The Challenge of Managing Visitors to Archaeological Sites in the Mayan Riviera, Mexico

In the first week of July I went to the Mayan Riviera as part of my duties as the Head of the Unit for Planning and Management of Archaeological Sites in the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH). The main objective of this field visit was to carry out an holistic inspection of the current management and operation status of the archaeological sites open to the public on the easter coast of the Yucatan Peninsula (commonly known as the Mayan Riviera). The sites I visited were Muyil, Tulum, Xelhá, Xcaret and Playa del Carmen. These are my preliminary results of this visit (I am still working on the processing of the data – very interesting information!)

First of all, some location information. The sites I visited are located on the eastern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, within the Mexican state of Quintana Roo. As some of you dear readers may know, Quintana Roo is one of the main tourisitc destinations of Mexico (and the world I would say), with two main touristic beach hubs, Cancun and Playa del Carmen. On the coast, the Mayan Riviera, several archaeological sites are open for public visits, and this may be the main challenge in this region of Mexico.

Location of the visited Mayan archaeological sites on the eastern coast of Quintana Roo


Muyil is managed by the Director of Operations of Tulum, considering is very close to this site. The area open to the public is quite small, but what the regional authorities have been doing is to consolidate the site as a model example of how to maintain the vegetation. This is more important than you may thought. The weather on the region is very humid and the jungle around the sites may be an obstacle for the tourism, for what a proper gardening and maintenance programme is necessary. Muyil is a site with a small amount of visitors per month so the management strategies are focused on guarantee a visitation experience. Something very important about density of visitors will be noticed further on.

Access to the archaeological site.

Interpretative signage in Muyil.

Maintained green areas.

“The castle”, Muyil’s main structure.


Tulum is the more visited archaeological site in the Mexican Mayan Region, just ahead of Chichen Itza (there may be months when Chichen Itza is more visited than Tulum, but in general Tulum has more visitors). This is mainly because its location, on the heart of the touristic development of the Mayan Riviera, surrounded by the main cities in the area, modern Tulum, Playa del Carmen and Cancun. It is common, if you go to one of these resort cities, to have a day trip to Tulum. Also, it is known that Tulum is the favourite beach destination for visitors that want to do both, archaeological tourism and beach (and I have to say, the very turquoise colour of the Caribbean, white sand, rocky cliffs, and pre-Hispanic Mayan buildings behind you, it is actually quite impressive and breath taking).

Visitors on the viewing point of the sea and the main structure, The Castle.

The inspection visit to Tulum was focused on evaluate the conservation of the heritage signage. The weather in the coast is very agressive, and the sunlight may damage the signage fabrics. Although I took the chance of being in the site to take some photographs of the areas where visitors congregate the most. And yes, there may be a problem in the near future (I was very impressed with the amount of visitors on a regular Tuesday. According to the Director of Operations of the site, the day with the major visitors density is Saturday and Sunday, with a “rush hour” – yes, Tulum has rush hours – between 9am and 11am), for what a visitors management programme will be implemented very soon.

Queue to buy the entrance ticket.

Rush hour in Tulum.

The weather could be very agressive. Finding shade is a must!

Tulum is the only archaeological site in Mexico with three opening times. One regular visitation time, between 9am and 5pm, and two special opening times (which require a special ticket, more expensive than the regular access ticket), one in the early morning, and the other one after closing time. I had the opportunity to enter into the site after the last group visited the site. And let me tell you something: Tulum without visitors is MAGICAL. This made me think about the great challenge for us heritage managers to implement visitors management plans considering all elements, mostly the visitors experience and the conservation of the archaeological heritage.

Tulum without visitors. So quiet! You can even hear the sea.


You might heared before this name, Xelhá. This is because Xelhá is actually two places: the most known Xelhá is the resort-beach park in the coast, famous for snorkeling activities and eco-tourism; the other place less known is the archaeological site, which gave the name to the resort-beach park.

The site have been in moderate abandonment, but currently the regional offices of INAH in Quintana Roo have being implementing a major programme in order to diversify the visitation offers outside Tulum. I have been closely involved on this kind of programmes in Mexico, developing archaeological routes using major archaeological sites as a focus point in order to communicate to the public the opportunity they have to visit other archaeological sites, some of them bigger and more impressive than the most visited ones (not always, though). This measures are very important in the Mayan Riviera, around Tulum. As the pictures above may tell you, Tulum may have in the near future some difficulties with the carrying capacity of the site and public areas.

Main entrance to the site.

Updated introduction sign, with a site plan.

Detail of the site plan updated sign.

Paths of the site are being renovated.

The visit route in Xelhá, tracked with a GPS. This is actually the route available for visitors.

Xelhá, then, is being attended with this consideration. The visitor services infrastructure is being attended, with a general programme of conservation and update of signage being carried out. Xelhá is a very impressive archaeological site, with some archaeological features unique in the region: it has a pre-Hispanic artificially made road known in Mayan language as “Sacbé” (which means “white road”). This road connects the center of the site with a resiential and ceremonial archaeolgical group known as “The Jaguar Group”, which is located next to a natural water source known as “cenote”. One problem in this site, though: MOSQUITOS. Oh my god…

Sacbé (white road).

The sacbé (white road) connects the center of the site with the Jaguar Group. Notice the artificial elevation of the road above the bedrock.

