Send Me Mr. Burkitt…Some Whisky and Wine!

Early Archaeology in Central America

By: Elin C. Danien

Originally Published in 1985

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At the end of the last century, the pre-Columbian ruins of Mexico and Gua­temala attracted adven­turers and archaeologists whose names are known to every modern student of the Maya. Maler . . . Morley . . . Maudslay . . . Thompson . . . these men helped write some of the most impor­tant chapters in Meso­american archaeology. Yet there were others, men whose exploits are almost forgotten, whose contributions are often neglected, who also de­serve a place in the Maya sun.

Among the most ec­centric of this group of lesser known figures was Robert Burkitt (Fig. 1). Mathematician, self-taught linguist, and ad­vocate of phonetic spelling, Burkitt roamed the Pacific highlands and the Alta Verapaz region of Guatemala for half a century, exploring, buying and excavating on behalf of The Univer­sity Museum for most of that time. Some of the finest Maya objects ac­quired during the Museum’s early years stem from his activities. Yet Burkitt always felt that archaeology was merely a hobby, a distraction from time that should be devoted to his primary work: cataloguing Maya languages and creating a Maya grammar. Ironically, only fragments of that linguistic research survive; the magnificent artifacts sent back to Philadelphia over the course of several decades provide his lasting memorial.

Robert James Burkitt was born on January 18, 1869, in Athenrv, County Galway, Ireland, the oldest of seven children of the Reverend Thomas Henry Burkitt and his wife, Emma Eliza. The ministry provided a precarious livelihood and, at fourteen. Robert was sent to live with an aunt and uncle in Nova Scotia, to obtain an education not possible at home. Family letters and the recollections of friends reveal him even then to have been fiercely inde­pendent, determined to make his fortune in the Canadian Northwest, or perhaps in distant Tas­mania. At Dalhousie College in Halifax, where he took honors in mathematics, his poverty and his pride, coupled with at natural penchant for solitude, contributed to his repu­tation as a hermit.

Cambridge and Copan

From Dalhousie, he went to Harvard to study mining, and spent many of his leisure hours with a small group of other young displaced Canadians. He struck up a friendship with one among them, a young student named George Byron Gordon (Fig. 2).

The two had shared interests; in addition to their common Canadian background, both were engineers, accomplished draftsmen and good artists. After graduation in 1891, Gordon went off to Central America, while Burkitt found work with the Boston Board of Survey. It was hardly the adventurous life he had envisioned for himself, yet he stayed with it for almost three years. One can imagine the enthu­siasm with which he greeted Gordon’s suggestion that he go to Honduras to excavate the Maya ruin of Copan!

Harvard’s Peabody Museum had supported three previous seasons at Copan. Gordon had been second in command when John Owens, the young Director of the Third Copan Expedition, died of fever on February 23, 1892. Gordon took charge of the expedition, and concluded its business in such exemplary fashion that when the Fourth Copan Expe­dition was organized in 1894, he was named its Director. It was at that juncture that he ex­tended the invitation that would change Burkitt’s life.

On December 3, 1894, Burkitt was ap­pointed Chief Assistant to the Director for the season of 1894-95, “with the understanding that all my expenses are to he paid, from the time of my leaving Cam­bridge until the return of the expedition in April or May, 1895, and that I am to receive also a salary of twenty-five dollars a month during the time specified above.” Not until Jan­uary was Gordon able to complete preliminary arrangements. and no­tify his employers, if you are ready to con­tinue operations I advise that you send me Mr. Burkitt, some moulding, paper, photographic equipment, some  whisky and wine, sta­tionery and burlap.”

To travel from Boston to Honduras was no simple Feat in 1895. The first leg of the journey was by train to New Orleans, and from there by steamer to the port of Livingston in Guatemala. It was snowing as Burkitt sailed from New Orleans in early February. Ship­board accomodations were poor, staterooms were small and the drinking water tasted of kero­sene, and the weather continued rough all the way to Guatemala.

