Mayan Archaeology

CATEGORY: Study Abroad
TYPE: Photos, Articles
RELATED PROGRAMS: Anthropology

By Laura Holt '13
St. Paul, MN
Antropology

This past June, I spent the entire month in fabulous San Igancio City, in the Cayo District of Belize.  I was participating in a field school run by Dr. Terry Powis of Kennesaw State University.  It was an opportunity to study archeology in general, and pre-classical Mayan archaeology in particular.  I spent most days in the field or doing lab work.  I climbed a mountain daily to get to my excavation unit, and I was trained on mapping, establishing a unit, recording artifacts and soil stratum, and identifying artifacts and cleaning them.  It was the most amazing month I’ve ever experienced!

Below are some excerpts from a daily “e-mail diary” I kept while I was participating in the field school.

Day 4

(This describes our first visit to a cave within the permit area.  Caves were deeply sacred to Mayans, seen as passages to the underworld.)

...we had to go in in two groups, since there are quite a few of us.  I was in the first group and I got a climbing helmet and a head lamp.  I had my camera looped into my belt and I tried to keep my hands free, “three points of contact” was the number one rule.  Champion (the pit-bull belonging to the landowner) followed us into the cave a little ways, no doubt liking that it was quite a bit cooler, even if the humidity didn’t change.  I managed not to slip even though the cave floor was covered in red clay mud, and I was quickly covered in it.  I’d never been in a cave that wasn’t set up for tourists before.  This place involved a lot of crawling and using rope to get up or down steep surfaces.  There were broken stalactites all over the ground, it was something the Mayans did when they used the cave.  The most spectacular thing, though, was the pottery.  There were sherds everywhere.  It’s likely that the Mayans actually wanted to leave the broken pieces in the caves.  They believed that by making something in-usable for humans, it became usable by the gods, or something like that.  So I was handling lots of pot sherds today, some of them with beautiful, satin smooth glazes.  I also saw a cave spider while I was in there. It was bigger than both of my fists touched together, I kid you not, and it was jet black, just hanging out in a forest of stalactites.

Day 10

(my third day of excavations at this particular site led to some pretty awesome artifacts!)

...wow, I found a beautiful obsidian tool today!  As soon as I hit it with my trowel I could feel the difference, it was nothing like the pottery or the limestone or even the chert flakes I’d been uncovering the past few days.  It felt exactly like glass, and it was so beautiful to see in the sun!  The obsidian had to have been imported from Guatemala, a journey of hundreds of miles before it reached this site, with a lot of mountains in the way...

Day 15

(In addition to excavation, I trekked through the jungle to create hand drawn, detailed maps of the caves and rock shelters in our permit area.)
...I did more caving things today.  I was in a rock shelter, formed of two enormous chunks of limestone, one having collapsed against the other and creating a covered, wedge-shaped area.  The entrance is maybe three feet high, and 10 cm wide at best?  It's a squeeze.  It doesn't help that the cramped space inside has five to ten bats on the ceiling at all times!  They take off a lot while I’m working, I don’t think they like cave mappers in their home!  We’re moving quickly though, my job is to draw the amap.  Call me a nerd, but I love the work.  It’s cool to make a detailed 2D representation of a 3D wall, perfectly to scale, it’s a skill I’m glad I’ve learned!

PUBLISHED: 09/01/2011