The Jaguar Group.

The cenote, a natural water source common in the Yucatan Peninsula.

About Xcaret and Playa del Carmen: those sites are very interesting cases of management of archaeological heritage in the region. The archaeological buildings of Xcaret are scatered within a resort-park named also Xcaret, and Playa del Carmen (originally known in Mayan language as Xamanhá) is a site scatered within a residential area and hotels. But that would be for another post. I am still working on the data. Stay tuned!

Note: All the management data collected on the field is being desk-processed in Mexico City.

Mexico > mainland USA #worldinterview #19

Mexico > mainland USA

Interviewee: Kevin Bartoy

What is the United States strategy to look after and cope with a large number of archaeological sites and respond to the demands of international protocols regarding the conservation of world heritage sites?

The short answer would be I don’t think there is a strategy. The laws and regulations of the federal government in the United States only afford protection to archaeological sites if they are on federal lands or if the projects that may affect them have a federal nexus. That is, funded or permitted through a federal agency. Some states, including my own, have laws and regulations in place offering protection to archaeological sites. It is actually a misdemeanour in the State of Washington to knowingly disturb an archaeological site regardless of where it is or who is doing the disturbance. Any disturbance requires a permit through a state agency. It is a felony to knowingly disturb a burial site.

Overall, I do not think that listing as a world heritage site or international protocols have any real effect on the day-to-day work that we do. Applicable federal, state, or local law is complied with, but I have never had an instance in my 25 years as a cultural resources professional to have complied with international protocols. In the US, I believe much more effective action in regards to archaeological sites would happen at the state or local level.

It is my impression that world heritage sites and international protocols are much more things of a political or academic realm. I seldom see their effect on the actual resources that we deal with on a daily basis.

How does the United States build capacity for minority groups to get involved in archaeology and museums?

This is a difficult question for me to answer as I have not been directly involved in diversity issues within a museum or academic setting in terms of hiring and promotion. I can speak for my agency however within the State of Washington. “Inclusion” is one of three agency emphasis areas for the Washington State Department of Transportation. As an agency, we believe that we want our workforce to look like the communities that we serve. We try to do this through outreach to historically underserved and underrepresented communities, including communities of color and tribal governments. We promote and expand participation of disadvantaged business enterprises in our contracting. We also continue to expand our efforts in community engagement and environmental justice to better involve and reflect the needs of the diverse communities we serve.

What are the roles of federal and non-federal recognized tribes in federal, state, county and city projects?

This would depend on how the project was funded or permitted. If there is a federal nexus, applicable federal laws and regulations apply. Those laws require consultation with federally recognized tribes. We often will consult with non-federally recognized tribes as “consulting parties” not as tribal governments. The difficulty is that this consultation often makes the federally recognized tribes upset. It is a fine line and we point out that such consultation is not “government to government” in those cases. If there is no federal nexus, then the rules would fall to the states or local governments. Living in a relatively progressive state, we have laws and regulations in place that require us to consult with tribal governments at the state level. There is no distinction made for federally recognized tribes at the state level.

The tribes are given an opportunity to comment on projects and oftentimes the state agency who regulates cultural resources compliance is a strong advocate for the tribes. So much so that projects will not be approved unless the concerns of the tribes are addressed. This happens on state or federal projects. In the State of Washington, many of the federally recognized tribes are politically and economically powerful, so they have quite a voice and their concerns must usually be addressed for a project to move forward. I do not think that this is the case in many other places within the US however.

In Washington State, we are also unique in the treaties that were signed by tribal governments and the United States during the territorial period. These treaties included reserved rights for “usual and accustomed” fishing, hunting, and gathering places. As with many native cultures, the tribes in Washington State do not make a distinction between natural and cultural resources. However, the treaties, which are the “law of the land,” afford the tribes a much stronger legal position and much greater power in relation to natural resources, so this is often the focus of our consultation. Since the fisheries in Washington State afford a great deal of economic benefit to the tribes, natural resources often take greater consideration over cultural resources. Yet, both are critically important to the tribes and all tribes in the Salish Sea have both natural and cultural resources staff who participate in consultation.

Again, I would say in my experience, having worked in several states over the past 25 years, Washington State and its relation to the tribes is unique.

What is CRM (cultural resources management) and which laws and agencies help protect cultural resources?

Cultural Resources Management is a poorly named field that seeks compliance with a gamut of cultural, archaeological, and historical laws and regulations. It is a large industry as practiced in the United States and is part and parcel of the environmental permitting and approval process that projects must go through to move forward. The term is poor because it includes this compliance type work as well as work in museums or parks. Some work is done for industry, some for government, some for private citizens, some for non-profits. The field includes archaeologists, cultural anthropologists, biological anthropologists, historians, and architectural historians. Seldom are cultural resources “managed.” They are usually identified, classified, and then mitigated if they would be affected by a project.

There are a number of laws on the federal level, most notably the National Historic Preservation Act (Section 106). There is also the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, Section 4(f) of the United States Department of Transportation Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act. There are also a number of state and local laws and regulations that vary throughout the country.Resources as disparate as traditional cultural places, archaeological sites, and historic buildings are grouped together in this legal framework.

