Dr. Ben Thomas: (Part 2) Searching the Jungle for Maya Artifacts

“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.

Embed from Getty Images

Group A plaza at Caracol, the largest Maya site in Belize; photo courtesy of Tom Schwabel, Getty Images.

Embed from 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.

Dresden Codex Page 2

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.

Codex from exhibit

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.


Peabody - Mayan scribes paint pot

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.

Peabody - Mayan stelae and altar Q

Casts of Maya stelae from Guatemala and Altar Q in the foreground from Copán, Honduras at the Harvard Peabody Museum; photo taken by the author.

Peabody - Mayan stela

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.


Embed from Getty Images

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.

The answer?

“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.”

Xibun Archaeological Research Project - surveyor setting up the Total Station

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.”

Xibun Archaeological Research Project - walking over a pyramid that has been completely obscured by vegetation

Walking over a pyramid that has been completely obscured by vegetation in Belize. Photo courtesy of Patricia McAnany and the Xibun Archaeological Research Project.

XARP - same pyramid that we were walking over after we cleared off the vegetation

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:

  1. What was the nature of Maya settlement along the river?
  2. What was the role of cacao in the Sibun and could we find evidence of ancient Maya cacao production?
  3. What was the effect of Christianity on the Sibun and could we find the visita mentioned in the Spanish records?
  4. 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.

Ben Thomas - Excavation in progress at another site along the Sibun

Excavating along the Sibun River. Photo courtesy of Patricia McAnany and the Xibun Archaeological Research Project.

Ben Thomas - excavation 1

Ben Thomas - excavation 2

Ben Thomas - excavation 3

Ben Thomas - excavation 4

Ben Thomas - excavation 5

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.

Ben Thomas - cave

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.”


Ben Thomas - cave ceramics

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.”

Ben Thomas - cave ceramics and metate

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.”


I extend an enormous THANK YOU to Dr. Ben Thomas.  Not only was it a great honor and pleasure speaking with him for such an extended period of time, but it was no small task to find time in his extraordinarily busy schedule.  He helped pave the way for my increased interest and enthusiasm for the Maya culture. I am very grateful!
A huge THANK YOU to Caitlin Davis for connecting me to Dr. Thomas!


  1. “A Forest of Kings”, by Linda Schele and David Freidel, William Morrow and Co., 1990
  2. “Breaking the Maya Code”, by Michael D. Coe, Thames and Hudson, 1992
  3. “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.

Dr. Ben Thomas: (Part 1) International Archaeology Day

“I think the main thing about archaeology is that people love the idea of discovery,” Dr. Thomas mused.

“The thrill of discovery,” he amended.

I sat across from him in his corner of the office, an ocean of research and paperwork between us.

Our conversation proceeded to the symphony of phones ringing and professional conversations throughout the room: the soundtrack to daily work in most offices. Traffic—constant and, at times, unruly—was a barely muted cacophony just outside the nearest window.

But all other noise seemed inconsequential when he spoke.  It wasn’t just the content of his words and how quickly they drew me in, it was also the cadence, the honey-soaked lilt, the music of his voice. I didn’t realize English could sound so lovely.  Listening to him brought my favorite language to mind and for one of the very reasons it is a favorite.  In French, the words of a sentence are pronounced fluidly in one beautiful linguistic stream. And this is exactly how he speaks.

We were discussing archaeology in general, his work at the AIA, the ideas behind the annual Archaeology Fair in Boston, and his fieldwork in Belize.

Dr. Ben Thomas - AIA 5.6.15

Image of Dr. Ben Thomas at his desk in the AIA office, Boston; taken by the author


It was an absolutely gorgeous Spring day in Boston.  Against a cloudless blue sky, the streets were lined with pink and white cherry blossoms, the kind that dance like confetti whenever a breeze tickles the branches.

Dr. Thomas and I had been trying to connect for quite some time, our schedules finally meeting in the middle of the week.  With the address in my mind, I scanned the brick homes and then the commercial buildings for the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA), where Dr. Ben Thomas works as Director of Programs.

The AIA may have loomed largely in my mind, but it is housed discreetly on the 6th floor of a building owned by Boston University.  And it was there that I learned how one of the most exciting annual archaeological events came to fruition.

It started with Jane Waldbaum, one of the AIA’s governing board members, later the AIA President, who organized a family-friendly fair at the AIA’s annual meetings.  These meetings—like those of other large scientific organizations—are held at a different location each year, and they are geared toward professionals in the field.  The fair was a way of including the general public.

