Smithsonian Olmec Legacy

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Excavation of Tres Zapotes Monument D, 1939.

Living in the Field

Local woman preparing meals for the archaeological team. Tres Zapotes, 1939. stirling_04. Photograph by Richard H. Stewart, National Anthropological Archives
Local woman preparing meals for the archaeological team. Tres Zapotes, 1939. stirling_04. Photograph by Richard H. Stewart, National Anthropological Archives

While in the field in Veracruz and Tabasco, Matthew and Marion Stirling maintained a lively correspondence with the home front, especially with Alexander Wetmore. These letters provide a wealth of information on living and working in the field, about the progress of the archaeological digs, and about housing, food, and fiestas.

All eight archaeological expeditions took place between December and May, the dry season along Mexico's Gulf Coast. Each expedition lasted approximately four months. During most seasons, they hired local crews to build native-style houses for the expedition members. And wherever they settled for the season, they hired local help for cooking and cleaning and to do most of the intense and hard labor on the archaeological digs.

It was a challenge to remain healthy in the field, as illustrated by Matthew Stirling, writing to Alexander Wetmore on March 11, 1940, from Tres Zapotes:

When we arrived in Tlacotalpam last Tuesday from La Venta, we found Drucker with a badly infected hand, which had been lanced and treated by the doctor and he was feeling much improved although he had a very large and nasty looking hole in the palm of his right hand… Thursday, Drucker felt all right but Friday morning he developed a temperature which by evening had reached almost 104 degrees. His hand appeared to look healthy and I suspected that he might have contracted malaria but did not dare take a chance since I was afraid the temperature might have come from the infection… We rigged up a hammock with a mattress and a bunch of the workers carried him to the Boca in fast time, where we put him on a cot aboard the launch.

In line with Stirling's suspicion, the doctor in Tlacotalpam diagnosed Drucker with malaria. After being treated, Drucker recovered from both the malaria and the infection and soon returned to work at Tres Zapotes.

Health problems ranged from wounds and infections to parasites, both internal and external. However, these were the 1940s, and knowledge of some treatments was limited, as Wetmore explained in an April 13, 1940 letter to Stirling:

…they telephoned me yesterday from the National Geographic Society, that while Stewart seems all right, a check up indicates that he still has the amoeba, so that he will have to undergo a spell of hospitalization for about two weeks to clear it up. His specialist who examined him, said that it was a dangerous thing to take too many of the biochloride enemas that you were all given there in Mexico, as there is a grave danger of poisoning if these are continued. I give you this word of caution in case you have to undergo further treatments yourself in Mexico. Better watch out for that.

In addition to the correspondence of the Stirlings, preserved at the Smithsonian and National Anthropological Archives, Matthew and Marion wrote six articles for National Geographic Magazine. While Matthew Stirling published several academic works based on the archaeological expeditions from 1939 to 1946, these articles - while of a more popular nature - serve as indispensable field reports for his work on the Olmec.

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