The primary law is the National Historic Preservation Act, which, despite its name, does not “preserve” anything. The act was put in place in 1966 as a reaction against widespread development in the United States that was actively demolishing historic structures. This development was primarily related to highway construction. The act simply asks federal agencies to consider the effects of their projects on historic properties and to mitigate those effects where they are adverse. The results of the law are seldom preservation, but often result in other forms of mitigation.

The one law that does have some teeth in terms of preservation is one that you seldom hear about unless you work in transportation. Section 4(f) of the United States Department of Transportation Act requires agencies of the United States Department of Transportation to avoid 4(f) resources, which include historic properties as well as parks, trails, wildlife preserves, etc. This law will often result in preservation although it seldom does for archaeological sites, which do not have to be “preserved in place” unless their value is determined to be more than the data they contain.

About Kevin:

Environmental Program Manager, Washington State Ferries.

Washington State Ferries is the largest ferry system in the United States. As Environmental Program Manager, I ensure compliance with a multitude of laws and regulations (federal, state, and local) necessary for the design, construction, and maintenance of our facilities throughout the Salish Sea. I am a trained archaeologist and am the lead for cultural resources compliance in my current position, but also oversee compliance for natural resources, planning, sustainability, etc.

I have published several papers and articles related to the work that I do for Washington State Ferries, and previously in other positions at the Washington State Department of Transportation.

Prior to joining the Washington State Department of Transportation, I had previously worked in academia, the private sector, and a non-profit museum as an archaeologist and cultural resources professional. I have published several articles and an edited volume as part of that work.

Questions from Eduardo Escalante in Mexico.

Click the worldinterview tag for more interviews from this series.

Cuba > Mexico #worldinterview #18

Cuba > Mexico

Interviewee: Eduardo Escalante

What is Mexico’s strategy to look after and cope with a large number of archaeological sites and respond to the demands of international protocols regarding the conservation of world heritage sites?

The responsibility for the research, protection, conservation, dissemination and management of the archaeological heritage is given by federal law to the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), created in 1939. The INAH has a permanent programme for the recording and registration of archaeological sites in the country, being helped by the regional INAH offices on every state (one representation of INAH in every state). Each INAH office is responsible for the national activities of the Institute on the regional level, bearing more attention to the archaeological sites officially opened to the public. Among these sites opened to the public, World Heritage Sites are among the most visited and the ones with more attention. Since 1985 when Mexico rectified the World Heritage Convention, the responsibilities as a State Party are among the responsibilities of INAH for the conservation and management of World Heritage Sites, especially archaeological sites and historic centres.  According the Mexican legislation, every rectified convention is considered part of the federal framework policy.

It is important to notice that within INAH there is a specialized department for World Heritage. This department is the responsible for the nomination and monitoring processes. It is the representation of INAH with the World Heritage Centre of UNESCO. This department works alongside CONANP (National Commission for Protected Natural Areas), which is responsible for the Natural World Heritage sites.

How does Mexico build capacity for minority groups to get involved in archaeology and museums?

Recently, INAH has been developing Community Museums on communities with high cultural heritage values. It is important for INAH since its creation to work alongside the minority groups in order to protect cultural heritage and archaeological sites. Every research project on the countryside bears in mind the involvement of communities in order to build a community project.

What is the role of Mexican indigenous communities in the process of institutional decisions regarding tourism on archaeological heritage?

The direct participation of indigenous communities within archaeological sites in Mexico has to be with the ownership of the land. Several archaeological sites opened to the public still are on community owned land, for what indigenous communities can have a direct positive impact for the visitation working together with government policies regarding tourism. Although this aspect of the management of archaeological sites in Mexico still is a delicate issue, being more evident around World Heritage sites.

How does Mexico deal with the planning and development of cities and country areas, considering the occurrence of potential of archaeological sites?

INAH is composed by several departments, such as the Rescue Archaeology Department (commercial archaeology, savage archaeology). This department is the responsible of the follow up processes on development projects. By law, every development project has to have the INAH verification and approval for the construction. If there is archaeological evidence, is the organisation or company of the development project the one responsible for providing the necessary resources in order to execute a proper rescue archaeological project. This rescue archaeology process goes along with the permanent programme of record and registration of archaeological heritage, for what a Geographical Information Database is integrated in order to have a clear idea of the existence of archaeological evidence in the Mexican territory.

About Eduardo:

BA in Archaeology, Autonomous University of Yucatan; MA in Managing of Archaeological Sites, UCL; Head of the Technical Unit for the Management of Archaeological Sites, Sites Operation Department, National Coordination of Archaeology, National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH)

Questions from Odlanyer Hernández de Lara in Cuba.

Click the worldinterview tag for more interviews in this series.

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.


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.

Living and managing archaeological sites in a historic urban landscape: Mexico City

“Let’s start from a statement speaking about the city of the ancient Mexicans: Mexico-Tenochtitlán has been and still is the root of all that has happened in this enormous metropolis, it is the substratum of the nation’s capital.”

“Vamos a partir de una afirmación al hablar de la ciudad de los antiguos mexicanos: México-Tenochtitlán ha sido y es la raíz de todo lo que ha acontecido en esta enorme metrópolis, es el sustrato de la capital del país.”

– Miguel León Portilla (2001).

Museo Nacional de Antropología

Sacred Square of Tenochtitlan, at the National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City.


