Maya civilization

Collaborative Archaeology in the Yucatán

I am the Program Director for a cultural heritage initiative, InHerit, based at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. My job involves many different tasks, some only tangentially related to my training as an archaeologist, including general program management, grant writing and fundraising, and public outreach.

On this Day of Archaeology, for the third year in a row, I am part of a collaborative archaeology project on the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. Our project is entitled Proyecto Arqeologíco Colaborativo del Oriente de Yucatán (Collaborative Archaeology Project of Eastern Yucatan), or PACOY for short. The project is a partnership between archaeologists from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and from the Universidad del Oriente de Yucataán (UNO), and the community of Tahcabo. The archaeology project is trying to locate the residential structures of the Maya people who lived in the town immediately preceding and following the arrival of the Spanish. We know from early historical documents that this location was occupied prior to the arrival of the Spanish. The presence of temple mounds and house mounds dotting the surface of the landscape further testifies to this occupation. A colonial church, built in the early 17th Century at the latest, was one of the earlier churches to be built in the region. In both the prehispanic and colonial periods, villagers were obligated to produce quantities of woven textiles and honey. The name, Tahcabo, may be derived from the prodigious quantities of honey produced there.

Postclassic mound adjacent to the colonial church.

Postclassic mound adjacent to the colonial church.

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Remains of the old colonial church.

 

 

Thus far the archaeological project has focused on mapping and survey work. Our survey has recovered artifacts that suggest a nearly constant habitation of this area from the Pre-Classic period through the modern days. The draw of the landscape is clear: numerous rejolladas (soil-filled cenotes) provide fertile soil for agriculture; several cenotes provide a year-round source of water; and numerous caves not only provided a safe refuge during times of trouble, but also had spiritual significance for the Maya.

In addition to this archaeological work we are also partnering with the community to strategize priories for the investigation of their heritage and to address other quality-of-life issues that the community has identified. Community members are interested in archive work that will document the early history of their community. Parents are interested in developing additional Maya language resources for their children to ensure that they are literate in Maya as well as Spanish. To that end we have plans to work with community members to record local stories and histories in Spanish and Maya that can be bound together for distribution within the village.

Community meeting to discuss the project.

Community meeting to discuss the project.

Students participating in a photo-voice project.

Students participating in a photo-voice project.

One of our project members, UNC graduate student Maia Dedrick, conducted a photo-voice project with a group of secondary school students to identify the good things about living in Tahcabo and the problems that they face as well. The community has formed an incipient heritage committee who we meet with on a regular basis to discuss what we are finding, what the community needs and interests are, and how we can address those with our project or other resources that we might bring to bear. An outstanding UNO student, Lourdes Chan Camaal, speaks Maya and lived in the village for several weeks before the start of archaeological investigations this summer. The relationships she formed have been essential in fomenting the collaborative goals of this project.

July 11, The Day of Archaeology, was the last day of our field season this year. I spent the morning with project members passing out bilingual (Spanish and Yucatec Maya) coloring book to the primary school students and leading the children in a number of games. The passion of these children, and their desire to learn more about their community’s history, is one of the more rewarding parts of my job.

Playing games.

Playing games.

School girls reading the coloring book.

School girls reading the coloring book.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That evening, we signed an agreement between the State Archives of the Yucatán (AGEY) and our nonprofit arm, The Alliance for Heritage Conservation, to work together to tell the stories of some of the earliest towns in this region. This agreement will open a number of opportunities for PACOY as the project moves forward and we continue our work in Tahcabo and the region.

PACOY directors Ivan Batun and Patricia McAnany signing the agreement between AGEY and The Alliance.

PACOY directors Ivan Batun and Patricia McAnany signing the agreement between AGEY and The Alliance.


Ancient Maya trash is an archaeologist’s treasure.

If you try to think of a verb to describe an archaeologist’s work, you will probably come up with “dig.”  And dig we do.  However, for every day an archaeologist spends excavating, she must spend many more analyzing artifacts in the lab, interpreting results, and writing reports and papers.  After completing a 10-week field season in the jungle, at the Maya site of Ceibal, I am writing to you from our project’s lab in Guatemala City, where my team members and I are busy analyzing our finds.  (You can read a little about our project here.)

