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Sombras y Susurros

Shadows and Whispers: Paranormal Experiences Shared by Archeologists

Halloween. Samhain. Día de Muertos. Although different cultures have different names for this time of year, these modern reinterpretations of age-old celebrations still share the universal belief that Death is but a transitory event, and that the living can still sense the presence of those who departed before us, under special circumstances.

In Latin America, the civilizations that thrived before the arrival of the European conquerors devoted a great deal of effort to preserve and maintain that link between the two worlds. Complex ceremonies were organized under a strict calendar on special places of power to appease the gods and honor the ancestors, and sacrifices of precious goods —including, sometimes, human lives— were part of the bond between Man and the supernatural forces beyond his control and understanding.

With the arrival of the Enlightenment, such notions were relegated to the fields of mythology: superstitions held by naive people still enslaved by an irrational view of nature. The sciences of Anthropology and Archeology were created in order to understand the past by way of interpreting whatever material evidence remained, utilizing a methodical approach devoid of metaphysical considerations. Thus, establishing the unquestionable hubris that we modern men —from our vantage position in the present— could arrive at a better understanding of the world our ancestors lived in than even they had.

But what happens when professional archeologists experience events at ancient sites which escape their scientific training? Strange occurrences which not only perturb their state of mind either in solitary or collectively (when those occurrences are witnessed by more than one individual) but even threaten the very work performed during a dig campaign by way of affecting the teams’ equipment or tampering with the remains excavated from a site? Where do you put your precious positivist objectivity when the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end, after your senses perceive something which your rational mind refuses to accept?

Such is the subject of the book “Sombras y susurros: vivencias extrañas y tenebrosas en la arqueología” [Shadows and Whispers: Strange and Spooky Experiences in Archeology] which was edited by Mexican archeologists Luis Alberto López Wario and Luis Alberto Martos López in 2022. The book is an anthology comprised of thirty-plus ‘paranormal’ anecdotes shared by archeologists with impeccable credentials from several countries (predominantly Mexico) which were experienced by them first-hand when they were conducting their professional work.

Unaccounted knocks in the middle of the night. Eerie sounds and veiled voices murmuring out the names of scared men and women trying to get some well-earned rest between the arduous working days of a dig season. Poltergeist phenomena rattling gears (and nerves) inside empty rooms. Creepy shadows or small lights lurking at campsites, or full-blown apparitions of human-like figures wearing out-of-date garments. Spanning several decades, this collection of ghost stories is not only fascinating because of the phenomena described or the varied landscapes of Latin America they showcase —from the highest peaks of the Andes to the deepest cenotes hidden by the inhospitable jungles of the Yucatán— but also because, without seeking to convince the reader about the veracity of these account, they at least attempt to start a conversation between fellow colleagues by first accepting the fact that Yes, these things do happen whether they agree with our consensual paradigm or not, and it is okay to talk about them openly instead of keeping them hidden for years, for fear of ridicule or career damage.

In the end, Archeology also involves gleaning into other worlds and other perceptions, forms of understanding and participating in this world we live in, which we ineptly regard as a stage.

Luis Alberto Martos López and Luis Alberto López Wario

They also bring a new dimension to the field of Archeology which has been sadly overlooked for far too long due to modern prejudice: the proper way to address the immaterial context of a given site, in order to conduct an archeological project without disrupting the potential energies still residing in these ancient places.

The two authors

Think about it: if you care about trying to instruct your students into how to avoid being bitten by a venomous snake or contracting a dangerous tropical disease during fieldwork, why wouldn’t you also prepare them into avoiding less tangible dangers triggered by whatever it is you may be disturbing with your topographic measures and excavations? Is the wrath of a Mayan alux* less dangerous than the sting of a scorpion? Maybe not if you’re a materialist skeptic sitting in the comfort of your armchair, but when you are out in the field why take any chances?

Science endows us with valuable information and tools to understand the world. However, there are many instances where it cannot yet give us all the explanations. When the human being gets into a profound contact with nature he invariably has atavistic experiences which connects us to the deepest and most sensible part of our own humanity.

Christian F. Vitry

If anything, the outsider archeologists should attempt to show the proper respect to the artifacts they are tampering with; not only to appease the sensibilities of the current inhabitants of those sites, but also to remind themselves they are not the owners of these sacred landscapes. Like the people whose bones they carefully clean and catalog in their journals, they —just like everybody else— are just passing through for just a little while.

And, perhaps, long after we are gone something of us will remain in the landscapes we once inhabited. A presence? A whisper? Perhaps even traces of a consciousness that once animated a human body, but in time will be bound to the earth and the rocks.

“Sombras y susurros” is published (in Spanish) by Punto Rojo Libros, S.L. and is available both as a paperback and in Kindle version.

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