Mexico City is the capital of the United Mexican States (official name of Mexico) and the fourth most populated city in the world with 21 million inhabitants, according to the recent United Nations revision on World Urbanization Prospects (UN 2014), just after Tokyo, Delhi, and Shanghai. Its historical background is vast and currently visible as an expression of continuity of human occupation through time and accumulation of cultural layers by landscape transformation, where its World Heritage value lies.

Founded in AD 1325, taken and afterwards destroyed by the Spanish army during the conquest in AD 1521, the pre-Hispanic city (‘cities’) of Mexico-Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco located in central Mexico was once the capital of the Mexica Empire. Today, for those who live in or visit Mexico City it is difficult to imagine, or be aware, that below the streets and colonial buildings of the Historic Centre, a city on an island, in the middle of a lake, connected to the mainland and surrounding settlements by straight causeways, existed just a few centuries ago. Since the foundation of Mexico-Tenochtitlan until modern Mexico City today, the human occupation in the urban area has been permanent and constantly growing.

Diego Rivera's mural of the everyday life in Tenochtitlán-Tlatelolco (National Palace).

Diego Rivera’s mural of the everyday life in Tenochtitlán-Tlatelolco (National Palace).

I live in Mexico City, more specifically in the Historic Centre, which was declared Historical Monuments Zone by the federal government in 1980, and inscribed in UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1987, alongside with the southern lakeside colonial town of Xochimilco, as one of the world’s outstanding urban landscapes, which illustrates the historic transformation of the environment and the great periods in the history of the Mexican capital. The actual boundaries of the World Heritage Property follows the boundaries of the Historical Monuments Zones, according to the limits of the city in the 19th century (perimeter A), and a buffer zone (perimeter B, where I actually live).

Wider perspective to see the dimension of the urban area of Mexico City with the Historic Centre boundaries.

Wider perspective to see the dimension of the urban area of Mexico City with the Historic Centre boundaries.

Mexico City's Historic Centre boundaries. Perimeter A (red) and Perimeter B (blue). The main archaeological sites are indicated.

Mexico City’s Historic Centre boundaries. Perimeter A (red) and Perimeter B (blue). The main archaeological sites are indicated.

Not only I live in the historic centre, but also I work in the area, in the back of the Metropolitan Cathedral (the biggest in America), next to the Templo Mayor Archaeological Zone. I’m currently working at the Sites Operation Department of the National Coordination of Archaeology, within the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), which is the government body responsible of the preservation, conservation, communication and research of the cultural heritage in Mexico. On this matter, it is important to clarify that the cultural heritage in Mexico is regulated by federal law, and this means also the conceptual definition of that heritage, which is identified as artistic (20th century), historical (1521 until 19th century), and archaeological (before 1521, the year of the fallen of the pre-Hispanic city of Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco, by the Spanish army).

Bearing in mind those cultural heritage specifications, on my daily basis at the Sites Operation Department as the planning and management in chief, alongside with my colleagues, I look forward to the management of the archaeological heritage, specifically of the 187 archaeological sites officially opened to the public in the country. This is a really impressive number, if we consider that the INAH is the only institution responsible of the archaeology in the whole country, and that in total there’s an estimate of about 45,000 registered archaeological sites. But, my job is not only directed to these 187 sites, also to the 130 archaeological sites with some kind of visit, even though they are not officially opened to the public. The Sites Operation Department have the responsibility to look for the management, protection, regulation, infrastructure development, and operation and logistics of the sites organisation of personal and resources. It is the archaeological heritage, before 1521, the cultural resource that my department is responsible of.

The pre-Hispanic archaeological remains of Mexico-Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco have been identified and excavated in particular areas within the Historic Centre of Mexico City, from the first findings in 1790 of the ‘Coatlicue’ and ‘Piedra del Sol’ monoliths during reformation works of the city’s main plaza (known as “Zócalo”), to the discovery of the ‘Coyolxauhqui’ monolith in 1978, from where the research and excavations of the Templo Mayor next to the Metropolitan Cathedral begun, consolidating the INAH’s Urban Archaeology Project (PAU), until today.

Coatlicue (left) and the Piedra del Sol or "Aztec Calendar" (right). Both monoliths were found in 1790 in the main square.

Coatlicue (left) and the Piedra del Sol or “Aztec Calendar” (right). Both monoliths were found in 1790 in the main square.


Coyoulxauqui monolith (1978).

Coyoulxauqui monolith (1978).

Archaeological research within urban contexts was a new approach in the first half of the 20th century, when the Mexican administration was keen on the research directed to the study and reconstruction of the most prominent and monumental archaeological sites around the country (e.g. Teotihuacan and Chichén Itzá). The constantly growing development and urbanization of Mexican cities brought a new concern with archaeological practice, reflected in the increasing implementation of archaeological strategies to rescue and preserve the archaeological heritage under threat of damage or destruction by the new urban developments, which was (and still is) more evident in Mexico City and the metropolitan area.

Tlatelolco Archaeological Zone, north of the Historic Centre's boundaries.

Tlatelolco Archaeological Zone, north of the Historic Centre’s boundaries.

Cuicuilco Archaeological Zone, in the southern part of the city, all surrounded by urban areas.

Cuicuilco Archaeological Zone, in the southern part of the city, all surrounded by urban areas.

Current research strategies to approach the archaeological heritage within urban areas in the last 25 years in Mexico City and other Mexican cities around the country have been determined by pressure of the constant use of spaces within the city. The archaeological activity is restricted in time and space, and precise and holistic strategies are needed and have to be improved, which sometimes are influenced by the political context.

