With the melodies of John Williams’ score in my mind, the image below conjures up the 1981 summer blockbuster, Raiders of the Lost Ark. Stunt doubles and special effects aside – the photograph is actually of the Cranbrook Institute of Science (CIS) Director, Robert T. Hatt, in the caves of Calcehtok on Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. Dr. Hatt conducted a ten-day expedition in the Yucatan in 1947, spending most of his time at Hacienda Calcehtok.
While in the Yucatan, Hatt worked with two other scientists, Sr. Bernardo Villa, chief of Mastozoology at the University of Mexico’s Institute of Biology, and Dr. Helmuth Wagner an ornithologist with expertise in Mexico and the Malayan region. For ten days the trio conducted excavations of four caves and sunk eleven trenches. They also trapped and netted vertebrates to compare them to bones found in the caves. Of this team, Dr. Hatt said, “it is rare for three men to work together in the field in the perfect harmony we enjoyed.”
The principal focus of the expedition was the Actun Spukil cave (the Mayan equivalent of Cave of the Mice). A series of tunnels lies within the cave, and here Hatt and his fellow scientists uncovered bones, shards of pottery, and stone hammers. Glyphs were spotted on the cave walls, as well as rock carvings depicting a monkey’s head and a man’s head.
In the year following his return from Calcehtok, Hatt wrote about his discoveries and gave several lectures. His expertise in the Yucatan region is well-documented, and he was asked by several institutions, including the Carnegie Institution of Washington and the University of Michigan, to identify specimens in their respective collections. More than half of the photographs from this expedition are of the people Hatt interacted with in Calcehtok. In an article in the February 1948 CIS Newsletter, Hatt wrote, “we were quickly accepted as friends by the little community. They collected for us, sang for us, dedicated a dance to us, and a few children and a grown boy shed a tear when we left. Bless the good people of Calcehtok.”
Although I enjoy the adventure and suspense of an Indiana Jones expedition, the reality and humanity in Dr. Hatt’s reports was an exceptional find in the Archives this week.
– Gina Tecos, Archivist