At Livingston, Burkitt trans­ferred to a small rivet’ boat for the trip up the Rio Dulce to Yzabal, journey of breathtaking beauty. Little has changed on the river since then. On either side of the wide, gentle current, the hills rise heavy with the dark green of trop­ical foliage. Brilliantly colored birds call from the trees. Hash close to the water, then soar high above. The ruins of an old Spanish fort stand just at the point where the river is born. Once beyond, the land opens out to reveal the broad, shimmering expanse of Lake Izabal. For a young man from the northern hemisphere. coming out of the cold, gray winter of Boston into the iridescence and languor of the tropics, it must have seemed the embodiment of every dream.

From the town of Yzabal, the trip was overland by nude and foot to the site of Copan, in Honduras. Once there, between bouts of fever, Burkitt joined Gordon in ex­cavating the magnificent Classic Maya site He dug trenches, un­earthed artifacts, learned the nuances of photography, and mas­tered the technique of taking mold impressions of ancient stone monu­ments. Neither Burkitt nor Gordon had had any formal training in ar­chaeology; Gordon had learned how to excavate from John Owens, and now he taught Burkitt. Their season lasted a scant live months, but it was long enough for the country and the way of life to captivate the ap­prentice archaeologist completely. At the end of June, when Gordon returned to Cambridge, Burkitt chose to remain in Central America.

Central America at the Turn of the Century

Guatemala in the 1890s was a land rich with promise. A number of North Americans had come to Guatemala after the Civil War to start a new life. Europeans heard of new opportuni­ties, and they too came to stay. Heinrich Diesel­dorf arrived in Cobán in 1865 and created a pros­perous trading and im­porting business; other Germans came, fol­lowed by the English, Swiss and French. The influx of foreigners was seen as economically beneficial for the country, and encouraged by the government.

In 1877, Justo Ruffino Barrios, the dictator of Guatemala, abolished communal land owner­ship by the Indians. In 1880, he abrogated Indian land titles. whereupon vast areas of land formerly controlled by Indian towns were made available to the planters. The lands of the Alta Ver­apaz and the Pacific slopes were well suited to coffee cultivation; new mines exploited the mineral riches of the Alta Verapaz. The dis­enfranchised Indians provided the labor. Coffee plantations and com­mercial trading centers multiplied. The country bustled with new en­terprise, and greater economic ex­pansion was forecast. The lure of land and fortune brought adven­turers, misfits and idealists, who carved huge fincas (plantations) out of the forests and developed their own, idiosyncratic society. In such circumstances, a mining engineer with a talent for languages and a knowledge of archaeology  could dream of creating his own small fiefdom.

When he first came to Guate­mala as Gordon’s assistant, Burkitt met the small colony of foreign planters who lived near the small village of Senahu north of Lake Izabal. All the settlers in the region would converge on the town of Yzabal to meet the infrequent supply boat. Thus, each journey Burkitt made to Yzabal for supplies included an evening of genial com­pany with people unlike any lie had known in Boston. These settlers had endured hardships, had tested themselves against disease and nat­ural disasters, and knew their own resources. They accepted eccen­tricity in themselves and tolerated it in others. When the Peabody season ended and Gordon left, Burkitt moved in with an Irish planter named Curley. In those days, when plantations were sev­eral days’ ride from each other, hos­pitality was extended to anyone coming in From the trail. Guests, expected or unexpected, would he granted a comfortable bed, good food, and pleasant company for as long as they wished to stay. Burkitt’s visit with Curley lasted for several years, until one day his ex­asperated host informed him, “Bur­kitt, your visit is over.”