Going to the office, I walk by every day next to archaeological remains integrated to the colonial buildings or modern urban spaces, which are the visible witnesses of the pre-Hispanic layer of the city, and are mostly un-recognized and misunderstood. Some examples of archaeological remains within the historic centre are the pre-Hispanic stone in Madero Avenue with an Aztec design called “Chalchihuitl”, a military shield; the snake head in a colonial building corner where the City Museum currently is; the temple of the god of wind, also known as the “Temple of Ehécatl” within one of the most crowded metro stations, Pino Suárez (discovered in 1968 during its construction); the Templo Mayor archaeological zone, and even Tlatelolco archaeological zone, further north the Historic Centre’s boundaries but part of the pre-Hispanic cultural landscape of the island-city of Tenochtitlán.

A stone with an Aztec design in a colonial building facade (Madero Avenue).

A stone with an Aztec design in a colonial building facade (Madero Avenue).

Snake head integrated to a colonial building corner (City Museum).

Snake head integrated to a colonial building corner (City Museum).

The temple of the god of wind, within Pino Suárez metro station.

The temple of the god of wind, within Pino Suárez metro station.

Because of this panorama my MA dissertation in UCL was related with the interpretation of the wider context, the historic urban landscape, in order to communicate to the public the relevance of understanding all these remains as part of a single environment, and not as isolated sites without cultural context. At my working department, we look for the development of a management system that considers this current context on the cultural heritage management in the city, trying to take advantage of the Historic Centre boundaries and work in a planning process in all management levels, world heritage, federal declaration, archaeological sites, the public, conservation, interpretation and communication. It is such a challenge, not only alongside the country, but also because the complexity of the city’s cultural layers. Working in the management plans of Templo Mayor and Tlatelolco, we can link both sites not only in a management level, which is regulated by the Institute (which is an advantage in the sense of coordination of resources, processes, and information), but also in the wider interpretation level, looking forward to a better preservation and understanding of the sites within a common cultural landscape.

Diego Rivera's mural of Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco. Tenochtitlán on the right, Tlatelolco on the left.

Diego Rivera’s mural of Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco. Tenochtitlán on the right, Tlatelolco on the left.

Templo Mayor Archaeological Zone (Tenochtitlán).

Templo Mayor Archaeological Zone (Tenochtitlán).

A model of Templo Mayor Archaeological Zone, where is possible to appreciate the context of the site within the main buildings of the Historic Centre (Templo Mayor Museum).

A model of Templo Mayor Archaeological Zone, where is possible to appreciate the context of the site within the main buildings of the Historic Centre (Templo Mayor Museum).

Tlatelolco Archaeological Zone (also known as "The Three Cultures Square")

Tlatelolco Archaeological Zone (also known as “The Three Cultures Square”)

Another perspective of Tlatelolco Archaeological Zone.

Another perspective of Tlatelolco Archaeological Zone.

Following the UNESCO’s historic urban landscape statement, the key to understanding and managing any historic urban environment is the recognition that the city is not a static monument or group of buildings, but subject to dynamic forces in the economic, social and cultural spheres that shaped it and keep shaping it. The archaeological heritage in Mexico City’s Historic Centre could be sources of social cohesion, awareness of the pre-Hispanic past, factors of diversity and drivers of creativity, innovation and urban regeneration.

Mexico City's main square, also known as "Zócalo", with the colosal flag, the Metropolitan Cathedral, and the National Palace.

Mexico City’s main square, also known as “Zócalo”, with the colosal flag, the Metropolitan Cathedral, and the National Palace.

Madero Avenue, which connect the main square with the west of the Historic Centre. The Latin American Tower in the background.

Madero Avenue, which connect the main square with the west of the Historic Centre. The Latin American Tower in the background.

Mexico City's skyline, with the volcanos Iztaccíhuatl and Popocatépetl in the background.

Mexico City’s skyline, with the volcanos Iztaccíhuatl and Popocatépetl in the background.

And, finally, I would like to share my personal project looking for a wider and friendly communication of the archaeological heritage in Mexico City, the country, and international context. I created CONARQUEmx, an outreach communication initiative which includes articles, photography, academic perspectives, and guided tours to the unknown and untold pre-Hispanic Mexico City.

Writing! Reports, Articles, Chapters, and the Dissertation

What many new students to archaeology may not realize is that doing archaeology means doing a lot of reporting. And this week, for me, that means doing a lot of writing and writing related activities. I’m a PhD candidate at Indiana University and conducted my dissertation research as part of the Proyecto Arqueológico Nejapa/Tavela based in Oaxaca, Mexico directed by Dr. Stacie King.

Eli’s desk is all set up and ready for her to work.

Eli’s desk is all set up and ready for her to work.

Monday and Tuesday, my friend and colleague Meghan and I met up at my office in order to motivate each other to do some dissertation writing. Meghan was comparing her ceramic assemblages to other sites by combing through older dissertations and data tables. I was reading book chapters and putting those citations into the appropriate places in my dissertation.  On Tuesday afternoon, I took advantage of my second computer monitor to watch the World Cup match while I worked on digitizing an excavation drawing.