I’m a graduate student at the University of Arizona, working on my Ph.D. dissertation.  My dissertation research involves excavating ancient Maya houses and the areas around those houses, some of which date back to around 800 B.C.  (You can see some cool preliminary results here.)  When you excavate households, you find a lot of ancient people’s trash.  Archaeologists love trash.  The most common kind of artifact I find is broken pottery, which we call ceramic sherds.  I spent today, the Day of Archaeology 2014, sorting, counting, recording, and labeling these bits of ancient bowls and plates.  Below you can see my cozy workspace:

Sorting and recording pottery sherds in Guatemala City

Sorting and recording pottery sherds in Guatemala City. MP3 player for audiobook entertainment.

This kind of work is more tedious than glamorous, but it’s an important step in interpreting the archaeological record.  Ceramics are used to study all kinds of interesting topics, including trade, social status, and ancient technology.  We sometimes even find residues of ancient foods and drinks in ceramic vessels.

Right now, I am most interested in my piles of sherds as a way to date the different floors, buildings, burials, and other deposits I have excavated.  In the Maya area, archaeologists are constantly refining our knowledge of how local ceramics changed over time.  Our knowledge of Maya ceramic types allows us to quickly put together the basic timeline of an archaeological site.  (We also use other methods of dating, such as radiocarbon dating, but for various reasons those are not always feasible, useful options.)  Without that timeline, we couldn’t begin to understand the events that took place in the past. By carefully recording and publishing the ceramic finds from our site, we contribute to our discipline’s broader knowledge of ancient Maya ceramics.  We create representative collections of sherds for others to study, and we reassemble whole ceramic vessels that will eventually by curated by Guatemala’s Institute of Anthropology and History.  Some of the nicer Maya dishes may even end up in the national archaeology museum.

Other project members, who hail from Guatemala, the US, Europe, and Japan, are busy analyzing the stone tools, human bones, animal bones, and other artifacts excavated at our site.  Each provides an important, different piece of the puzzle in our quest to understand ancient Maya society.

Next time you break a dish in your kitchen and clean up the pieces, stop to think about what a future archaeologist might someday learn from your discarded trash!

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

Maya Research Program’ s 23rd archaeological field season in Belize

MRP Logo 2013

What is the Maya Research Program?

The Maya Research Program is a U.S.-based non-profit organization (501C3) that sponsors archaeological and ethnographic research in Middle America. Each summer since 1992, we have sponsored archaeological fieldwork in northwestern Belize and ethnographic research in the village of Yaxunah, Mexico. The Maya Research Program is affiliated with the University of Texas at Tyler.

Our goal is, first and foremost, to conduct research that helps us better understand the complex ancient societies of the Americas. MRP is proud to have a diverse staff of talented scientists contributing to this goal and many of our affiliated scholars are recognized as leaders in their fields. Recent support has come from the Archaeological Institute of America, National Geographic Society, the National Science Foundation, the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, the Heinz Foundation, and the American Council of Learned Societies. In addition, the Blue Creek field school has been certified by the Register of Professional Archaeologists and the project was recognized as the winner of the Archaeological Institute of America’s Excavation Outreach contest.

Another key MRP goal is to encourage the participation of students and volunteers — anyone who wants to experience the real world of archaeological or anthropological research and understand how we learn about cultures may join us. We see this as a critical educational component of MRP’s work and it helps us accomplish our research goals as well. The ages of our participants range from 18 to over 80. So many of our participants return year after year that MRP has become an extended family. About half of our participants are university students under 30 years old and the other half are professionals and retirees. While the majority of participants come from the United States and Canada, we have students from Australian,  European, Latin American, and Japanese institutions as well. For students, academic credit can usually be arranged either via UTT or the student’s home institution. Many of our students go on to become successful graduate students in archaeology or a related field and return to focus on MRP projects for their theses and dissertations.

In 2014 and 2015 we again offer opportunities to participate in our field program and learn about the Maya of the past and today. The Blue Creek Archaeological Project is open to student and non-student participants, regardless of experience. The field school has been certified by the Register of Professional Archaeologists and participants will receive training in archaeological field and laboratory techniques. Academic credit and scholarships are available. We invite students and volunteers to participate in the Maya Research Program’s  archaeological field season in northwestern Belize.

