Good Will hunting
Archaeologist Will Bedford spends most of his working day trying to make sense out of mysteries that have been buried for hundreds of years. He talks to Tony Yorke about some of his own ‘Indiana Jones moments’, and an adventure spanning more than two millennia that has led to a major transformation in his own life.
It’s not every day a platoon of heavily armed soldiers point their machine guns at you and threaten to rearrange your features unless you provide satisfactory answers to their questions. For archeologist, Will Bedford, that was exactly the scenario that presented itself when he was working in South America, attempting to locate and record the lost villages, towns and cities of the once mighty Mayan civilisation.
Will was in the thick of a Mexican forest, preparing to feel the exhilaration only felt by those who have unearthed a long-lost treasure. Little did he realise his unbridled joy would abruptly be turned to fear.
‘I was at university in 2002,’ he recalls. ‘I was 23 years old and I was full of myself. I had gone to Belize and Mexico with my professor and a group of students, and we were going all over the place trying to find evidence of the existence of a major settlement. After a few weeks of getting nowhere, we suddenly found the spot – and we knew we had struck archeological gold. In the undergrowth we could see the raised platforms of so many big buildings. It was amazing. But it was getting late, and so we had to come back the following day.
‘When we gathered in the morning, we were in high spirits and not really taking anything in, other than our need to find this long-lost city. After a while, I remember turning around and seeing a Mexican soldier standing behind me. He was just watching and pointing his machine gun directly at me. As I looked up, I saw a line of guys in uniforms. They were the rest of his squad. They had surrounded us while we were surveying the site, and at least two of them were also pointing guns directly at us. I froze on the spot.’
The soldiers, regulars in the Mexican army, were on the lookout for the gangs that regularly plunder archeological sites before academics like Will have a chance to record and recover priceless artifacts.
‘Thankfully, I could speak Spanish, so I quickly explained we had a permit, and everything was legal. The soldier still seemed unsure, and he continued to eye me suspiciously. I was getting nervous, so I opened a packet of cigarettes and started to have a smoke. The guy who was pointing his gun at me suddenly asked if he could have one. When I said he could, it was the signal for all his mates to come down and join in. At that point, we realised they no longer thought we were smugglers. All these years later, I still look back on this moment. It really opened my eyes, as it’s the only time I have ever had a loaded gun pointed at me. Then, I wasn’t afraid. Now I am in my forties, I sometimes wonder how I would now react if it were to ever happen again?’
The incident, and another about being pursued by ‘killer bees that chase you for at least three miles’, are just a couple of the many stories Will tells, from a fascinating career that is now entering its third decade.
‘I am based in the UK, and these days a lot of my work is used to support, or challenge, planning applications,’ he says. ‘That probably doesn’t sound very exciting. But it is. You’d be amazed at just how much archeology exists when you scratch underneath the surface. It’s the job of people like me to help a wide range of organisations understand the consequences of doing certain things.’
The controversial multi-billion pound HS2 rail project is just one example of a major construction job that is literally digging up the past on a daily basis, unearthing ancient graveyards and architecture as it seeks to connect the north of England with London via a near 150-mile stretch of high-speed railway lines. Will is not directly involved in this particular project, but it’s the sort of job that he and his colleagues are regularly called in to support.
‘I am used as an expert witness in legal proceedings and, away from a courthouse, I will often be asked to conduct an investigation into the consequences of doing something from an archeological perspective, and then compile a report into my findings. I never tell my clients what to do. All I explain to them are the ramifications of certain courses of action. It’s up to them to decide whether my recommendations make the financial and legal considerations worthwhile.’
Question the evidence
Will’s work has helped him to develop his views on a number of things – including the importance of being what he calls a ‘free thinker’. He is keen to encourage all of us to take a good look at ourselves. He believes that only by assessing how we behave, and what we know and comprehend about our own lives and the world we live in, will we be become happier and more fulfilled.
He says: ‘The first question we should ask ourselves, when someone says there is no evidence for something, is “How hard have you looked?” If you haven’t tested something, you can’t say it is untrue. Yet I find many scientists make inaccurate and misleading statements when, quite frankly, they ought to know better. And I must confess, this is where I was when I started out.
‘Archeology is a team sport. You have movies like Indiana Jones, which I love, that present this great man and explorer as someone who can discern everything. In my experience, this a myth. It’s not true. The discipline of archeology is like volleyball, not golf! If I have a bit of pottery, I can easily tell you it is quite old. I may even be able to identify it as possibly Roman or from the Iron Age. That’s as good as it will get. While interesting on one level, this information is utterly useless if you need to develop a greater understanding of the artifact and the period it is from.
