Those whom the gods love die young
In memory of Pierre Robert Colas (1976-2008)
On the evening of August 26 our very dear friend and colleague, Pierre, an assistant professor
of anthropology at Vanderbilt University, was torn from us, murdered in cold blood at his home in
Nashville, Tennessee, during a vicious
robbery-motivated shooting that also left his sister, Marie,
visiting from Switzerland, in critical condition fighting for her life. She, too, has now died
(August, 31, 2008). Far beyond the material aspects of the robbery − the four "smiling and laughing"
suspects were caught on video within hours on a shopping spree for luxury items at Pierre′s
expense − this senseless crime has robbed not only us at Mexicon, but also the Mesoamericanist
community and friends around the world, of one of the sweetest and brightest scholars and companions
imaginable. One of the most prolific of young academics, Pierre, also known as Robbie to American
friends, had chalked up an extraordinarily impressive series of accomplishments in his all too short
life, not the least of which were three books, one of them published while still a student, and no
less than 23 articles. Among other things his innovative and well-received work on Maya naming was
the first major study of its kind. Whether exploring caves in Mesoamerica or Maya hieroglyphics,
whether teaching in his inimitably dynamic fashion to his ever-growing numbers of students, or
simply sharing precious and light-hearted hours with friends and family, our beloved Pierre made
an impact that will endure. Our hearts go out to his family in this dark hour. We miss him dearly.
General Editor, on behalf of all at Mexicon
Farewell to a FriendDr. Pierre Robert Colas was a member of the Northern Vaca Plateau Geoarchaeology Project for 12 years. We spent many weeks together camped in the wilds of the Vaca Plateau, conducting our research by day, and sitting around the campfire at night listening to the howler monkeys, and the endless rounds of stories. Below, we have compiled some of our thoughts, feelings, and memories of our friend. Also included is a research article that we were putting the finishing touches on when he was killed (see Mexicon, Vol. 30, No. 6, pp. 126-135). This may be the last thing that is published with the name Pierre Robert Colas as the lead author, but the mark he has made on us as a friend, and his contributions to the field of Mesoamerican Archaeology will live forever.
Philip Reeder, Ph.D.
Lower Dover Field Station
Unitedville, Belize C.A.
Member, Northern Vaca Plateau Geoarchaeology Project
Most students probably knew him as Dr. Colas. Some maybe as Pierre or even Robby the name he preferred among his Archeology circle of friends in America. But for those of us who grew to know him through a research project on the Northern Vaca Plateau in Belize, he was simply Clint, as in Eastwood.
When I first met Clint he was an undergraduate student in Hamburg Germany. He responded to an open solicitation to join our research project, in Belize. I expected to see this big brawny German kid walk up the hill, but instead got this skinny twenty something year old. At the time I didn’t know this but his IQ probably exceeded his weight. He had a noticeable disability, he was carrying a fully loaded backpack strapped down with his drawing board and lugging several books on Mayan civilization. And he was proudly wearing a NASA baseball cap from a visit to the Houston Space Center.
Knowing the rugged terrain and living conditions in the study area, I thought to myself, how in the world is this kid going to backpack into the bush and survive for two weeks? He passed every test including learning how to vertical cave. Something after 19 years of research on the Northern Vaca Plateau, I’m still convinced I don’t want to do. But Clint overcame a lot of challenges by his own inner drive to succeed. By the end of that first trip we formed a special bond. The following year he returned and revolutionized camp comfort. He brought a canvas rocking chair that we all ridiculed and made fun of. The entire group fought for that chair at night and the next year we all had chairs, although not of the rocking variety.
It’s seldom in life you get an opportunity to meet someone you sense is destined for greatness. Clint was one of those people. He was going to be the best. He was so knowledgeable about his chosen field of interest at such an early age. Yet he was still willing to take chances to continue his intellectual and personal development. He took a chance with us and our project, and everyone grew from the relationship.
He conducted his life like a chess game, each move well thought out in advance. His mind worked like the fined tuned BMW he liked to brag to me about driving on the German Autobahn. He set his goal to become a well respected academic. He was well on his way to accomplishing that goal when his life was so senselessly taken away.
