have the proper authorization for his field work in the Mosquitia after 1996. Begley denies the charge. (Dario Euraque, a professor at Trinity College in Connecticut who was the director of IHAH from 2003 to 2006, told me he does not find the accusation against Begley credible.)
It was, all in all, a bruising controversy. Begley remains angry about the attacks on his reputation but has tried not to dwell on them. He had stopped doing fieldwork in the Mosquitia years before, mostly out of fatigue. “Every field season felt like some special forces training or something. Here’s a 70-pound pack, carry that for a month. … I was ready for something else,” he says. He was more concerned about the Hondurans who were critical of the UTL research. The mission had the support of the Honduran government, so speaking out carried greater risk for them.
Meanwhile, the UTL team continues to report from what they now call the City of the Jaguar. Some of their findings echo Begley’s previous research about the early residents of the Mosquitia—among other noteworthy elements of the site, the team in 2016 reported the presence of “two parallel mounds that may be the remains of a Mesoamerican ballcourt.”
Begley still goes back to Honduras occasionally, but his research is now focused on underwater archaeology, which, not unlike the rainforests of Honduras, comes with logistical challenges. Depending on how deep you dive, “you may be able to work for 15 minutes at a time a couple of times a day,” Begley explains. At depths of 100 feet or more, cognitive impairment—divers call it the “rapture of the deep”—kicks in. “It’s like being drunk,” he says.
His work on shipwrecks has taken him to Central America and the Mediterranean. In all of these places, just as in the Mosquitia, getting to know the local population was essential. In Greece, a project he was involved in managed to find, over a pair of two-week field seasons, some 45 shipwrecks, “a quarter of all shipwrecks ever recorded in Greece,” Begley says. Everyone wanted to know how they’d done it. “Folks would ask, what technology are you using?” The answer was fishermen.
Local fishermen had a wealth of knowledge from years spent on the water, and once the team gained their trust, they were eager to share what they knew. For instance, where nets got caught on something deep below the water, and stories they’d heard of what might be down there. Of the 45 shipwrecks the group documented, 37 had been shown to them by locals. There was no magic technology, just people.
That’s not to say Begley isn’t interested in gee-whiz gadgetry and the ways it can help archaeology. For the past decade he’s been working on developing and testing a portable 3-D imaging system that can be used in remote and hostile environments, including underwater. Begley has proposed that the light, portable system could be used on everything from historic cemeteries to ancient foot impressions to maritime archaeology. He’s tested the system in Honduras, Spain, Albania, Montenegro, Croatia, and closer to home in Missouri and the Kentucky River.
More and more, he’s drawn to projects in his home state. He wants his students to know that there is important archaeological work to be done, even in their own backyard.
“I love Kentucky,” he tells me on a rambling drive through horse country outside Lexington. He points out little things: historic buildings, bluegrass, the way the properties are lined by a particular type of stone wall. Later we walk across a natural stone bridge in Daniel Boone National Forest, and he tells me about the rock formations. He describes the scenery as we pass—sycamores, oaks, Virginia pine. His roots here are deep.
Though teaching at a small liberal arts school can feel limiting for someone so attracted to research and fieldwork, he also likes working with kids from Kentucky, who make up the majority of Transy’s student population. He wants them to hear a professor who sounds like them.
After a day of teaching Begley goes home to his family in the same Lexington neighborhood where he grew up and first imagined a life of travel and adventure. He’s glad that his children know where he comes from. He is an archaeologist, after all. He wants them to know their history.