Dr. Thomas and his staff took that idea several steps further.

They brainstormed how to bring archaeology to more people, how to create a positive event—something that would engage a wider audience, not just the occasional announcement of a huge discovery and not in reaction to negative impacts within the field: looting, theft, vandalism.

“We wanted an event that said: ‘This is something that’s worth celebrating: our past, our culture, our cultural heritage, archaeology itself.’”

So they created National Archaeology Day.  There was no fee attached, there was no agenda. Any group could celebrate it and create its own set of events.  The idea was simply to highlight archaeology in all of its forms.

Meanwhile, he called Mike Adams, Outreach Manager at the Museum of Science Boston, and together they created the Archaeology Fair, now held each October at the museum.

“We wanted to tell people that archaeology can be local,” Dr. Thomas explained. “You don’t have to go to Egypt to experience archaeology; you can experience it in your own community. There’s always something going on.”

And, he continued, “[w]e wanted people to connect with each other, especially professionals and laypeople.”

The fair succeeds on both counts.  Thousands of people attend the event in Boston each year.  Tables of archaeological artifacts and archaeologists are dispersed in multiple areas throughout the museum. The day is filled with panel events and guest speakers, and anyone can ask any archaeologist questions about their work. While archaeologists who work in Egypt are often present, most of the fair consists of New England archaeologists who work in the area.  It is now in its 10th year.

mos - arch - welcome sign

mos - arch - arch tool kit leveillee

mos - arch - native american tools


mos - arch - fried mealworm - voelkel

Images of the Archaeology Fair at the Museum of Science Boston in 2013; taken by the author


Another goal of the fair is to clarify what archaeology actually entails, a confusion that persists today with paleontology.  Often, the two distinctly different fields are believed to be one and the same, when, in fact, archaeology revolves around ancient people and their artifacts; paleontology studies extinct creatures—those that are not human.

“[The general public appears to have] great enthusiasm for archaeology,” said Dr. Thomas.  “But there’s also a lot of misunderstanding about what archaeology is and what archaeologists do. For a lot of people, [archaeology is] just about finding stuff.

“We try to emphasize the fact that the ‘stuff’ is just the means to an end. I mean, ultimately, what we’re trying to study is human behavior: what these people did, where they lived, how they behaved, what they ate, how they interacted with each other.  And the artifacts are just the clues.

“It’s: Why? Who? When? How? Those are the things that we’re trying to get to.

“Finding things is just the first step. I shouldn’t say the first step; it’s the middle step, because you’ve already done a ton of research, you know why you are looking for something where you’re looking, and then, when you find it, you have to figure out what it means.

“What it means, I think, is the most fascinating, although not the most visibly glamorous, because you’re in a library somewhere doing research and typing up reports on the lab.”

National Archaeology day quickly transformed into International Archaeology Day—a reflection of its popularity well outside US borders.  The number of organizations that supported and celebrated it surprised everyone at the AIA.  Sponsors of the day now include the National Park Service and National Marine Sanctuaries.

International Archaeology Day 2015

International Archaeology Day 2015, screenshot from the AIA website


You can find local events for this upcoming International Archaeology Day in October here: https://www.archaeological.org/archaeologyday/events

Previous posts about the Archaeology Fair in Boston:

  1. Caitlin Davis: Mayan epigraphy: https://mostlymammoths.wordpress.com/2013/11/01/boston-archeology-fair-spotlight-caitlin-davis/
  2. Archaeology for Kids: Dig Magazine: https://mostlymammoths.wordpress.com/2014/01/07/archaeology-for-kids-dig-magazine/
  3. Origin of the Boston Archaeology Fair: https://mostlymammoths.wordpress.com/2013/11/13/boston-archeology-fair-its-origins-through-the-archaeological-institute-of-america/
  4. Marine Archaeology: Matthew Lawrence at Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary: https://mostlymammoths.wordpress.com/2013/11/01/boston-archeology-fair-spotlight-matthew-lawrence/
  5. Dr. George Mutter: Ancient Egypt in 3D Photographs: https://mostlymammoths.wordpress.com/2013/11/06/boston-archeology-fair-spotlight-dr-george-mutter-egyptian-images-in-3d/
  6. Alan Leveillee: Cultural Resource Management: https://mostlymammoths.wordpress.com/2013/11/12/boston-archeology-fair-spotlight-alan-leveillee/

Archaeology for kids! DIG Magazine

A very nice woman volunteering for the Archaeological Institute of America handed me a few copies of Archaeology Magazine on International Archaeology Day.