Clint had a gift. He knew, we all knew. He was one of a handful of individuals in the world that could do what he did, read Mayan hieroglyphs. He saw that gift for what it was, an opportunity to pass on to others his knowledge and enthusiasm of anything Mesoamerican. He had such respect for his colleagues and showed little if any professional jealousy. He had a great trait. He could talk to anyone, be it a diplomat or a subsistence farmer in Central America, with equal respect. As serious as he took his profession, what I love most about him is he never took himself too serious. I have plenty of pictures as evidence to that, which I will cherish forever.
The fact that Clint loved what he did was evident whenever you were around him. That enthusiasm had to translate well into the classroom. I remember when he got his appointment to Vanderbilt how excited he was. He was living his dream, he knew he was on his way and things were falling into place, just as he planned.
It’s tragic for his students, family, friends, and Vanderbilt that his life was taken so early. He had not come close to reaching his prime. We can only dream now what those accomplishments might have been. I’m so grateful I got to share a little of it with him. Peace my friend.
Philip Reeder, Ph.D.
University of South Florida
Director, Northern Vaca Plateau Geoarchaeology Project
“Bushman” Bill Reynolds really summed up a lot of my feelings about Pierre Robert Colas. From here on I choose to call him Clint, because that is the only name I have known him by for the last 12 years. There was actually a second part to his “bush” knick name. He got the first name Clint on his first trip to the Vaca Plateau with our project, when on a cool night he put on a Mexican style wool poncho, like Clint Eastwood wore in one or more of his spaghetti westerns, and he instantly became Clint. A few years later he was christened with the second part of his “bush” name, which was “Bean”, as in Mr. Bean (the British comedic character). He earned that part of his name because of some similar mannerisms that Clint shared with Mr. Bean. From then on he was Clint Bean!
I have so many vivid memories of our time spent together on the Vaca Plateau. Etched in my mind is the look he would have on his face as he exited Ch’en P’ix, a cave that he did extensive work in, and published several articles about. It was a 25-meter climb out of the cave, and getting over the lip was really difficult, but Clint always made it, with only minimal flailing and muttering in German. He eventually cracked a smile and made a joke once he was off rope and safely on the surface again. For a guy that came to our project with no vertical caving abilities, and minimal rugged bush skills, he evolved into an accomplished vertical caver and bushman. There were some bumps along the way, like the time he was attacked in his tent by large black biting ants, but once the swelling went down he was back to his cheery self again. We told him not to eat in his tent!
Clint was the only archaeologist our project has ever known. We tried for years to entice archaeologists to participate in our research, but our offers were always declined because of the difficult logistics, and the vertical nature of the caves. I echo what Bill Reynolds said, when I first met Clint I was under-whelmed by his physical appearance. I quickly realized that what he lacked in physical size and strength, he made up ten-fold with intellect and determination. His personality was a breath of fresh air to a bunch of dirty, sweaty, bug-bitten researchers camped out in the middle of nowhere, and his sense of humor was priceless. He made us laugh so much! He indeed did not take himself too seriously, and he made sure we did the same.
I can honestly say that Clint Bean was destined for greatness. In my 20-year tenure as an academic, Clint was the most intelligent, might I say brilliant, person I ever had the pleasure to work with. Even at his young age of 32, he was already an established researcher and teacher, and on top of that he was a great person that I planned to be friends with for life. I am nearly 50 years old and it is still hard to fathom that Clint is gone, and that all of the other core researchers on the project, most of which are at least 20 years older than Clint, will need to carry on the project without him. Although I have now accepted his tragic death, I will never understand it. Clint Bean, we are really going to miss you man!
