“I talk to students and the last time they probably discussed the Maya was in the 4th grade. So they have a 4th-grade understanding of it. Which is kind of interesting to me. I’m always like: when are the American kids going to learn about American history?”
Along with his work at the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) as Director of Programs, Dr. Ben Thomas teaches Mesoamerican art at Berklee College of Music. His undergrad and PhD work focused on archaeological sites in Central American countries.
The ‘American history’ of the Maya goes back to about 12,000 BCE, and it is a culture that continues to exist today in Mexico and the Yucatán peninsula.
The ancient Maya were the first known to create the zero—an extraordinarily complex mathematical concept. They were astronomers. They were, among many other things, writers, artists, scientists, farmers, builders, engineers. Remnants of their great cities exist in the pyramids and stone structures that survive amidst the jungles.
Group A plaza at Caracol, the largest Maya site in Belize; photo courtesy of Tom Schwabel, Getty Images.
Mayan Temple at Caracol, Belize; photo courtesy of Steve Geer, Getty Images.
It is the writers and artists that pull at my imagination the most. Prior to the Spanish conquest, the Maya people were prolific writers. They created thousands of books, known today as codices, filled with pages of beautiful Mayan characters inked on pounded bark.
Image of the Madrid Codex (also known as the Tro-Cortesianus Codex or the Troano Codex) at the Museo de America, Spain; in the Public Domain, courtesy of Michel Wal, Wikipedia.
Page 49 of the Dresden Codex; photo in the Public Domain, courtesy of Wikipedia.
With the exception of four, all of them–these doorways into the minds and thoughts of ancient people–have disappeared from history. Religious zeal (a belief that these books were ‘the work of the devil’), colonial arrogance, and the desire to Christianize Mayas prompted the Spanish to have these books destroyed. It is a loss that I cannot fathom, but one that I felt profoundly, physically in the pit of my stomach, gazing upon one of the four remaining Mayan codices at an exhibit last year.
A rather poor image of the codex on exhibit in Maya: Hidden Worlds Revealed; taken by the author last year at the Boston Museum of Science
Linda Schele and David Freidel, in the book “A Forest of Kings”, state that the Mayan word its’at means “one who is clever, ingenious, artistic, scientific, and knowledgeable” (page 379). It is also, according to these authors, another word for a scribe or an artist.
Maya scribe ink pot (a conch shell), in which different ink colors would be placed in each section; taken by the author at the Harvard Peabody Museum.
Although the majority of Mayan codices have been lost, some of their writing survives in stone. Mayan glyphs—carved upon stone altars, giant stelae, and other stone facades—were finally understood in the 20th century. This remarkable achievement was thanks to years of work by a number of individuals, culminating in final decipherment in 1986 by a teenage epigrapher.
Detail of a cast of a Maya stela from Guatemala at the Harvard Peabody Museum; photo taken by the author. An important contributor to our understanding of Mayan glyphs and writing used to work at this museum: Tatiana Proskouriakoff.
Did this relatively recent discovery correlate to our understanding of the Maya? Are we only now beginning to unravel the depths of ancient Maya culture?
“Maya archaeology, Mesoamerican archaeology, I wouldn’t say it’s in its infancy,” Dr. Thomas replied. “We’ve been doing this now since the late 1800s, but really systematically with scientific methodology since probably the early 1900s.
“I think we know a huge amount about the ancient people of the Mesoamerican region.
“Some things we [once] had no idea about we know a lot about now: about settlement patterns, about construction techniques, about trade networks, linguistics. So I wouldn’t say that the discipline of Mesoamerican archaeology is in its infancy, but certainly there’s a ton more to find.”
But, he added, “[s]ome of it will never be discovered because it’s under modern construction.”
Dr. Thomas spent time in Guatemala during his grad school years, but his dissertation fieldwork took place in Belize. He was part of a group at Boston University called XARP, the Xibun Archaeological Research Project. The Mayan ‘x’ is pronounced ‘sh’; hence, XARP is pronounced: sharp. Xibun is another way of spelling ‘Sibun,’ the name of both a river and an area in central Belize.