Undaunted, Burkitt packed his saddlebags and rode to Sepacuité, a finca owned jointly by an English couple named Owen, and Kensett and Walter Champney, two young cousins from New England. He rode up in time for tea, and on hearing of his plight, Mrs. Owen invited him to stay at least the night. Natu­rally, the visit was prolonged. Bur­kitt’s skills were of occasional ser­vice on the finca; furthermore, he had great charm, humor, and conversational talents when he chose to exercise them. Weeks passed into months, and he showed no sign of leaving. He and Kensett Champney became great friends. Although he would disappear for weeks or months, Burkitt always returned to take up residence once again. Finally, the Owens and the Champneys accepted the inevi­table; a guest house was built for his use, and Sepacuité became his only permanent home in the Alta Verapaz (Fig. 3). Years later, when the Owen family sold their interest in the finca to Kensett Champney, it was understood that “Burkitt goes with Sepacuité.”

During those early years, Burkitt worked as a surveyor, served as foreman on a coffee plantation, owned an interest in several mining companies, bought his own, small finca, and tried his hand at trading. Always, he wandered thehighlands, visiting Indian villages, learning the languages and customs of the different Maya groups, ex­ploring overgrown ruins, and be­having at all times in a manner most singular. Perhaps it was as early as 1896 that he began to wear the costume limn which he never deviated in later life: high soft boots, khaki pants, Indian cotton shirt, and a cotton bag slung over his shoulder. These clothes, which looked like nothing inure than the simple garb of the Ladino, were made to his measure. Burkitt owned a jacket, which he carried but never wore, just as he never wore a tie, even when calling on the lima owners and their families. The urge to decorum ran high, however, particularly among some of the English planters. One dimin­utive British lady stopped him at her front door with a firm, “You can’t come in this house unless you’re properly attired, Mr. Bur­kitt.” He solved the problem by tying the two strings that hung from his collarless shirt in an ap­proximation of a string tic. His hair, always thin, had become quite sparse, and he took to shaving his head.

Linguistic Endeavors

He had many friends among the Kekchi-speaking Maya who lived in the Alta Verapaz. They rode with him, showed him ancient burial caves, explored with him the an­cient sites, and patiently answered his endless questions about their language. He prided himself on having learned their language better than any other foreigner, and would spend weeks on the trail to verify the precise meaning of a phrase or the pronunciation of a word as used in some remote vil­lage. Once sure of its meaning, he would return to Sepacuité, and pick up a weeks-old conversation with his friends as if no more than five minutes had elapsed. In 190L he sent an article on the Kekchi lan­guage to Charles Bowditch at Har­vard, and asked that Bowditch seek the proper means of publication:

“I have given several years to the observation of Kekchi; and may think, without presumption, that I have gained a more precise knowl­edge of it than any other traveller. . . I meant to write a grammar. In doing that, I found it necessary to compile a dictionary. I have not consulted the statements of other writers. The only book on Kekchi that I have seen, or heard of is one published in Zurich, 1896, by a Dr. Stoll, and he must have been igno­rant of the language. His book is brief, and blind, and packed with blunders, alike in sounds, grammar, and meanings.”

Bowditch sent Burkitt’s “Notes on the Kekchi Language” to Franz Boas, who considered it a valuable contribution by an author `with a remarkably good ear’ and published it in the American Anthropologist, with certain editorial changes that incensed the author. Always quick to take offense when he felt his scholarship, or his honor, had been slighted, Burkitt never forgot and never forgave. Two years after pub­lication, his sense of outrage still fresh, he recounted Boas’s insult in a long letter to Bowditch. He in­cluded a detailed explanation of the Maya mathematics contained in his article and showed why the ‘correc­tion’ of his manuscript had mud­dled the whole thing, and sug­gested that the editor should have consulted ‘any primer of algebra’ before presuming to correct the manuscript. Nonetheless, Burkitt continued to publish in the Amer­ican Anthropologist.

Despite Burkitt’s obviously prickly nature, Bowditch consid­ered hiring him to work fin. the Peabody as an explorer, and sought George Byron Gordon’s evaluation of his old friend and assistant. For reasons still not clear, Gordon re­plied that Burkitt would make a success studying Indian languages, but he would not do as an explorer and excavator! This comment in 1901 is especially strange in fight of his subsequent courting of Burkitt to engage in just such activity.