Master Degree – University of Hamburg, Mesoamerican Studies
Currently: Doctoral Student University of Lübeck, Computer Science
Member, Northern Vaca Plateau Geoarchaeology Project
My first encounter with Pierre was during a course on Maya hieroglyphic writing that he taught in the winter semester 2004 at the University of Hamburg. This was a rare opportunity because at that time he was living far away in Bonn, where he had just finished his PhD. Having already had some teaching experience from EMC workshops, he gave us students a well-structured course with a strong focus on Classic Mayan grammar, something that benefited me enormously in my future studies. It was at the end of one session that I asked him whether he knew of some archaeological project that I could join the next spring. That's when I became aware of his second big passion besides glyphs, caving! He invited me to come and work with him the following March as part of the Northern Vaca Plateau Geoarchaeological Project (NVPGAP). This was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
In March 2005 I arrived at Cancun airport after a 20-hour delay due to a fuel leak in one of the plane’s engines, but Pierre was still there waiting for me - not quite what you expect from the average scholar! On that trip he taught me all the basic skills of how to get along and survive in Mesoamerica, starting with NOT taking one of the overpriced Collectivos at Cancun airport, being moderate with potentially spicy foods and sauces (the last thing you need is stomach problems in the remote bush) and the proper techniques for getting on and off Belizean buses.
I also learned that the NVPGAP is about two things: doing research and having fun out in the bush. Once in the jungle, Pierre turned into "Clint" and blended in perfectly with the rest of the gang (i.e. the U.S.-based researchers). In 2005 Pierre also brought a German film team to the project for a documentary on Mayan caves, and it was a natural consequence for the rest of the team to complement this film with our own hilarious video we created called "Clint Beans - Hero of the Jungle", starring Pierre drinking rum (actually water in a rum bottle), fighting duct-tape constructed snakes, dodging a maze of swinging machetes, stabbing his jungle enemy the bucket-monster, and eating large portions of our hero’s favorite food, raw cabbage! This was what was so great about Pierre, he could be very serious and passionate about investigating Mayan culture, but he would also immediately join in on the jokes and pranks without missing a chance to show that he did not take himself too seriously.
A lot of his scientific work as part of the NVPGAP dealt with understanding the role of caves in Classic Maya society. He interpreted some of the caves on the Vaca Plateau, Ch'en P'ix in particular, as being pilgrimage sites, and worked on the religious, political and economic aspects of Maya cave use. During these investigations Pierre found epigraphic evidence for cave desecrations or destructions during times of war from a variety of sites, including the Cave of Naj Tunich and the region around Piedras Negras.
The region that he investigated on the Vaca Plateau is particularly suited for investigating the relationship of surface sites and caves, and its location between the major powers of Caracol and Naranjo led him to suggest that the emblem glyph of Bital, that appears in inscriptions at both sites might belong to some as-yet unidentified centre in the Northern Vaca Plateau area. It may even be the site Ix Chel, which the NVPGAP discovered in 1993.
I did another field season with Pierre on the Vaca Plateau in 2006, when he had just received the big news of his appointment as Assistant Professor at Vanderbilt University. Everybody on the project was really excited by this news and the subject dominated our discussions while mapping Ix Chel. It was so great to see his anticipation for his pending position at Vanderbilt, and how he was poised to move on with his career. Unfortunately, he was only able to further build his career for a few years before his untimely death. But during those few years he made enormous contributions to the field of Mesoamerican Archaeology. Pierre, simply put, was a great person, who was extremely talented, full of ideas, incredibly nice, generous and caring, and a gifted teacher and researcher. As much as I grieve at the terrible loss, I say a big "thank you Pierre!” for having had the chance to know you and be your friend.
Member, Northern Vaca Plateau Geoarchaeology Projec
I met Robby at the University of Hamburg. Since he was studying in Bonn, we did not really know each other, but I had heard about him. I learned that he had had different grants during his studies in Hamburg and Bonn, and when he came to Hamburg for a visit, I made it a point to meet him and ask him about that. Without even knowing me, he was very helpful and he explained everything I wanted to know.
From time to time he came to Hamburg, and we would talk, and after some of these conversations, I have to admit, I didn’t only think about grants and research any more. I looked forward to our conversations and to meeting this blue-eyed, blond-haired guy again. It was in winter and I knew that there was the Mesoamerikanisten-Tagung in Berlin in January, where, as I hoped, I met him again. One evening at the conference, while sitting with him and some others, I learned a bit more about what was going on in his life. I learned that his mother had died and that they were about to sell their house in Aumühle. I got to know him a little better that night, and did not sleep the whole night thinking about him.
The next day, still in Berlin, I tried to invite him out for some ice-cream the next time he was in Hamburg, because I wanted to meet him again, but it was January and I have to admit, that wasn’t the best idea I have ever had in my life. But to ask him to go out for coffee together seemed much too obvious for my purpose, and I wanted to be careful. He refused the ice-cream, which was perfectly logical considering the temperatures in January in northern Germany.
