The kingdom of the crystal skull
Caves were sacred to the Mayans, and locals say the Rio Frio Cave was a site of human sacrifices. (Mark Read)
The jungle is cold at night. By the light of a crescent moon, we trek through pines and palms, pushing stray foliage aside, lifting our feet high over the treacherous knotted roots of strangler figs. The air smells of wet earth. It is still, and quiet, but we humans are not the only ones awake. A pair of eyes shines from the darkness, glimpses us, and is gone.
Through gaps in the trees above, the black sky looks like a jeweller’s display, studded with millions of glittering stars. Ancient Mayans believed their sun god turned into a jaguar at dusk, and the constellations were his spots. Branches crack underfoot, but it is wise to tread carefully. Real jaguars roam these forests.
Through the gloom, the edges of a colossal pyramid rise up above the jungle canopy. It is one edge of a city, vanished for a millennium: Caracol, once the centre of a mighty Mayan empire.
More than 80 years ago, another adventurer came to these jungles, looking for lost cities, buried treasure and mystical ancient objects with strange powers. He was a dashing archaeologist between the two World Wars, instantly recognisable by his trademark hat. But his name was not Indiana Jones. It was FA Mitchell-Hedges.
George Lucas and Steven Spielberg have always denied that there was one specific inspiration for Indiana Jones, but Mitchell- Hedges – who gets name-checked in the fourth movie – is a well-qualified candidate. Like Indy, Mitchell-Hedges’s version of a career in archaeology involved blowing things up, fighting villains and being callous to the scores of women who fell hopelessly in love with him.
We scramble through the mists up the side of one acropolis, clinging to the creepers and allspice trees that have overgrown it. What remains of the stairway belize on foot is slicked with moss and dew. It is easy to lose your footing, and tumble back down, bouncing off the steps like the sacrificial victims of a thousand years ago.
As the sky lightens to delicate shades of pale blue and tangerine, we reach the peak. A blood-curdling roar splits the silence. ‘Have you seen Jurassic Park?’ asks Calbert, our guide, a Mayan from a nearby village. ‘Just kidding. That’s a howler monkey.’ A whole family of them, swinging through the trees on long black tails, babies clinging to the backs of adults. The noise is unbelievable: like something from the fires of hell. No wonder the Mayans worshipped howler monkey gods.
Just then, the sun glimmers over the horizon, and the ruined city is flooded with warm rose gold. This is the sight ancient priests awaited every morning: their god returning from his jaguar form, and illuminating the observatory with his blessing. The pink light picks out mysterious carvings in the stone, telling of ancient victories against the rival kingdom of Tikal, of captured slaves, of the blood sacrifice of a princess. But of the most mysterious artefact of all, there is no trace. For this is the kingdom of the crystal skull.
The legend of the crystal skull
Indiana Jones may have looked for crystal skulls in Peru, but he was way off track. The legend of the skulls comes from Belize, which is where Mitchell-Hedges came to look for mysteries back in 1926. Mitchell-Hedges claimed that he never sought fame, but this was not strictly true: he had his own radio show in New York, and wrote memoirs with titles such as Danger, My Ally and Battles With Giant Fish. He claimed to have fought with Pancho Villa in the Mexican Revolution, to have been asked by the British secret service to spy on Trotsky, and to have found the lost empire of Atlantis. Along the way, he stopped to hunt crocodiles, wrestle tiger sharks and engage in steamy romps with bar wenches. But his most famous feat was the discovery of the Skull of Doom, a lump of rock crystal fashioned into the shape of a human skull, glittering among the rubble in the ruined Mayan city of Lubaantun, Belize. Ancient priests, he said, could focus their energies through it, and will the death of their enemies. ‘Several people who have cynically laughed at it have died,’ he warned.