2014 Season Dates:
Session 1: Monday May 26 to Sunday June 8
Session 2: Monday June 9 to Sunday June 22
Session 3: Monday June 30 to Sunday July 13
Session 4: Monday July 14 to Sunday July 27

2015 Season Dates:

Session 1: Monday June 1st to Sunday June 14th

Session 2: Monday June 15th to Sunday June 28th

Session 3: Monday July 6th to Sunday July 19th

Session 4: Monday July 20th to Sunday August 2nd

If you are interested in joining the team this summer or next  – please get in touch soon as space is limited! If you have any questions – please don’t hesitate to contact us:

Maya Research Program
1910 East Southeast Loop 323
#296; Tyler, Texas 75701
Phone: 817-831-9011
Email: mrpinquiries@gmail.com

MRP’s 23rd archaeological field season in Belize

The Maya Research Program is having a very successful 23rd archaeological field season in northwestern Belize! This summer we are concentrating on the site of Xnoha. Xnoha is a medium sized Maya center located on the edge of the Alacranes Bajo. We are delineating the architecture of the site core, three of its elite residences, and a possible shrine structure. In addition, we have recorded and conserved the mural recovered from Tulix Mul, secured numerous soil samples from wetland features, and finalized excavations at “Alvin’s Cave” and “Rice Mill Cave 3.” Our bioarchaeology field school is active this session and we are looking forward to our 3D modeling and photogrammetry workshop next week.  If you are interested in seeing weekly updates from the field – you can follow our progress on our Facebook page or via the photo gallery on our website.

 


Lost cities and looted tombs: Studying artifact smuggling in Belize

On last year’s day of archaeology I was 3700 feet above sea level, studying the looting of Andean churches. This year I am in the Central American jungle conducting fieldwork on artifact smuggling in Belize.

The image above shows the looting of a large Maya temple front at the site of Placeres, Mexico: it is literally being sawed off. Read about the looting and trafficking of this facade on the Trafficking Culture website. Photo by permission of the person who took it.

This job is exciting to say the least

An antiquities smuggler in the process of looting a large stucco temple facade at the Maya site of Placeres, Mexico (Photo with permission of individual pictured)

An antiquities smuggler in the process of looting a large stucco temple facade at the Maya site of Placeres, Mexico (Photo with permission of individual pictured)

Although I am an archaeologist by training (I have a trowel and I know how to use it), I do something a bit different. I am a researcher on Trafficking Culture, a multidisciplinary research project focused on researching the transnational criminal trafficking of looted and stolen cultural property. In other words, while many archaeologists work to reconstruct the past, we work make sure that there is a past left for them to reconstruct. The looting of archaeological sites and the trafficking of stolen antiquities is big business and my team is studying how to disrupt these criminal networks. I am based at the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research at the University of Glasgow. I’m an archaeologist in a criminology department.

Recently our project’s work in Cambodia has received much media attention, thanks to an article on the National Geographic site and a paper in the British Journal of Criminology (available for free for a limited time). My colleagues Simon Mackenzie and Tess Davis were able to reconstruct two criminal networks that stole Khmer art from jungle temples and moved them across borders and on to the market. One at least was tied to the Khmer Rouge. Many supposedly-reputable dealers, collectors, and museums bought these blood antiquities.

We want to study more of these artefact trafficking networks. That is why I am in Belize: to learn the who, what, when, where, and why of the devastation of the massive, jungle-covered ancient cities of the Maya by antiquities traffickers.

Almost every Maya site has been looted

A fat Maya lord rides on a jaguar man doing a handstand. It is in the November Collection, a brutally looted group of Maya pots acquired in the late 80s by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (photo by the author)

A fat Maya lord wearing a mask  rides on a jaguar man doing a handstand. It is in the November Collection, a brutally looted group of Maya pots acquired in the late 80s by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (photo by the author)

The ancient Maya were an artistically, culturally, and scientifically advanced civilization located in parts of what is now Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and, of course, Belize. They charted the movement of Venus, had a complete written language, and built cities that housed 10s of thousands of people. The remains of their massive temples are other-worldly: they stick up over the canopy of the jungle. From the temple tops, you can watch monkeys, toucans, and scarlet macaws going about their business below between the swirls of morning mist.

We’ve known about the ancient Maya for a long time. Formal archaeological excavations began in the region in the late 1800s and many many ‘lost cities’ were recorded by archaeological pioneers who braved the green uninhabited expanse, slinging their hammocks on ruins as they went along. There was not an international market for Maya artefacts, however, until the late 1950s and early 1960s. Collectors and museums went wild for the complex iconography of Maya carved stone statues (usually called stelas) and fell in love with the delicate, masterful scenes painted on Maya pottery. That it was illegal to buy, sell, and export Maya artefacts from their countries of origin was immaterial. The law rarely stops very rich people from getting what they want and what they wanted was the ancient Maya.