Burkitt and The University Museum

Gordon’s career had taken him from Central America to a teaching position at Harvard. In 1903 he came to the Free Museum of Science and Art (later renamed The University Museum) as assistant curator, and was appointed Curator of American Archaeology in 1904. and Director in 1910. During those years, Burkitt and Gordon kept up a sporadic correspondence. Appar­ently, Gordon’s opinion of his friend’s talents had changed: begin­ning in 1905 he and Burkitt en­gaged in discussions that finally, in 1912, led to an agreement whereby Burkitt would spend part of each year exploring and acquiring antiquities for the Museum for $100 a month plus expenses. By this time, Burkitt had had three articles pub­ lished, and had acquired sonic small reputation as an antiquary. He and Gordon had discussed his linguistic work as well as his poten­tial archaeological contribution, and he no doubt felt that Gordon would edit any articles submitted for the Museum journal less cavalierly than the distinguished editor of American Anthropologist. Burkitt’s spelling, always slightly individual, had taken on the idiosyncratic style that would plague typesetters for twenty years. In an unpublished note which accompanied a myth sent to Gordon, he explained.

“My spelling ov the English, ov course I dont care about. When Mr. Roosevelt and people wer talking about spelling reform, I un­dertook to uze a reformed spelling for a certain time, and it now costs me an effort to go back to co mason spelling. But there ar two small points in my spelling, that I think might be adhered to. They hav a hearing on the Indian. One point iz my spelling for example ov wood pecker. You will see in the tale, that I hay speld Wood pecker az two words: though printers, I dare say, would mostly make it one. And in a quantity ov other combinations—in stead, an other, some times. son in law, and so on—in stead ov joining the words ov the combina­tion, I hav left them separat. That ix One point. The other iz some­thing ov an oppozit nature. I ofen rite dont, and cant, and so on. If you like, turn them into do not, can not, and so on. But if you print them az I rite, then dont print them, don’t, so, and can’t, so. Dont split the words with a hook. That iz the other point.”

Burkitt’s first major work for the Museum took him to the Cuchu­matanes Mountains in north­western Guatemala, just above the Chixoy River, where he knew of collections of pottery vases, figu­rines, tablets, whistles, and water jars, which he purchased from the finca owners in the area, and re­corded whatever information they could give about provenience. What he could not buy, he photo­graphed, and sent negatives and prints to the Museum. These pho­tographs are in many eases the only record of early collections long since dismantled and sold piece­meal.

During the course of the next few years Burkitt excavated at dozens of sites in the Alta Verapaz and the Pacific highlands, explored and made careful maps of remote areas, and documented the objects he collected for shipment to Phila­delphia. His field notes, sent to the Museum in the form of long, de­tailed letters, reveal the develop­ment of Burkitt the archaeologist. His first major excavation for the Museum was at the site of Chama, in the Alta Verapaz, in 1916. When he excavated the first mound, he did not record the depth at which items were found. By the time he began excavating the second mound, he had learned to be more careful, and to note proveniences by gridding the site and marking it off in cubic meters. Ile was also careful to wash and examine all fragments. His letters reveal that he had a certain interest in under­standing the architectural nature of the structures he excavated.

Burkitt’s travels for the Museum were frequently delayed and his itinerary subject to change due to unstable politics and natural dis­asters. Revolutions and armed in­surrections were occasional addi­tions to the ordinary problems of yellow fever, torrential rains, danger of arrest at the hands of overly eager provincial officers, and raids from across the Mexican border. He became expert at de­vising techniques to circumvent such obstacles. After the earth­quake of 1918, soldiers were every­where, rounding up the Indians and impressing them into the Mi­litia; Burkitt resorted to whiskey as a bribe to keep his laborers from being taken off.

