Natchez’s Indiana Jones explores Mayan ruins

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 22, 2009

Move over Indiana, a new Jones is in town.

The explorer’s passion started 30 years ago when Natchez native Lee Jones was working in Central America, logging timber and shipping it back to his family’s lumber business in Natchez.

“I had to learn the Spanish language, and when the logging played out, I was very comfortable in a Latin American environment. And not having anything to do, I was looking for something interesting to give me an excuse to go down there,” Jones said.

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He had always been interested in architecture because of the American Indian mounds in the Natchez area, and so an interest in the Mayans seemed natural.

What has made the 8,000-year-old Mayan culture of Central America particularly interesting to Jones was their isolation.

“For the most part, they were on their own,” he said. “They didn’t borrow from any civilizations because there weren’t any around.”

And what they were able to accomplish in that isolation amazed Jones.

Over the years, they built a civilization so complex that the only city in Europe that could compete with them was Rome.

Throughout history, the Mayans would be the only great indigenous culture that thrived in the western hemisphere.

The Mayans understood complex sciences such as astronomy and mathematics, and even had a number system that was based on 20 instead of 10.

Similarly, they developed one of only five writing systems that have emerged through history, and many of their buildings — built without even basic modern tools — still stand today.

“They were stone-age people,” Jones said. “They didn’t have steel or horses — they had rubies to cut jade, but that was about it.”

Those buildings — which included sports stadiums, temples and palaces — all served a purpose, and their construction even today speaks of Mayan religious belief.

With their hand-built pyramidal temples, the Mayans were simulating mountains.

“They believed mountains were sacred, but they didn’t have any mountains in their area,” Jones said.

Even inside their temples, the builders built tunnels, not just for accessibility, but also to imitate caves for the same reason, Jones said.

More than a millennium later, Jones, now 70, has spent a lot of time exploring Mexican, Honduran and Costa Rican areas to see what they left behind.

Once, he even discovered ruins unknown even to the locals.

“A lot of times, people go in there and they find something and they say, ‘I discovered it,’ but the locals, the hunters, they go back in the jungle all the time,” Jones said. “They know where these structures are and they don’t care anything about it. They’ve been hunting on it for 300 years.”

That was what impressed him about the find he and another man made.

Looking out from an overlook above a valley where the locals had been growing corn for hundreds of years, the two explorers saw a place that looked like it could potentially yield a find.

“(The guides) said, ‘No, no, there’s not going to be anything there,” Jones said.

But when the group made their way through the jungle, there it was — a collection of ruins, three palaces, one larger and two smaller.

“It was completely covered with forest and you really couldn’t see it unless you walked up on it,” Jones said.

“The locals were amazed that they had not seen it.”

Another time, Jones found an altar with hieroglyphics on it sticking out of the ground, but — like anything else he finds — he left it there.

“It is highly, highly illegal to take any kind of treasure,” he said. “I wouldn’t do that because it definitely would be the end of me going down there.”

Though there are some spectacular ruins that have been restored, many of the locations Jones has explored are in deteriorating condition.

“A lot of them have trees growing out of the sides,” he said. “The buildings were made of limestone, which is basically fertilizer, and so these trees grow out of them.”

But those trees often help Jones explore the ruins to a greater extent.

“I take a rope and a couple of locals, and when we get there they’ll scurry up the temple and tie the rope to a tree, and I climb up it, mostly using the rope for balance,” he said. “The tools of the trade are a rope and a machete.

Fortunately for this man obsessed, his wife Sherry shares his fascination with the ancient Americans.

When the couple first got married, they made a trip to Mexico, and from there she was hooked, Jones said.

“She loves it,” he said. “She has been doing it for 30 years and she has probably seen more sites than most Maya archeologists.”

And even after decades of fulfilling boyish fantasies about exploring lost worlds, though he has to take it a little slower these days, Jones said it hasn’t lost its allure.

“I just turned 70, and I might not outgrow it,” he said.

He’s planning at least two trips in the coming year.