Fortunately, we somehow ended up drinking coffee together. He did not have a clue about how exited, happy, hopeful and afraid I was, all at the same time! I wanted to tell him so much, and I planned exactly what I wanted to say so that I would not shock him, but in the end I could not do it, because it just did not seem like the right moment. So he went back to Bonn, and I did not know when he would be coming back to Hamburg, and if I would get the chance to meet with him again. That is when I decided to do the most desperate, and maybe the craziest thing I have ever done in my life. I called him and told him that I wanted to come visit him at his home, and that I wanted to ask him something really important, which was no lie. He did not have a clue what I wanted to talk to him about, but he agreed! He must have been really, really surprised when I called him and made this request.
Some days later, on a clear, cold, blue-skied February morning, I went to Aumühle. I was extremely nervous, and my emotions were a mix between horror and joy. What if he reacted in a negative way? I tried to keep myself calm, telling myself that if he did, I would then at least know that he wasn’t the right person for me. At the same time, I asked myself what the hell I was doing and how I got myself in this situation.
I arrived and he opened the door, and we then sat together and drank some tea. Of course he wanted to know what I wanted to tell him. So I told him what I had been thinking about for so long... that I knew that this is a funny situation, and that I knew it isn’t really the best time to talk about such things because he was still sad because of his mother’s death. And for me, too, it isn’t really the right moment either, but that I had to say to him that I liked him very much.
He was totally surprised, and he said that he did not really know me that well – but I did not really know him that well either! It was just that feeling I had about him. Then he took me in his arms before we went for a long walk to talk. We still didn’t know each other very well, but it was a good beginning, and in the future we talked a lot on the phone, visited each other, and some weeks later we both really fell in love and became a couple.
I want to thank you, Robby, for your first reaction on that 9th of February. Without it my life – and I hope your life, too – would have been so much poorer. I thank you also for your help, for your wonderful smile, for your love and every moment we had together. I wanted to give you my life. You will always be in my heart! What I wanted to tell everyone with this story is that you should do what your feelings tell you to do. Do not be afraid to act on your feelings! You might miss the best part of your life, and ask yourself what could have been, if... If you want to have something you have never had, you must do something you have never done to get it.
James W. Webster, Ph.D.
Member, Northern Vaca Plateau Geoarchaeology Project
I met Pierre in Belize in March of 1998, the year that he joined our trip to the Northern Vaca Plateau. We all got along very well and in addition to some hard field work we drank a fair volume of rum, ate a lot of beans, and had many a lively discussion on topics ranging from Maya ceremonial cave use to the eating habits of German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. At that time, Pierre lacked some practical skills so we taught him to curse (he got really good at it), to vertical cave (he was pretty good at it), and to keep his tent door closed at night (otherwise one wakes up with eyes swollen shut from insect bites). In addition, we gave Pierre his bush name “Clint,” which came from a poncho that he wore around camp during the cool evenings. I realized early on that Pierre was a rising star. He had intelligence, talent, drive, a sense of humor, and unlike so many of us, he had identified early on exactly what it was he wanted to do in life. He was a pleasure to be around, intellectually as well as socially.
A German film crew accompanied us to the bush in 2005 to shoot part of a documentary about Clint’s work in Mesoamerica. We didn’t get much real work done that year, but we had a great time pretending to work for the cameras and we certainly enjoyed the luxuries such as ice, extra water, and pizza that the film crew had shipped in to our jungle camp periodically. In our spare time we shot a dumb little home video starring Clint. The film was meant originally as a joke in that we shot it while the real film crew was doing their work on the real documentary. We followed up the next year with a sequel. My kids enjoy the movies immensely. Clint is a movie star in our house.
The last time that I saw Clint was on the veranda of a little house that he had rented in San Antonio, Belize. The house was burglarized while he was living there, but he couldn’t get the police to come up into the hills from their station in Cayo to investigate because they didn’t have the gas money. Clint took it in stride, as he did all things. It’s difficult to comprehend that I will not be seeing him again in this lifetime.