In true Indiana Jones fashion, they have survived deadly snakes, unrelenting insects, malarial swamps and a plane crash to search Central American jungles for clues to the lost Mayan world.
Like the movie hero, Richard Hansen and his wife, Jody, find high adventure in their study of ancient cultures. Hansen leads a group of specialists in excavating the oldest known Mayan city in northern Guatemala.And his adventures are as compelling as any movie.
"It's a long jump from the Salmon Tract where I was born to the Central American jungles," said Hansen, who makes his home on a farm north of Rupert.
The 37-year-old Idaho native directs a group of scientists from universities in the United States, Canada, Mexico and Guatemala in excavating a group of archaeological sites in northern Guatemala's Peten province.
Hansen directs the project for the University of California at Los Angeles, and the work includes negotiating with the Guatemalan government, arranging financing and organizing the logistics of a jungle camp 28 miles from the nearest road.
Hansen, who moved to a Rupert farm in 1959, still lives there part of the year with his wife and five children. Most years they all accompany him into the jungle.
Each winter, during the dry season in Guatemala, he returns to work on the oldest known Mayan cities - to dig out the untold stories of an ancient civilization.
An aerial survey in 1930 first located 26 ancient cities of the Peten province. Harvard University's Ian Graham, the first person in more than 2,400 years to walk among the stones of Nakbe, spent four days exploring part of the ancient city in 1962. But Hansen was the first person to explore the ancient city fully.
From the top of one of the pyramids at El Mirador, Hansen could see the unexplored pyramids of Nakbe. In 1987 he organized an exploratory expedition. But the site was difficult to find.
The explorers followed an overgrown trail, and when the trail petered out, they hacked their way through virgin jungle. Suddenly, they found what looked like large mounds, overgrown with trees, vines and ferns.
Each year, about 30 workers and 15 scientists leave Guatemala City 300 miles to the south and travel to Flores, a town of about 2,000 on Lake Peten-Itza. From Flores they travel six hours by four-wheel-drive vehicle on a rough, one-lane dirt road to the tiny town of Carmelita.
"From there on we'd load up the mules and hike three days one-way through virgin rain forest," Hansen said.
They use 123 mules, each packing about 200 pounds of gear. Once camp is set up, the mules haul in water to the small tent city from a source six kilometers away.
"We're the most difficult project logistically in the world," he said.
Hansen studied archaeology and paleontology on his own and eventually earned an archaeology degree from Brigham Young University.