Romeo's head

Romeo Hristov is worried. "I know my colleagues," says the 35-year-old Ph.D. candidate in archaeology. "They will say, 'He is dreamer. He is romantic. He is not serious person'...Is very dirty game." His thick, Bulgarian voice rises until he is almost yelling, spitting out words. "They attack each other like dogs. Like dogs."

He closes his eyes and trails off, struggling to control his emotions. It is a Saturday night in late August, and Hristov is sitting in a Highland Park coffeehouse, looking very much a stranger in a strange land. Fortunately, the designer-clad couples and foursomes seem too absorbed in their own world to notice the intense, dark man speaking loudly.

Hristov, who has just finished a 13-hour shift at a construction site, is wearing blue jeans and a cheap polo-style shirt. His black rubber-soled shoes have holesin them, and he is wearing crooked, broken glasses with a lens missing, held together at one corner with what looks like a twisted safety pin. He is clearly exhausted, yet he has summoned the energy to meet with a reporter, to talk of his obsession with a tiny Roman terra-cotta head.

Hristov believes the head provides evidence that Europeans landed in what is now Mexico long before Spanish conquistador Hernán de Cortés weighed anchor at Veracruz in 1519. Hristov has spent more than a decade chasing down this head and the dozen other items recovered from pre-Columbian archaeological sites that may prove such contacts.

It is a quest that has taken him from his native Bulgaria to Central and South America, and now to the United States. And it is a journey that now may be paying off. After years of struggling to get published in English-language periodicals, he finally has gotten an article about the head accepted for publication. "Mesoamerican Evidence of Pre-Columbian Transoceanic Contacts" is scheduled to be published this fall in Ancient Mesoamerica, a respected journal put out by Cambridge University Press.

In it, Hristov and his co-authors present results of tests on the head that suggest the piece is indeed an authentic Roman artifact dated somewhere between the second century B.C. and the sixth century A.D. Hristov and company conclude that the piece is "the first hard evidence from Mesoamerica to support pre-Hispanic transoceanic contacts between the Old and New Worlds."

One might well conclude that Hristov has reason to feel optimistic about his future in archaeology. He doesn't. Instead, Romeo Hristov has become a bitter man, given to sudden black rages and diatribes about the profession he claims to want to join.

"You don't know how tough was this research, how many people try to stop it," he says darkly.

Perhaps it is no surprise that Hristov is embittered. He is attempting to provide hard scientific evidence for one of the most disfavored theories in the history of American archaeology. He maintains that sporadic pre-Columbian contacts not only existed and are provable, but have been ignored by a profession blinded by conventional wisdom. To prove his point, he has set out to examine every one of the possible European or Asian objects recovered from the pre-Columbian archeological record. He is at work on a book that will examine all known cases and hopes to be able to prove or disprove each. Although his research is not yet completed, he believes that his little Roman head is not the only authentic evidence of transoceanic contact prior to Cortés.

Hristov has found it nearly impossible to get funding to carry on his research. His term as a visiting scholar at Southern Methodist University recently expired, and he says he has been gently told to move on.

"He's swimming upstream," says a dubious David J. Meltzer, professor of anthropology at SMU. The problem, Meltzer says, is that Hristov is treading a well-worn path. "It's been tried before, literally for centuries, and it really hasn't gotten very far. Perhaps for good reason."

And so Hristov is nervous about this interview, fearing he has been too frank about what got him interested in a project that even he describes as "quixotic."

"I was interested [in archaeology] since a boy," explains Hristov. "It was sounding exciting. I was hoping to have hobby and profession together...I was interested with all this air of adventure. It was science combinated with adventure, with the story of this heroic person." He mentions two or three popular archaeology books from decades past, especially Thor Heyerdahl's Kon-Tiki and The RA Expeditions.

And then he erupts.

"You know, they all want to say they got interested in particular problem after reading this academic journal, after examining carefully the evidence." He shakes his head, clearly tired of hearing colleagues pretend they never dreamed of being Indiana Jones. "Is bullshit, all bullshit."

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Christine Biederman