History of North America

A Day with the Maya

Glyph codesI’m not an archaeologist, but I work with archaeologists to share their discoveries about the Maya with schoolteachers around the world. It all began when my husband and I were researching our Maya-themed adventures (The Jaguar Stones series by J&P Voelkel) and we realized that much of the easily available information about the Maya was out of date. Our books are aimed at middle-schoolers and are often used in classrooms, so it makes sense for us to help teachers access the latest archaeology through our website and free lesson plan CDs. Schools often plan whole semesters around the Greeks or Romans, but that’s harder to do with the Maya – so we spend a lot of time helping to plan cross-curricular units around this great American civilization.

Pyramid buildingToday, for example, we’re writing a website post about a fantastic Maya Day held recently by a middle school in Maine. It was the culmination of weeks of study and we went along to watch the fun. They had arts and crafts, pyramid-building, puppet shows, sporting events, treasure hunts and, of course, some delicious Central American food – including tamales cooked from a recipe in one of our books!

Also today, we’re finishing up some illustrations and back pages for the last book in the Jaguar Stones series, The Lost City, which will be published in February 2015. A lot of the story takes place in Cahokia, an amazing ancient American site just across the Mississippi from St Louis. In AD 1250, the city that stood here was larger than London, England, yet almost no one (except for archaeologists) has heard of it. So now we have a double mission – to share up-to-date discoveries about the Maya and spread the word about Cahokia!

If you’re interested to read about the Maya Day or get a free Maya lesson plan CD, we’re at www.jaguarstones.com

Volunteering at the Grave Creek Mound

I am Jane Klug, a volunteer at the Grave Creek Archaeological Complex located in Moundsville, West Virginia.  I am a native to this area, and find its culture and history fascinating.  I was fortunate enough to teach West Virginia History to middle school students for many years, and when I retired, I wanted to continue exploring the history of this Upper Ohio Valley area, and the Adena Culture.

 At the Mound Museum, the majority of my time is spent giving tours, both inside the Museum and outside on the Mound.  My favorite exhibits include the diorama that depicts the actual building of the approximately sixty-nine foot high mound, and the displays that provide internal details of the mounds construction.  I often ask school groups questions about how and why the Mound was constructed.  Another point I focus on is the number of recorded tombs that were found in this 2263 year- old earthen structure.  After going through the displays, looking at the numerous artifacts, and discussing the geographic wall map, the groups go outside,

 While on the Mound, I share geographic facts about the area, discuss other mounds in the area (there’s a reason our city is called “Moundsville”), and talk about local legends and stories.  I present a “Mound through the Ages” timeline, which includes the construction of a dance hall atop the Mound, and a Union Army artillery site.  I tell the visitors about the efforts to save the Mound (as it was once targeted to be leveled).   Together we view the Ohio River, and imagine the Adena people fishing, gathering shells, and preparing their canoes for a trading expedition up or down the River.  We observe the hills, and imagine hunters coming home with their game.  And as we think about the hunters and their weapons, the time has come for traveling down the Mound to experience throwing spears with the atlatls.

 I am always amazed that the staff of this facility trusts me enough with spears.  (These are “safety Spears”. If they weren’t, I fear I would send many a wounded student/visitor home to be cared for.)  Our targets are cardboard groundhogs (attached to milk cartons) or a commercial grade deer target.  Usually our targets are free from harm.  Aiming a spear at a non-moving target is a challenge.  Imagine trying to hit a moving target with enough force to bring it down.  I am always amused by the fact that our targets have smiling faces.  But, on rare occasion, a would-be hunter hits the mark.  A cheer goes up, and the “hunter” is applauded.  Of course, the “hunter” wants to take another turn, inspiring the others in the group to do likewise.  Needless to say, this is a very popular activity.  I remind the group that “no hit means no eat” for an Adena hunting party.  This seems to spur lively discussions about which local restaurant to select.

