Revelation 2012

What if the apocalypse already happened?

Lance Hampel, a longtime guard at the museum, says there's no question as to the identity of the ghost, because he was positively ID'ed by a man who knew him in life.

"He saw him come out of this fake tomb wall, and then turn and go down the stairs," says Hampel. "The contractor actually knew the man in the '60s. He said he recognized him instantly."

The ghost is Stephan de Borhegyi—Carl's father.

Suzanne Forrest retrieves a jaguar incense burner lid from the waters of Lake Amatitlán in Guatemala in 1957.
courtesy of Carl deBorhegyi
Suzanne Forrest retrieves a jaguar incense burner lid from the waters of Lake Amatitlán in Guatemala in 1957.
Dr. Stephan de Borhegyi examining a mushroom stone in the 1950s.
courtesy of Carl deBorhegyi
Dr. Stephan de Borhegyi examining a mushroom stone in the 1950s.

By the time he arrived in America, Stephan de Borhegyi was like a real-life Indiana Jones. A Hungarian baron, he had fought on both sides of the Second World War before turning his attention to Egyptian archaeology. The charismatic nobleman caused quite a stir in the staid circles of American anthropology when he arrived.

"He had a reputation for being dramatic and flamboyant," recalls Suzanne Forrest, who met de Borhegyi in 1948 and married him a year later. "He enjoyed playing up being Hungarian. He was not above kissing ladies' hands."

Soon after his arrival, de Borhegyi became obsessed with the Mayans. Much less was known in those days about the ancient civilization that once stretched the length of the Yucutan peninsula and deep into present-day Guatemala. Scholars puzzled over what seemed to be the sudden collapse of a once-thriving society centuries before Europeans made their first contact with the Aztecs.

If archaeologists knew little about the cities that thrived between 2000 BC and 900 AD in the fertile lowlands, they knew even less about the Highland Maya, high in the Guatemalan mountains. It was there, in the mountains, that de Borhegyi and his wife collected evidence that suggested scholars were wrong to think of the highland region as a sparse backwater. They returned to the mountains again and again, exploring dozens of significant sites.

Meanwhile, de Borhegyi's career as a museum director was taking off, with appointments to Oklahoma and then to the Milwaukee Public Museum. But he took every available opportunity to visit Guatemala and continue his research.

As he delved deeper into the Highland Maya secrets, de Borhegyi became entranced with a set of mysterious objects he half-jokingly called "mushroom stones"—carved figures about a foot tall with broad, cap-like heads.

Word of de Borhegyi's fascination with the mushroom stones got back to Gordon Wasson, an eccentric banker who was studying the use of psychotropic mushrooms in religious rituals. De Borhegyi's research sounded promising, Wasson thought, so he invited himself and his wife down to see what they could discover together.

"They wanted to go up into the highlands and see if they could find any evidence of a mushroom cult surviving among the descendants of the Maya," de Borhegyi's widow, Forrest, remembers. "We said we'd go with them."

But as the two couples traveled among isolated villages asking about mushroom rituals, they were invariably greeted with a stony silence.

"They'd tell me if I didn't know already, I wasn't old enough to know," Forrest says.

The Wassons left Guatemala in defeat, moving on Mexico. In Oaxaca, they found what they'd been seeking: An old shaman agreed to guide Wasson through an Aztec mushroom ritual. It would be the first documented encounter with psilocybin mushroom by white man.

"I felt that I was now seeing plain, whereas ordinary vision gives us an imperfect view," Wasson wrote of his experience. "I was seeing the archetypes, the Platonic ideas, that underlie the imperfect images of everyday life. The thought crossed my mind: Could the divine mushrooms be the secret that lay behind the ancient mysteries?"

Wasson's account of his trip was published in Life and kicked off the psychedelic '60s. Wasson's mushroom samples made their way to Harvard, where Timothy Leary and Ram Dass turned on and dropped out. They were also sent to a Swiss chemist named Albert Hofmann, who synthesized the active ingredient and later became known as the father of LSD.

In Guatemala, de Borhegyi's progress on the Mayan mushroom mystery stalled, but he was making other discoveries. Using an early iteration of the Scuba technology developed by Jacques Cousteau, he pioneered one of the earliest examples of underwater archaeology at Lake Amatitlán.

In the summer of 1969, Carl was only 11, but that was old enough to join his father working on a dig. The boy found that he too had a taste for archaeology.

"I remember sitting on the dock and seeing my dad breaking the surface with these incredible figurines in his hands," Carl says. "They were like action figures to me at the time. I wanted them."

One day, Carl was walking with his father by a creek not far from the dig site when a glint of obsidian in the earth caught his eye. It was an arrowhead.

"My dad saw that, and he said, 'You'll make a great archaeologist some day,'" Carl recalls. "That made me smile."

A few months later, tragedy struck. Stephan de Borhegyi had traveled to Chicago for work, but decided to drive through the night in order to be back at the museum by Friday. In the early hours of the morning, his car lurched off North Avenue and slammed into a bridge.

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