Despite these vicissitudes, Bur­kitt was able to amass a large col­lection for the Museum. Before anything could be shipped, how­ever, the first World War broke out, making shipment via normal channels even more difficult than it already was. The shifting political situation in Guatemala only exacerbated the situation. Not until 1920 was he finally able to ship a collec­tion that had grown to 30 crates of material. In addition to archaeolog­ical objects, he sent a model of a Maya house, with explicit instruc­tions on. how a full size house should be erected, and a loom, with instructions on weaving. His long, detailed reports of archaeo­logical activities never failed to in­clude fascinating bits of information on Maya folklore, ritual, crafts, and myths (Fig. 4).

Burkitt’s Approach to Archaeology

It is interesting to note that al­though his work for the Museum required that he concentrate on ac­quiring objects for display, Burkitt believed that archaeological explo­ration should be regional in scope. In a letter to Gordon. dated ,July 14, 1905, he suggested: “The Alta Verapaz iz sprinkled with Indian ruins and remains; but in my opinion they should he explored not az individuals but az a hole, or at least in groups.” And on Sep­tember 28, 1916: “The notion often crosses my mind, in stead ov groping about for places to dig, what a thing it would be for mu­zetims if’ they could begin by having a general antiquarian survey ov the country. Hav a force ov young chaps go about and see all the ruins they could hear ov; and note their situation and caracter, and make drawings ov the more striking. I supoze its too big a scheme” (Fig. 5). But he was also pragmatic, and understood what it was that interested Gordon. “In a bizness way I sopoze what you would like perhaps at once would be portable ‘finds’ ov some sort to make a showing with’, and several years later he would write, “Ive never been quite clear in my mind whether you atach more impor­tance to the study ov ruins or to getting things that you can carry away.”

As the years passed, Burkitt’s life centered completely in Guatemala. As early as his Harvard days, Bur­kitt had been attracted to Catholi­cism; his conversion to that faith no doubt contributed to a growing es­trangement from his family. Even­tually, he ceased all correspon­dence with them. Gordon was his only contact with a time before Guatemala. His closest friends were Kensett Champney, and Henry Kummerfeldt, manager of the finca Chocolá, which became his headquarters in the Pacific highlands. His arrival there in 1918 echoed the manner of his coming to Sepacuité years before. He rode into the finca one afternoon in time for tea; Kummerfeldt invited him to stay the night, and his first visit lasted for two years. Despite his penchant for unexpected arrivals and unannounced departures, his brusque manner and bristly pride, Burkitt was a warm and loyal com­panion to those few he chose as friends. He was “Uncle” Robert to the Kummerfeldt and the Champney children, and never forgot a birthday or an anniversary.

Besides residence at Chocolá and Sepacuité, Burkitt kept a room in and archaeologists not as skillful, nor as painstaking, nor as accurate as he. On hearing of an American living in a Kekchi village who was reputed to ‘speak like a native,’ Burkitt went riding off to investi­gate. He returned after a few days, thoroughly pleased with himself, and told his friend Kummerfeldt, “That fellow learned through a dictionary—and a bad one at that. You couldn’t understand a word he said.” His laughter was rich with satisfaction.

The rhythm of Burkitt’s life changed without warning when, on January 29, 1927, George Byron Gordon died suddenly as the result of a fall. The Museum secretary, Jane McHugh, sent the news to Burkitt. “He had a deep affection for you and there were no letters or reports that came to the Museum that gave him more pleasure than those that came from you.” Burkitt’s reply, for all his customary reticence, is clearly marked by emotion. “. . . I neednt speak ov Mr. Gordon death. It waz a shock to me. We had been friends from old times. And he waz the only old time friend in North America with whom I still corresponded.”

