Sometimes You Just Have to go Back

If you are an archaeologist working far from home, you try to plan everything to a T before heading to the field. You carefully excavate and collect samples for later analysis knowing that your final field season is your last chance to get the information you need for your research project. You later spend countless hours in the lab sorting and examining artifacts under a microscope, taking detailed photographs of important pieces, and documenting everything ad nauseam until finally, surely, you are ready for the write-up. Right? Wrong. Sometimes, the results of the specialized laboratory analyses you conduct later on, after the fieldwork and after the artifact analysis, motivate you to go back and collect more information.

On my way to find an aguada to the south of Ceibal Str. 79, known for its round shape.

I am a graduate student in the School of Anthropology at the University of Arizona. I study ancient Maya urbanism at Ceibal, Guatemala by exploring whether or not neighborhoods were organized around temple complexes and water features in outlying areas of the city. (For more information on the Ceibal-Petexbatun Project, follow this link. For a peek at some of my findings, follow this link.) From 2012 to 2015, I excavated different areas of five temple groups at Ceibal, placing test pits in the temples, in some of the surrounding residential structures, and in nearby aguadas (man-made reservoirs). I also worked in the lab each summer from 2012 to 2016 to analyze the pottery artifacts from my excavations. The analysis of pottery allowed me to date constructions and other features, and in that way reconstruct the occupation histories of each group. I was also able to see if there were any differences in access to certain pottery types among the diverse groups of people living in outlying areas of Ceibal. Aguadas, like the ones I excavated, would have been important locations of face-to-face interactions for people residing around them, and crucial for agricultural production and human consumption. I wanted to analyze the pollen in the soils from the aguadas I excavated to verify if these features held water in antiquity, to learn about the quality of water they held (whether it would have been suitable for human consumption), and to see if agricultural plants were cultivated near these features.

Earlier this year, I sent a series of soil samples from the aguadas I excavated to a palynologist (pollen specialist), Dr. Susan Smith, for analysis. While Dr. Smith found that pollen preservation was poor in most of the samples, the soils collected from two of the aguadas provided some preliminary results that merited further investigation. Unfortunately, one of the samples was from an aguada that had filled up with water while we were excavating it, meaning we were not able to take samples from the most important layers at the bottom. The other sample came from an aguada excavated by my colleague, José Luis Ranchos, in 2016, which was not originally part of my project. I was in a hot spot, but I was determined to (quite literally) get to the bottom of water management systems at Ceibal. Shortly before my planned trip to the lab this year, I decided to travel back to Ceibal to collect more samples.

Excavation in an aguada (reservoir) in the Amoch Group of Ceibal, Guatemala. Notice the small pool of water collecting at the bottom. This was after repeated attempts to bucket out the water, which at one point was about 20 centimeters deep in the bottom of the pit.

On the 2017 Day of Archaeology, I had just returned to the lab after spending three days in the field collecting soil samples from the two promising aguadas identified in the pilot study. In antiquity, these features were dug out like ponds, and were probably 2-4 meters deep. Over centuries of erosion and other depositional processes, they have filled up with soil and now appear to be shallow depressions, a mere 20-50 centimeters below the surrounding surface. Whereas the upper layers are recent infills, the deepest layers—those just above bedrock or an original occupation surface—may correspond to ancient Maya occupation. For that reason, I wanted to take samples from the bottom. However, during the rainy season, these features fill as the water table rises. We had never attempted to excavate or otherwise document what happens to an aguada during the rainy season. As we dug, the excavation unit slowly filled from little water “veins,” or channels, that ran the water from deeper levels to upper ones. It was truly amazing, and reassuring, to see the water flowing into the depressions and imagine how these features must have filled in antiquity.

In three short days, with a lot of hard work and sweat, my team and I were able to get to the bottom of these two aguadas. We collected samples from each of the visible soil layers, and will send them to Dr. Smith for analysis. Just as we were leaving the site on the third day, a massive storm rolled in, causing two trees to fall and block the road on the way to the Sayaxché, the town in which we were staying. We had to run through the rain, hop over the trees, and grab a taxi to catch our flight out of Flores that evening. I arrived at the project lab house in Guatemala City at midnight on the dot on Friday, July 28. Later that day, while I was preparing for my trip back to Arizona, one of the excavators sent me a photo of what happened to the aguadas we had dug into. They had completely filled up, with standing water about ten centimeters above the surface. It appears we had gotten in and out of the field just in time.

An aguada excavation after a heavy storm. The entire excavation and surface was filled with water. Photo by Wilver Godoy.

When I left Ceibal in 2015, I did not know when I would return. But sometimes you just have to go back. Sometimes all the pieces fall into place just in the nick of time for the right amount of time to get all the information you need. Now I can say that I am finally, surely done with data collection… or at least until the results of the analysis tell me what steps to take next.