Yesterday, my co-authors and I received good news that our article was going to be published very soon but that the editors wanted us to add additional images. So I took the time to select the appropriate photographs and make nice black/white versions of them. I was also working cross state and national lines with my adviser and colleague on a proposal for an XRF study (X-ray fluorescence, a non destructive form of chemical analysis) of obsidian collected during our field work in 2013. (I’m here in Indiana, my colleague Andy is in Tennessee, and my adviser Stacie is in Oaxaca!)

A fabulous image created this week of an architectural plan of a site included in my dissertation.

A fabulous image created this week of an architectural plan of a site included in my dissertation.

Writing/reporting are important aspects of the archaeological process and archaeologists are ethically compelled to disseminate their research and findings to a wide audience through reports, articles, and presentations. And though I know the writing is important, I’m still stealing the occasional wistful glance out the window and daydreaming about using my trowel.

Excavating an Archaeologist’s Desk

In honor of the Day of Archaeology, in which we endeavor to display the “wide variety of work our profession undertakes day-to-day across the globe” (Day of Archaeology 2012 [archaeologists cite things]), I’m throwing this together as an archaeologist who embraces three different roles within the profession, has worked across 10 states and 3 foreign countries (Mexico, Cuba, and the British Virgin Islands), and still hasn’t finished graduate school (much to the chagrin of many, including myself).
To convey this complex existence, I’m choosing an archaeological metaphor and excavating my desk. My workspace is, to no surprise, a reflection of the many things that occupy my time, pique my interest, and, I hope, lead to some insight into the pasts of the common people of history, a group that counts my ancestors, German and Welsh immigrants, among its numbers. I have imposed a classification system on the contents of my desk, by which I will unpack the contents and, in turn, my life as an archaeologist working in the SAU Research Station of the Arkansas Archeological Survey.
Indiana Jones once told a student (while running from the KGB) “If you want to be a good archaeologist, you gotta get out of the library.” While I fully endorse this sentiment, you must realize that a lot of archaeological research involves bookwork. We read a lot about the work of our forebears as a way to help orient our own research, building on and modifying that which came before, and to avoid scientific dead-ends. The books on my desk include those oriented towards:
Dissertation: I am a doctoral candidate at the College of William & Mary in Virginia, the cradle of historical archaeology in the United States. I am trying to knock out a dissertation that will be the final step in my formalized education. This requires both books on epistemological issues relevant to the way I do research, such as Tim Murray’s Time and Archaeology or Anders Andrén’s Between Artifacts and Texts: Historical Archaeology in Global Perspective. Combining the clarity of thinking derived from such sources with the results of fieldwork are then combined with the insight derived from other books, such as D.W. Meinig’s The Shaping of America and Kenneth Lewis’s The American Frontier to produce a document that will add to the historiography of southwest Arkansas and the American West… and earn me a diploma (please please please).
Teaching: I just finished teaching two classes at Southern Arkansas University, one a survey of world archaeology and the other a criminal justice research methods class. The detritus from preparing the lectures, including Catherine Hakim’s Research Design and Henn et al’s A Critical Introduction to Social Research still haven’t left my desk. They’re actually checked out from the University of Arkansas (5 hours away), so the next time I get called up to the coordinating office in Fayetteville, I’ll drop them off.
Methods: We demonstrate our competence as archaeologists in the field, showing each other and the cosmos that we can dig properly (carefully and fast), map precisely, and document our findings appropriately. I’ve got Hester et al’s Field Methods in Archaeology on my book rack for reference, and the bookshelves surrounding my desk are full of books on aerial remote sensing and LiDAR research.
Conference preparation:  One of the high points of any archaeologist’s professional year is a conference. For me, that usually means the Society for Historical Archaeology meetings, though in my current position the Arkansas Archeological Society conference is important as well. I’d like to go to the Fields of Conflict conference this year, but Budapest is a bit out of the range of my wallet (my truck needs work…). This week, I’ve been pulling together a session for the SHA with colleagues and classmates at William & Mary, and I’ve been using the abstract books from past conferences and De Cunzo and Jameson’s Unlocking the Past to write abstracts and encourage the session to take form.
Fieldwork Papers
As mentioned above, proper note taking is an integral part of archaeology. Documentation of context is key. It separates us from looters, provides a basis for scientific work, and is a backstop for ideas and information that might otherwise get missed. If ideas were baseballs, an archaeological dig is like being a catcher behind home plate, facing a battalion of pitching machines. Even if you’re Johnny Bench, you can only hold so many of those baseballs at once. Paperwork is like having a canvas bag to put those ideaballs (I’m liking this metaphor less and less) in so you don’t lose them. On my desk may be found
–        A green 3-ring binder from Area B of the 2012 Arkansas Archeological Society Training Dig, directed by my boss/friend/mentor Jamie Brandon. See his post here on the dig itself. The stack of papers inside is probably 2 inches thick. All of that came from two weeks in the field. It’s a lot of stuff to sift through, but every sweat-stained word is archaeological gold.
–        Field books. I see three, though there may be more buried in there somewhere. These nifty little books, usually with yellow covers, have waxed pages, making them resilient in rainy or sweaty conditions, and are the place where we jot our notes about the project we’re working on. My field book from the Society Dig contains the shot log for our surveyor’s total station, so we have a redundant copy of all that information. I also have my field book for site visits done on behalf of the Survey. The notes I take in the field can then be transposed into either a site form, which I submit by way of report to the Survey, or included in subsequent publications on that research. Writing notes, particularly under hot or busy conditions, is one of the disciplines that archaeologists must learn. As with so many other things, when it comes to notes, it’s better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it. In some positions, such as federal jobs, field books are part of the paperwork associated with a project and subject to subpoena and other legal strictures, so don’t draw too many cartoons about gophers in them.
