I was saddened to learn of the death of Erik Boot earlier this month. We exchanged e-mail over the years and had one face-to-face in his native Netherlands in October 2006. I described that meeting in an early draft of my book about Chichén Itzá, but it ended up on the cutting room floor.
Below a few paragraphs from that deleted chapter. One of the themes of the book is the politics of archaeology, specifically at Chichén Itzá. There is still a lot that made it into the book, but most of the research related to modern day didn’t. Underdogs have always held great appeal, and I saw Erik as one of those in the field of Maya translation. He was not among the shining stars but one of the many foot soldiers who continued to plug away despite not receiving the recognition accorded others. The field of Maya studies is filled with individuals just like him and they have made many of the great discoveries. He did it for the love of the subject and I admired that. RIP Erik.
— Evan J. Albright
(from an early draft of The Man Who Owned a Wonder of the World: The Gringo History of Mexico’s Chichén Itzá)
THE REAL NAME OF CHICHÉN ITZÁ?
Erik Boot sits outside an Amsterdam café, drinking (predictably) Heineken and smoking American cigarettes. He leans back in the shade to prevent sun from burning the fair skin of his face and neck. Boot is probably the world’s foremost authority on the hieroglyphic inscriptions at Chichén Itzá yet he earns his living working in a liquor store.
“It’s an addiction,” he says of his fascination with the Maya. “But a good addiction.”
He would prefer to be teaching at a university, spending every waking minute deciphering inscriptions, but that has not come to pass. I wonder why he works menial jobs instead of doing something more in line with his talents. He explains that he only works 24 hours a week at the liquor store, and therefore is able to spend the rest of his time working on Maya glyphs. His boss is also a friend, he explains, and he lets Boot take off for weeks at a time to attend conferences or explore the Yucatan. Boot is unmarried, has no children or responsibilities other than himself and his studies.
While Boot may not be affiliated with a university, he has a PhD, and he publishes regularly in scholarly journals covering the ancient Maya. I figure it must be frustrating to devote so much of one’s life to academic pursuits, yet be shut out of academia. I look for something positive to say. At least he doesn’t have to worry about “publishing or perishing,” I tell him. He explains that the pressure to publish is even greater on those outside of academia. He regularly teaches workshops at universities on deciphering Maya glyphs, he says. He would not get those gigs except for the fact that he publishes regularly. If he didn’t, no one would hire him to teach. So every year he has to publish something new–every year.
He hands me his book, Continuity and Change in Text and Image at Chichen Itza, Yucatan, Mexico : A Study of the Inscriptions, Iconography, and Architecture at a Late Classic to Early Postclassic Maya Site. My arm sags under the weight of the book. I open it and the text is small, the same point size you might find in the classifieds of the average newspaper.
One of his claims to fame has been regarding the original name of Chichén Itzá: Uucil-Abnal, which means “Seven bushes.” The name appears in post-Columbian sources. Boot thought he had found the name on an inscription at Chichén Itzá. I ask him about it, and his face falls a little. “I was wrong,” he says. But that is all part of the process of deciphering the Maya writing, he says. You put forth a hypothesis, test it, put it out there for others to react to, and either confirm it or reject it.
He says he doesn’t mind when he is wrong. He knew the great Linda Schele, one of the shining lights of Maya studies, who died in 1998. Schele always encouraged him, he says. “If I fly too high, shoot me down,” he says.