Maya Tomb at Rio Azul, looted in the late 1970s, empty when archaeologists arrived. We'll never know what was inside (poster by the author for Saving Antiquities for Everyone)

Maya tomb at Rio Azul, looted in the late 1970s, empty when archaeologists arrived. We’ll never know what was inside (poster by the author for Saving Antiquities for Everyone)

Almost every known Maya site (and many sites unknown to archaeologists) has been hit by looters. Archaeologists are often left cleaning up the tattered remains left as a supply of artefacts was found to meet the demands of artifact-hungry collectors and museums. Once-intact temples have been cut nearly in half to access the artefacts within. Many have collapsed, destabilized by looting tunnels. Archaeologists find once-beautiful carved stela mutilated by looters: “thinned” with power tools to make them easier to transport or broken into bits, with only the prettiest carved sections taken for the international market. Archaeologists find once-sealed Maya tombs empty and bare with human bones smashed or pushed aside. Any Maya pot or jade piece you see in a museum almost certainly came from a tomb. There is a very good chance it was looted as well. And relatively recently.

We’ve lost so much information about the Maya to the illicit antiquities market. I am out to figure out how this happened and what we can do to prevent it from happening again.

My day of archaeology

Having finished up some initial work in Belize City, I will ride an old American school bus north along Belize’s Northern Highway to the town of Orange Walk. There I will stop in to the town museum which houses artefacts from a number of nearby Maya sites to speak with museum workers about looting and trafficking of antiquities. Hopefully this will generate some local leads: we’ve found that people involved in antiquities trafficking in the past are often willing to talk about it.

The author showing her love for the ancient Maya at the site of Lamanai, Belize back in 2003.

The author showing her love for the ancient Maya at the site of Lamanai, Belize back in 2003.

I am very interested in what we call ‘parallel’ trafficking networks: illicit objects that are smuggled alongside antiquities in the same areas. Along Belize’s borders with Guatemala and Mexico rare plants and animals, arms, drugs, and people have been trafficked, as well as antiquities. I am going to (safely) see if anyone around those parts is willing to tell me some stories about this.

The author excavates a rare unlooted Maya tomb at a heavily looted site on the Belize/Guatemala border

Me excavating a rare unlooted Maya tomb at a heavily looted site on the Belize/Guatemala border. The pot type I am finding is very rare and, sadly, very sellable as an illicit antiquity.

Next I plan to move a bit further afield. I plan on visiting some of the heavily looted Maya sites along Belize’s northern border with Mexico. These sites are very difficult to get to, but several archaeologists working the area have kindly invited me into their camps.

This trip is an emotional one for me. As I say in this post on my blog, Anonymous Swiss Collector, I first found myself face-to-face with the devastating effects of looting while working in Belize and Guatemala in 2003. It was then and there that I devoted myself to this issue and my life has never been the same. A BA, MPhil, PhD, and post doc later, I am still working to protect and preserve the Maya sites that I fell in love with. This will be my first time back to Belize in over a decade.

I think that the only way to prevent looting at archaeological sites is to disrupt the criminal networks that bring these items to the market. To do that, we have to understand those networks. Hopefully this fieldwork will shed new light on a very dark chapter in the archaeological history of Central America.

The author, all of 20 years old, at the (looted) Maya site of Xunantunich, Belize

The author, all of 20 years old, at the (looted) Maya site of Xunantunich, Belize


Adventures with the Maya

On Fridays, my husband and I are usually writing or researching or doing school visits, but this week we were at home working on our website. We co-write and illustrate a Maya-themed adventure series for 9-14 year-olds called The Jaguar Stones. Eight years ago, we gave up our jobs in a London advertising agency to become writers in rural Vermont. At that point, I knew nothing about the Maya and never dreamed that one day my life would revolve around them – to the extent that we’ve now explored nearly forty sites in Guatemala, Mexico and Belize, got to know many leading Mayanists, presented at the AIA Archaeology Fair, and visited countless schools around the United States.

Our books – note the Bulgarian edition that just arrived!