It was the end of an era at the Museum. It also marked a turning point in Burkitt’s relationship with the institution. Although he con­tinued to excavate, his testiness had increased with the years, and misunderstandings were frequent. When the Museum sent J. Alden Mason to Guatemala to negotiate a contract to excavate the Maya site of Piedras Negras, Burkitt was of great help. He knew everyone, in and out of government, and he understood the ways in which busi­ness was conducted in Guatemala. It took more than two months for the contracts to be arranged, and he and Mason spent a great deal of time together. They went up to Chocolá, to visit the finca and ex­amine Burkitt’s excavation, then down to the Pacific, to the site of Baúl, where they raised and photographed the underside of an interesting stela, and had a great deal of time to talk (Figs. 6, 7). Mason was able to report that Burkitt “is a queer fellow and has to be handled tactfully, but we got along very well.”

Despite this cordial interlude, Burkitt’s relationship with the Mu­seum worsened. The Museum would not agree to his price for an article he had submitted; he took exception to the editing of two lengthy reports; the Museum ques­tioned some of his expenses, and he considered this to be an insult to his honor. Each irritation was even­tually smoothed over, but the inci­dents chipped away at the relation­ship, and in 1937, with a letter from the Museum, the arrange­ment was ended.

Burkitt’s Last Years

Burkitt was now almost seventy, and he had not vet finished his study of Maya languages. No one else had written a comprehensive grammar of Kekchi. With his usual assurance, he was convinced that his would be superb. Now he would put all his research into proper shape for publication. He retired to Sepacuité, owned by Benjamin Champney, the son of his old friend Kensett. The guest house built for him years before was still there, but his relationship with Benjamin was difficult.

Burkitt’s routine was unvarying. At noon, he would take a sunbath, an activity that contributed to the general belief that he was more than a little mad. In the late after­noon, he would have his bath. He spurned the new plumbing and hot water that had been put in at Sepa­cuité, in favor of his habitual wash in cold water, carried by Indian boys eager to earn the two cents a pail he gave them each day. Guests who came to call were greeted on the veranda; no one was permitted to enter his quarters, where he kept notebooks he had filled over the years. Ranchhands could hear him murmuring as he read or worked, sometimes long into the night. Some of the Indians feared him, and called him ‘brujo’; others accepted his strangeness and loved him, and would ride with him on his now infrequent trips to find new words, new meanings for his Kekchi grammar and dictionary.

Burkitt’s health began to fail, and beginning in 1942, he made regular trips to Guatemala City, to see the doctor at the American Hospital.

His charm was still evident when he chose to use it, and at small dinner parties given by his doctor, he would regale the guests with stories of long-lost Maya sites, mountains he had climbed, and Indians he had known. At Sepacuité, hough, he kept to himself. After a dispute with Benjamin Champney, he no longer took his meals in the big house. Instead, he paid one of he Indians to prepare and bring his meals to him. Then, at the end of January, 1945, he suffered a stroke. There was no way to care for him on the finca, so Champney strapped Burkitt onto his horse, and took him overland to the airstrip at La Tinta, a trip estimated to have taken ten hours. He was loaded onto the plane and flown to he American Hospital in Guatemala City. He never regained consciousness, and died two weeks later, on February 17, 1945. His friends the Kummerfeldts stayed with him to the end, and arranged for burial in the British Cemetery in the city (Fig. 8).

The papers he was working on are gone, burned, along with his clothing, his books, and his furniture, when word of his death reached Sepacuité (Fig. 9). Only a few early notebooks survived, packed away in boxes in a store­room at Sepacuité, with some old checkbooks, a report by a Harvard president, his graduation certificate from Dalhousie, a pencilled gene­alogy, and some family photo­graphs. But the Archives of The University Museum has his lengthy letters and meticulous field notes, and the Mesoamerican gallery dis­plays examples of his superb ar­chaeological collecting: the poly­chrome vase from Ratinlixul, a carved metate from Cotzumal­huapa, the large fragment of pre-Classic carving from Chocolá. It is on these magnificent its of what he considered his ‘hobby’ that Bur­kitt’s reputation securely rests.

Cite This Article

Danien, Elin C.. "Send Me Mr. Burkitt…Some Whisky and Wine!." Expedition Magazine 27, no. 3 (November, 1985): -. Accessed June 25, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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