The final big section of research-related equipment can be classed as technology.  Technological advancements in computing, remote sensing (Johnson 2005), data sharing (Kansa 2012), and numerous other fronts in the past twenty years is revolutionizing archaeology. The very fact of this blog post, the internet, and personal computing is evidence of this. Hallmarks of this advancement are, of course, found on my desk.
–        Computer: Shocking, I know. Nowadays, computers are everywhere and used in most pursuits, but mine is special, consarnit! First, it’s a laptop on a dock, which is necessary given the high mobility of many archaeologists. Since you can’t bring sites to you, we have to go to the sites, often for extended periods of time. We just finished two weeks at Historic Washington State Park, and in the last year, I’ve spent weeks at Toltec Mounds, Wallace’s Ferry, and Prairie Grove, all in Arkansas, as well as making numerous trips to the Coordinating Office in Fayetteville. My Army job was just like that, as was my time with the NPS, just that in the federal gigs, the projects are usually spread over greater areas. Laptops are essential in taking our computing power along with. Crucial to that computing power is the software held on the machine, particularly, in my case…
–        Geographic information system (GIS) software. I do a lot of work with spatial documentation and analysis, so I need mapping software. Being able to document the location of sites and areas within sites is an important part of the documentation process.
–          Scanner: I scan lots of things, primarily to make back-ups (hard to lose all copies of a document) and to share them with colleagues. Information sharing is a big part of the research process, as those who share your interests and expertise are not likely under the same roof as you. This is partly why conferences are so important. Information exchange stimulates, as Poirot liked to call them, “the little grey cells” and advance the discipline. Scanners help make that possible.
–        Telephone: Again, rather mundane, but an important part of my job. The Arkansas Archeological Survey does a lot of public outreach work for people of all walks of life from across the state. My station covers 11 counties in southwest Arkansas, and I get calls to come out and look at sites or assist colleagues at museums and parks in the area with public outreach work (come to the Red River Heritage Symposium at Historic Washington State Park on the 28th of July). Much of that begins with a phone call.
As this all should indicate, I spend a LOT of time working, well more than 40 hours a week. As a result, I spend a lot of time in the office or in the field, and my desk contents reflect that.
–        Coffee mug and empty Coke/Diet Coke cans: I am a caffeine addict, plain and simple. I often get little more than 5 hours of sleep a night, and with as stacked of a to-do list as I have, it’s rather unavoidable. I can’t keep up with a friend, who runs on five cappuccinos a day, but there are times when I wonder how awesome that feels. I’m guessing “pretty.”
–        Mulerider Baseball cup: Our host institution and my erstwhile employer, Southern Arkansas University has a great baseball team, and the Muleriders just won the GAC Championship… again. Great job, guys! One of the ways I avoid having the pressures of all of these jobs and responsibilities burn me out is by having a mental outlet. For me, that’s baseball and hockey. We don’t get much of the latter down here. However, the baseball stadium is right across the parking lot from the office (really, I can see it from my desk), and those evening games are a nice break from the grind.
–        Yellow duct tape: Why yellow, you might ask? Because every station in the Survey system was allocated a color to mark their equipment with so that we could tell whose stuff is whose when we collaborate on projects. Our station’s color is yellow, Henderson State’s is orange, Toltec’s is blue, etc. etc. etc. Marking things as ours helps avoid confusion and trowel fights.
–        Field hat: I saved this for last because it’s one of my favorite things. For archaeologists, the attachments we form with crucial bits of equipment can be very strong. Many people still have their first trowels, and carefully guard them (think of a mitt for a baseball player). They’re things, but they’re things intimately tied up in the art of our discipline, and that makes them special. For me, there are three things that fall into this category. My trowel is the first, and I keep it distinct from all other trowels by wrapping the handle in hockey stick tape. The second is my Brunton pocket transit (think a compass on steroids with neon flames shooting down its hood), which is not only a very useful bit of equipment, it was also my father’s when he was doing his dissertation, and that carries great meaning to me. Finally, there is my field hat, a mid-crown cattleman with a 4” brim from Sunbody Hats in Houston, Texas. No matter how hot it gets, it’s always a little cooler under this thing, and it was a wedding gift from Jimmy Pryor, the owner of Sunbody and a childhood friend. It’s a link to home and my wife all at once, and it cheers me up when I’ve been out on a project for a couple of weeks and starting to get a little barn sour.
Now, having looked at these piles for a few hours while writing this, it may be time to do some cleaning…
Andrén, Anders
1997     Between Artifacts and Texts: Historical Archaeology in Global Perspective. New York: Plenum Press
Day of Archaeology
2012    About the Project. Electronic resource (, accessed 29 June 2012).
De Cunzo, Lu Ann and John H. Jameson, Jr.
2005     Unlocking the Past: Celebrating Historical Archaeology in North America. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.
Hakim, Catherine
2000     Research Design: Successful Designs for Social and Economic Research. New York: Routledge.
Henn, Matt, Mark Weinstein, and Nick Foard
2006     A Critical Introduction to Social Research. Los Angeles: Sage.
Hester, Thomas R., Harry J. Shafer, and Kenneth L. Feder
2009     Field Methods in Archaeology. 7th edition. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.
Lewis, Kenneth
1984     The American Frontier: An Archaeological Study of Settlement Pattern and Process. Orlando, FL: Academic Press.
Meinig, D.W.
1988     The Shaping of America: A Geographical Perspective on 500 Years of History, Volume 2: Continental America, 1800-1867. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Murray, Tim, editor
1999     Time and Archaeology. New York: Routledge.