It all started when we decided to write a children’s book set in the jungles of Central America. My husband Jon had grown up there and the book grew out of his memories of a wild childhood. So at first, the Maya pyramids were just a cool background for our story. But the more we researched the Maya, the more we realized that truth was more fascinating than fiction.  It soon became apparent that most textbooks were out-of-date and did not reflect the latest archaeological findings. Since then we’ve made it our mission to bridge that gap.

Everything we write is checked by Harvard professor, archaeologist and epigrapher, Dr Marc Zender, who keeps us up-to-date with the latest thinking. For example, one of our main characters was a Maya king nicknamed Lord Six Rabbit, a name we loved. Six Rabbit was supposed to be his birthday in the Maya calendar, but Dr Zender advised us that the Rabbit interpretation of that day glyph is now seen as Aztec. (The Maya reading now being star, as in Venus the morning star.) Given the amount of misinformation that’s already out there about the Maya, we wanted our books to be as accurate as possible. So, with a sigh, we changed our king’s nickname (and his birthday) to Six Dog.

When we visit schools, we often wear pith helmets in a tribute to one of my personal heroes, Sylvanus Griswold Morley – the dashing, daredevil director of the Chichen Itza project and WW1 secret agent. (I even gave the hero of the Jaguar Stones the middle name of Sylvanus.) Or sometimes we wear leather hats like the most famous archaeologist of them all, Indiana Jones. But one of our greatest pleasures is meeting and talking to real life Mayanists. We’re trying to film as many of them as possible for our website and today Jon was editing an interview with Dr Mark Van Stone, Professor of Art History at Southwestern, leading expert on 2012 and author of one of the best books on the subject. When it’s up, you can view the interview here, along with all the others. Link to archaeologist videos

In the clip, Dr Van Stone is talking about how the myth of the world ending in 2012 arose and why it’s complete nonsense. If kids google 2012, they find literally thousands of websites proclaiming doom and gloom and blaming it on the Maya. Many children are terrified, but it’s virtually impossible for them to access the truth. So when we visit schools, we try to empower the students to question everything they read on the Internet and give them a much broader understanding of the Maya world. We also try to convey something of an archaeologist’s life with a video mash-up of archaeologists and anthropologists talking about their hairiest experiences – usually involving skulls, snakes, scorpions, giant centipedes, cave spiders, killer bees and, in one case, a cockroach sandwich.

This student made dolls of four characters from our book. Ah Pukuh - Maya god of death, Lola - a modern Maya girl, Lady Coco - a howler monkey, Lord Six-Dog, Maya king.

This student wrote a hilarious tourist guide to Xibalba, the cold, wet Maya underworld, "a wonderful place full of suffering, misery and sorrow."

While Jon was editing videos, I was scanning in some amazing projects presented to us by students on our last book tour. I’m trying to create some new teacher pages to go along with our lesson plan CD. Sometimes we’ll walk into schools and find ourselves surrounded by Jaguar Stones projects on every wall. Other times, they’ll decorate the school like a jungle in our honor. One school even had a fog machine to generate an appropriately spooky atmosphere. Recently, a student wrote to us and said: “I used to want to be a doctor and save lives, but now I want to be an archaeologist.” Not sure how I feel about that one.

The Maya king holding court in our dining room.

If we get the website sorted before the end of the day, I’m also hoping that we’ll get around to packing up the Maya king costume that’s currently adorning a mannequin in our dining room. We originally made it to take to schools, and we set it up last week for some passing tourists, but now it’s scaring our dinner guests! I think it’s the taxidermy eyes in the jaguar mask that freak people out. Of course, no actual Maya king costumes survived the jungle and the Spanish conquest, but we based our design on wall paintings and sculptures. I spent many long hours on eBay bidding for the feathers and found a Las Vegas showgirl headdress that we deconstructed to form the base. The whole thing was made and put together by our niece who’d had experience making circus costumes at university. When we take the costume to schools, it’s usually modeled by a teacher, much to the students’ delight. We had it with us for school visits in Florida when we went to the Maya at the Playa conference last year. Predictably a late-night reveler insisted on trying it on and wore it back down to the bar where the eminent archaeologist speakers were still, ahem, gathered. We thought they might be horrified at the liberties we’d taken in our design but they all loved it and many of them posed for photos with it!

As soon as we’ve got the website updated and the costume packed away, it’s back to work revising, editing and illustrating The Jaguar Stones book three.”