I hope to continue to give tours and instruct spear throwing as long as the staff will allow me to.  I urge everyone with an interest in history to volunteer.  You’ll never regret it.

Aztec Archaeology at Calixtlahuaca, or Not One of My Better Days


I’m an archaeology graduate student working on lab analysis of Aztec artifacts in Toluca, Mexico.   In 2007 I was part of a team that spent six months excavating at the nearby site of Calixtlahuaca, and ever since then have been spending my summers sorting through an apparently never-ending amount of broken pottery.  Calixtlahuaca was an important city of the local Matlazinca culture before the Aztecs conquered it, so my research questions address how the Aztecs controlled their conquered provinces and whether this produced changes in how people in those provinces lived.  So far, I can tell you that tortillas became a lot more popular after the Aztecs arrived!

Disclaimer: Friday was not one of my better days, and should not be taken as representative.

Most my drama for the day occurred before I ever arrived at the lab in the morning.  First, my apartment was out of gas for the water heater and stove.  As several other posters have pointed out, archaeologists run on coffee, so the lack of hot water put a damper on things.  Then, my taxi got rear-ended half way out to the lab, in what was clearly a mutual-fault situation.  (Toluca drivers generally qualify as reckless even by Mexican standards, so I usually get in, pray, and tell myself that any taxi driver still on the road has to at least marginally competent.) The driver strapped the rear bumper back on, asked me if I was fine, and had the other party follow us until I got dropped off.  The two drivers were discussing who was going to pay for damages when I left them.

Our lab is located in a former hacienda that has been converted to hold several social-science graduate programs for the state (as opposed to the nation) of Mexico.  This last week, however, was a vacation week for the entire staff before the new semester starts, so most the usual services are canceled.  By the end of the week, the facilities were just about out of water.  (All Mexican buildings have large water storage tanks to even out irregularities in the water distribution schedule.  Many also have extra water brought in by tanker if they don’t receive enough from the local government.)  The power was also out all day for unrelated reasons, which meant that the coffee pot in the lab didn’t work either!

There were six of us in the lab for the day: myself, a student from a local university program, four women from the modern village of Calixtlahuaca, and the daughter of one of the staff members from the college.  Over the course of the day, we had two main things going on, with occasional side forays as distractions came up.  First, we were quickly skimming through bags of sherds from plowzone, erosional, mixed, or otherwise low value levels.  In these bags we noted ceramic types that date to particular periods, took out particularly good examples of types to add to our reference collection, and took out special items like whistles or figurines.  Even if we only pulled out a couple things from each bag, getting the catalog numbers onto the pieces themselves and then noted on two paper forms, took almost as long as skimming the whole bag did in the first place!

Second, we were doing full classifications of the pottery from more important contexts, like under floors or in trash pits.  Full classifications involve deciding what type of pot each sherd came from, and if it’s decorated, what type of decoration it has.  Besides basic cooking pots and bowls, we get fancy grinding bowls (the original food processors for making salsa!), a bunch of different types of incense burners, and the occasional pitcher, miniature pot, or tortilla griddle.  For the decorated types, some are local, some are Aztec, and a few are from other parts of Central Mexico.

At the end of the day, I went home to discover that my (non-archaeologist) housemate hadn’t had the gas tank refilled, so my whiplash-stiff neck had to go without a hot shower.

More on the Calixtlahuaca project can be found at: http://calixtlahuaca.blogspot.com/

A Day of Archaeology in Tennessee

The first task each day is to check email and phone messages to see what inquiries have come in. Part of my role with the state’s Division of Archaeology is to help inform the public about Tennessee’s prehistoric past, and on an average day I’ll receive questions and requests from a variety of sources. These typically include property owners with archaeological resources on their land, collectors interested in identifying their finds, and students, academics, and Cultural Resource Management firms conducting research. The type and number of requests seems to cycle, and recently there has been a marked increase in calls from members of the public curious about prehistoric artifacts they have found or inherited.