Professional, Avocational and Public Involvement in Archaeology in Arkansas

This year’s “Day of Archaeology” finds me attempting to reorder my life just following the 2012 Arkansas Archeological Society Summer Training Program.

The Arkansas Archeological Society (AAS) was formed in 1960. It is open to anyone—from any walk of life—who is interested in archaeology.  This year I dug alongside retired school teachers, firemen, administrative assistants, college students, engineers, electricians, high school students, retired mill workers, social workers, research foresters, park interpreters (and park superintendents)  and college English instructors.  Many of these so-called avocationals have been doing archaeology for more years than me (some longer than I’ve been alive).  Two of our long time volunteers this year were 86 years old.  Anna Parks has been coming to the AAS “Summer Dig” since the 1970s, and Van Schmutz shoveled all day long in the hot sun despite his age.  Our youngest was 9 years old— Andy Colman who came with her mom, Carolyn, from Chicago, Illinois to learn about archaeology.

The 1836 Hempstead County Courthouse is ever present during our work at Historic Washington State Park in Arkansas.

Way back in 1964, a series of weekend excavations began under the direction of University of Arkansas Museum archaeologists and AAS members.  In the late 1960s the AAS was instrumental in lobbying my organization—the Arkansas Archeological Survey—into existence.  Thus the Survey and Society began partnering on digs by 1967.  By 1972, what had begun as a series of weekend events had expanded into a 16-day training program with excavations at various sites across the state.  Some have claimed that it’s the oldest and best program of its type in the country.

For the second year in a row I had the honor of directing the AAS Summer Dig at Historic Washington State Park in the southwestern portion of the state of Arkansas in the southern United States.  Between June 9 and June 24, 2012 over 100 volunteers and staff helped me investigate the site of an 1830s commercial district on what would have then been the edge of western expansion of the United States (Washington was a border town with first Mexico and then the Republic of Texas until Texas was annexed in the late 1840s).

The AAS has been doing archaeology in Historic Washington State Park since 1980, but these last two years have focused on the merchant district for which we have very few historical documents.  There are no known photographs and only a single map from 1926—long after fires in the 1870s and 1880s put an end to this vibrant business area.  Over the last two field seasons we have recovered the remains of at least 6 different buildings,  4-6 cellars and/or trash pits and tens of thousands of artifacts that will help us tell the story of this once important regional hub on the edge of the “cotton frontier.”

The archaeology was great, but I am always amazed at the layers of public archaeology going on at these events.  On one level we are teaching

the volunteers how to be archaeologists—not only through digging but also through a series of half-day seminars taught in two sessions throughout the dig.  This year we offered Basic Excavation (for first time attendees), Basic Laboratory Procedures, Site Survey, Mapping, Human Osteology, Indians of Arkansas, and Establishing Time (a class that helps volunteers understand dating techniques used by archaeologists).

On a second level of public archaeology, the volunteers and professionals on site then educate the general public about the value and methods of archaeology.  As we were excavating in an Arkansas State Park this year this was done constantly as we has many curious visitors every day.  Although I was “running the show” I rarely had to stop my work to help explain things to visitors as one of my colleagues and/or volunteers would quickly rush in to take over (and even demonstrate) what we were doing.

Of course, although the dig ended on June 24, there is still much to do.  In these days following the 2012 Summer Training Program I (and Carl Carlson-Drexler, my Research Station Assistant) have been moving equipment, organizing paperwork and field notes…Today I’m captioning the hundreds of digital photographs taken during the dig.  The two years of digging in the merchant district in Historic Washington State Park has produced more than twice the amount of artifacts than I recovered during my dissertation research (and I poked at that site for almost a decade!)…so I now have my work cut out for me…

More pictures from the 2012 AAS Summer Training Program can be found here:

Pictures from last year’s dig (2011) can be found here:

Find out more about the Arkansas Archeological Society at their website:


You can read more about the AAS work at Historic Washington State Park at my Farther Along blog:


5 Reasons Why I Became an Archaeologist

1. Travel

Ever since my parents took me on a trip to the Caribbean as a child, I plotted to find a way to spend every winter in the tropics. I wanted to get paid to travel. I wanted to escape the Chicago snow.

My chance came in grad school when I had the opportunity to teach field schools in Belize. I was in grad school for a long time so I was able to look forward to flying south with the birds each time spring semester rolled around.

Since completing my MA and PhD in Archaeology I’ve continued living a nomadic life by working on projects in Mexico, California, and Arizona. What I didn’t expect was that I’d eventually tire of travel after moving from motel to motel off remote desert highways as a CRM archaeologist. So now I’m what they call an armchair archaeologist, and today I’m exploring world archaeology via posts to this blog.