The kingdom of the crystal skull
But there the similarity between the two men ends, for Bruno is an unassuming man of extensive cultural knowledge and unimpeachable honesty. ‘Oh, ja, the famous crystal skull,’ he says, eyeing me nervously to check my sanity. ‘It’s not mentioned in the excavation reports. But I can take you to meet someone who knows all about it.’
Daryl Capps lives in the pretty seaside town of Punta Gorda. This white-haired, congenial American was a member of the Society of the Crystal Skulls, founded in 1945 in California to investigate the paranormal and archaeological claims made for these objects. Daryl has chosen to make his home here, just 26 miles from Lubaantun – but he doesn’t believe the Skull of Doom is genuine. ‘It’s too perfect,’ he says, with a laugh.
‘Some people think crystal skulls are of alien origin,’ he continues, pointing to a photograph taken through the Skull of Doom, which appears to show a shadow of a 1950s-style flying saucer through the middle of it. ‘But look at the uncropped photo.’ In the full version, the origin of the flying saucer is revealed: it’s a 1950s-style ceiling fan, refracted through the skull.
Sceptic though he may be, Daryl does believe that several of the other crystal skulls purportedly discovered all over the Americas are authentic – and raises the question of whether they may emit mysterious psychometric energies. The British Museum is circumspect, pointing out that no crystal skull has ever been found at a well-documented, official excavation. As for me, I couldn’t say it better than Indiana Jones: ‘I don’t believe in magic, a lot of superstitious hocuspocus. I’m going after a find of incredible historical significance.’ Lubaantun itself is that find, and it’s within a few hours’ reach, up the river and through thick forests.
From Punta Gorda, Mitchell-Hedges took canoes up the Rio Grande (not to be confused with the river of the same name that’s part of the US-Mexico border). Now, the journey is made by motorboat. As saltwater turns to freshwater, the mangroves are replaced by huge cohune palms, their quills of green leaves held high in the warm air, and by sturdy cotton trees, with pale, gnarled roots stretching down to the shore. Creepers trail into the crocodile-infested river. In a feathery thicket of bamboo, gigantic orange and grey iguanas hang heavy, like living Christmas decorations. Three Mayan children crawl on their bellies along an overhanging trunk, hoping to catch one of these monsters for dinner.
Around Lubaantun, most of the Mayan population lives in villages of pimento sticks and palm thatch. When we arrive, the women come to greet us, wearing puffsleeved dresses in shades of flax, grape and lime. The Mayans here stood firm against imperial rule until the 17th century. Neither army nor church could conquer them: they were finished off by European diseases. The current population migrated from Guatemala a century ago, and has re-established a traditional way of life.
The city’s mysteries
Lubaantun is neither the largest nor the most elaborate of pre-conquest Mayan sites, but it is one of the most atmospheric. After you have navigated dirt tracks in an all-terrain vehicle, you scramble down a perilous grassy slope cut into the trees, cross a bridge, then climb a hillside to a high plateau. It is late afternoon when we reach the edge of the city: piles of sandstone slabs, heaped higgledy-piggledy, amid dense palms and swirls of mist.
These stones were cut so precisely that they once fitted together without cement. Now, they lie scattered around, like building blocks in a messy child’s room. The reason is not just the passage of centuries. Mitchell-Hedges’s partner in crime, Thomas Gann, ‘excavated’ this city using dynamite.