‘Take the same ceramic to a pottery specialist and you will get a very different story. They will be able to tell you it is second century Roman, or from Gaul. They will tell you how it was made, what materials were used, who used it, and where in the world it may have been exported to. On top of this, there will be a whole load of other stuff that most people won’t be able to understand. But the right person will.
‘My point is everyone contributes. No one individual can give you the whole story. But a team can, particularly when you remain open-minded. And when that happens, the value to you, and potentially many others, is priceless.’
Yearning for more
Will’s loving parents were missionaries. His mother is Argentinean; his father was born in the United States. Together, they took the teachings of the Bible to places like Brazil, where Will spent his formative years growing up.
‘I had a very unorthodox childhood,’ he says fondly. ‘The freedom I enjoyed was incredible. I saw and experienced so much. It made a real impression on me.’
One thing Will learned from an early age was to ask questions.
‘If I didn’t understand something, my parents encouraged me to speak up and find out about things. And I did… Aged 10, I was a Christian all the way. It was in my DNA. I believed things quite naturally. Things like God and creation were subjects I didn’t really dispute. My parents believed these things, and that was good enough for me. But when I came back from Brazil, I started to feel differently about things, I began to realise I didn’t see Christianity as something that was giving me any practical wisdom.
‘I continued going to church. But I could see it wasn’t influencing my life, and it certainly wasn’t embedded in my character. I remember thinking Christianity was just another one of those cultural phenomena that people had come to believe for reasons of their own. Many countries have these religions and they all have similar characteristics. But they didn’t seem to tell me about life, other than people yearn for more.’
When he went to university, the cord that was bonding Will to his faith roots snapped, and for the next 14 years he would drift between agnosticism and atheism.
‘I didn’t behave like an atheist campaigner, or anything like that,’ he says. ‘I just went off and did my own kind of thing. I would think about the suffering and cruelty of the world and I would also focus on the ineptitude of a lot of Christian leaders. This made me think we don’t live in a universe that’s ruled by a benevolent deity.’
Will’s probing mind continued to prod and poke him, posing questions he was unable to answer. After a while of living in what he calls his ‘wilderness’, and encouraged by his wife, Ellie, and a friend who was to become a Church of England vicar, he was prompted to start thinking about some of life’s big questions once again – and how faith might help him find some of the answers.
‘I didn’t deliberately set out to re-examine Christianity. It just occurred, and a combination of factors made it happen without me being in control. I am a big reader of books, I just can’t put them down when I get interested in a subject. And there was one book that just rocked me back on my heels from the moment I picked it up.’
Will is referring to The kingdom of infinite space: a portrait of your head, by author Raymond Tallis.
‘I had been seeking some answers to these questions that wouldn’t go away, and I had been seeking some answers to these questions that wouldn’t go away, and I had read A Short History Of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson, that is brilliant, and another by Iain McGilchrist, which was really dense, spanned hundreds of pages, printed in a small font, and was incredible.
‘Then I turned to this book that was written by Raymond Tallis, in which he starts talking about why he thinks there isn’t a soul, or anything like that. On every page he makes his case, in support of his central argument. And the more I got into the book, I realised he wasn’t succeeding, and he wasn’t convincing me. At this time, I was on his side. I wanted to be convinced. Yet he couldn’t do so, and it really bugged me.’
In his mid-thirties, Will’s wife, who he says is ‘blessed with a lot more wisdom’ than he is, started examining her own beliefs.
‘Ellie started taking our children to church, and everything started to mushroom from there,’ he recalls. ‘My friend, who went on to become a minister, would then start poking me, which would lead to some fascinating conversations and arguments. Gradually, I came to realise the evidence about God’s existence had been staring me in the face all my life. I just hadn’t recognised it for what it was.’
Science and faith can mix
Will has been an active churchgoer for the last 10 years, and he believes he and Ellie made the right decision in committing their lives to the faith they now believe in. But surely the decision couldn’t have been easy – particularly for two scientists who put the ‘emotional stuff’ to one side and deal purely in facts?
‘In the end, it was a lot easier than I believed it ever would be. When you believe in God, you see things differently. There is a clarity you don’t get when both of your feet are firmly camped in the secular world. For me, it was always about the evidence. And once I had started to look into things in a meaningful way, which I didn’t do properly until my mid-thirties, then there was only going to be one outcome.’