Map of Belize by Poligrafistka, Getty Images.
“When we were looking to do our research–to pick a new area,” he explained, “[the Sibun region] was very attractive to us because so much of it was not really understood.”
Part of the reason may have been due to the Sibun River’s frequent flooding; part of it may have been how inaccessible the area was—miles upon miles of dense jungle.
Looking at the sheer scale of the area, the massive distance on either side of this river, and seeing pictures of the dense brush and tree cover of the jungle, the task of finding anything remotely recognizable as an artifact from the Maya seemed insurmountable.
As Dr. Thomas had mentioned, “The organic material is gone, especially in Belize and the tropics in general in that area because it’s so hot and humid. And the soil is acidic. Organic materials do not preserve well.”
Absent enormous stone structures, how would anyone know where to even begin to look for ancient remnants? Surely, they could be anywhere, and this was not an enormous team of archaeologists, equipped with technology like LiDAR to help them locate buried ruins.
“We did a lot of research: looking at everything that was published about the area, we interviewed landowners, we talked to local people to get an idea of what they had seen on their property, we looked at all the maps and the geological surveys that had been done for Belize.
“Because of all the research we’d done, we [had a better understanding of] Maya settlement patterns. All of the studies would say, [for example], 70% of the Maya settlements are within a kilometer of a river. There are things that you can look at to sort of try to set up a predictive model of where Maya sites would be.”
Setting up a survey in the jungles of Belize. Photo courtesy of Patricia McAnany and the Xibun Archaeological Research Project.
“The big thing I always tell people is that if it’s good for us to live there today, then it was good for [ancient people], unless something bad and really drastic has happened. [Generally speaking,] if there’s a good water source, plenty of good land for agriculture, food sources—whether it’s animal or plant—and some raw materials, that’s where people lived.”
“We had people walking through the jungle looking for things. And what you’re looking for is clusters of artifacts and features, but sometimes they’re so overgrown that you may not see them.”
“We had machetes, and we used them to clear as we were walking along.”
Despite this, I still couldn’t understand how Maya ruins—the soft limestone of their structures eroded over the centuries—could be found in such conditions.
“[When it comes to finding the archaeologically important mounds,],” he said, “you realize you’re walking uphill. Or, you know, you might be able to see [them directly.] After a while you get kind of used to it, how the land should look and what you’re seeing.”
Walking over a pyramid that has been completely obscured by vegetation in Belize. Photo courtesy of Patricia McAnany and the Xibun Archaeological Research Project.
The very same area as in the photograph above, but cleared of all vegetation, revealing the remnants of an ancient Maya pyramid. Photo courtesy of Patricia McAnany and the Xibun Archaeological Research Project.
Images of dense jungle immediately brought another concern to mind: snakes.
Dr. Thomas smiled. “Snakes [were] an issue. Scorpions. But the things that [were] really, really annoying [were] the bugs: mosquitoes, ticks.”
Eventually, the XARP team sought answers to four questions about the Maya in the Sibun:
- What was the nature of Maya settlement along the river?
- What was the role of cacao in the Sibun and could we find evidence of ancient Maya cacao production?
- What was the effect of Christianity on the Sibun and could we find the visita mentioned in the Spanish records?
- How were the caves used?
Unfortunately, they were unable to find evidence of ancient cacao production. Part of the issue was not knowing what, exactly, to look for. How does one find remnants of ancient orchards? And after years of modern cacao growth in Belize, in which hybrid cacao has been introduced, what does ancient cacao even look like? Other clues to cacao production—the ceramics involved in drinking cacao, for example—would have provided evidence, but these could not be found.
Cacao pods; image courtesy of nullplus, Getty Images.
Caption from Getty Images: Cacao Plant with Fruit (Theobroma cacao). Maya are generally given credit for creating the first modern chocolate beverage. They ground cocoa seeds into a paste, and mixed it with water, cornmeal, chile peppers, and other ingredients. Photo courtesy of SPrada, Getty Images.
Their quest to find a visita, a Christian church built by Spanish conquerors, was also unsuccessful. In the 1500s, Spanish overseers known as encomanderos were each given pieces of land (encomiendas) to use as they saw fit. Visitas were built on this land to further Christianize the local people.
Because the Maya did not employ metal, anything made out of this substance would indicate a colonial presence. They may not have found a visita, but the team did find remnants of colonialists in the form of clay pipes, lead shot, a rusted knife, and gun flint.
“Before we started all this, we knew of 3 sites,” he explained, referring to the only known Maya sites in the Sibun region by the 1990s, one of which is on land owned by the Hershey Corporation.
Excavating along the Sibun River. Photo courtesy of Patricia McAnany and the Xibun Archaeological Research Project.
Stages of excavation. Photos courtesy of Patricia McAnany and the Xibun Archaeological Research Project. Samuel Oshon–upon whose property these excavations were conducted–remembers seeing Charles Lindberg fly over his land!
“By the end of it, we had 22 sites, [19 of which we had discovered.] And we had mapped and explored about 18 caves in quite a bit of detail.”
Caves were, and continue to be, a particularly sacred place to the Maya. They are, among other things, believed to be connected to Xibalba, the Maya Underworld, which was both feared and revered in equal measures.
Photo of XARP exploring a cave, courtesy of Patricia McAnany and the Xibun Archaeological Research Project.
“They were bringing things in [to the caves],” Dr. Thomas said of their discoveries in local caves. “So you find pots with the remains of food. But then some of [the pots], they’re upside down, and they had holes in them. They were doing something else with them.”
Ancient Maya ceramics in a cave. Photo courtesy of Patricia McAnany and the Xibun Archaeological Research Project.
A particularly significant artifact located in the caves were metates—the stone tools used to grind maize, perhaps the most important crop throughout the Maya universe.
“But those things are heavy!” he emphasized of the metates. “These things can weigh 40 – 60 pounds. It’s solid stone. And there [are] several of them.”
Photo inside a cave with ceramics and metate (grindstone) on the right courtesy of Patricia McAnany and the Xibun Archaeological Research Project.
He described not only how difficult it was to get to, but then enter one particular cave.
“The fact that they’re bringing [metates] in there, [when] it’s not easy to do, I think it does speak to the importance of the rituals. They’re willing to invest the time and the energy for these rituals.”
“But they’re also taking things out! We noticed on the sites [outside of these caves that] they would have stalactites or stalagmites, [sometimes] on the house floors, sometimes they’d be in burials.
“We think of a cave as a sacred space with spiritual energy [so], I think, taking something from there would have that spiritual energy connected to [it].”
“People still do it,” he said, referencing relics in many of today’s Christian churches, in which the bones of saints are enshrined.
Dr. Thomas and I had been conversing for well over an hour at this point.
“[Archaeology],” he concluded, “[is really] a database of human behavior, starting from thousands of years ago to now. We’re chronicling it: how people behaved, how they reacted to things. A lot of times the collapse of societies is brought on [by events such as] climate change, [for example; or] it’s brought on by overexploitation of natural resources; [or by] people not adjusting or adapting to their circumstances. [Those are] all data-points that we have that people should be looking at. What are we doing to our environment now? How are we reacting to things now?”
“Because in some ways, none of this is new. I think what has changed now is the scale of things.”
- “A Forest of Kings”, by Linda Schele and David Freidel, William Morrow and Co., 1990
- “Breaking the Maya Code”, by Michael D. Coe, Thames and Hudson, 1992
- “Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World”, by Lynn V. Foster, Facts on File, Inc., 2002
Image of Palenque, a Maya city-state in Chiapas, Mexico; courtesy Getty Images.