Somehow, the fact that I had nieces and nephews came up in our conversation, and she handed me a copy of a magazine I’d never seen or heard of prior to that moment: Dig Magazine.

First, I was excited: what a fabulous magazine!! Published in NH, no less! I wish this publication had been available when I was growing up.

And then, I was puzzled and a little frustrated.  Why wasn’t this magazine more widely available?

For anyone interested in archaeology (or paleontology–as they are including more of this topic as well), “Dig” offers fun facts, interesting articles, games, and great pictures throughout its pages.

Kids are encouraged to ask questions (online and by mail), take quizzes, and draw pictures.

It is a marvelous and entertaining way to introduce kids to these sciences.

And, for young girls–for whom strong and intelligent role models in many magazines can be rare–the archaeologist behind “Dr. Dig” is a woman.

I wanted to know more.

Rosalie F. Baker, Editor of Calliope Magazines, was extraordinarily kind in her responses to my emailed questions.

Dig Magazine March 2013

(March 2013 cover, courtesy of ePals Media)

1.  How long has “Dig” been published?

DIG began publication in 1999.

2. What prompted its creation?

A desire to inspire children to be inquisitive about the past. Even more, we wanted to further their understanding of how archaeologists uncover the past and then analyze finds to expand the known “picture” of the past.

Dig Magazine Dec 2013

(January 2014 cover, courtesy of ePals Media)

3. How did the archeologist (Dr. Dig) come on board?

Everyone thought it would be a great idea to have a department where kids could ask questions about archaeology. We felt the best way to personalize this for kids was to create a character who would be present in every issue—Dr. Dig!

Her full name is Angela Murock Hussein. She has a doctorate from Brown University in Classical Archaeology and is married to an Egyptian Egyptologist.

Dig Magazine Oct 2013

(October 2013 cover, courtesy of ePals Media)

4. Why isn’t “Dig” more widely available?  Often, the only option kids have along these lines in local bookstores is “Kids” (National Geographic). Does this reflect challenges to magazines in general?

Getting the message out about the magazine is always a challenge. We are trying to become better known. But the magazine is available on most newsstands that carry children’s publications, such as Barnes and Noble. We’re also in hundreds of public and school libraries across the country. We believe the addition of our digital edition will also increase our visibility. A PDF version is currently available and a fully interactive digital edition will be launched in 2014. We believe the articles in each issue are exciting, engaging, and offer the latest information known on the topic as they are written by people in the field. We hope our content and our marketing push will help the magazine grow.

Dig Magazine May 2013

(May 2013 cover, courtesy of ePals Media)

5. How did you become involved in the magazine?

My husband and I had founded CALLIOPE magazine in 1981 and merged with Cobblestone Publishing in 1982. We featured an archaeology section in CALLIOPE. It seemed a perfect fit for me when Cobblestone took over DIG in 2001. And I have enjoyed every minute of it since.

Dig Magazine Jan 2013

(January 2013 cover, courtesy of ePals Media)

6. Has the magazine grown since its inception?  Are there any significant changes that have been made over time?

Yes, the magazine is continually growing. In fact, we just added a new department (Blogosaurus) —a column that focuses on the latest news about dinosaurs. While their study falls under the field of paleontology, many of our readers send us questions about dinosaurs and the new theories and finds. So, we thought we would feature a one-page department that presents a new find, a new way of thinking, or a fascinating discovery and then encourages readers to send us their thoughts on the topic. In January we will introduce a second new department – Field Notes—which is done with the Leon Levy Expedition, whose work focuses on the site of Ashkelon in Israel. We will be right onsite with the authors, engaged in digging, learning what tools are used, what happens when a find is made, and much more.

Dig Magazine July 2013

(July 2013 cover, courtesy of ePals Media)

7. Do you have any anecdotes about publishing the magazine or its readers that you’d like to share?

I think what is most exciting now are the Ask Dr. Dig programs we are developing. We have done four so far in different parts of the country. Some have been at large venues, others at small venues. Our intent is to offer more in 2014. The Dr. Dig program is about 60 to 90 minutes (last one, however, ran 120 minutes). An archaeologist dressed in the character of Dr. Dig lets attendees ask “Dr. Dig” questions they have always wanted to ask an archaeologist in person. Sometimes the archaeologist also does a presentation – a project that is related to some practice in the field of archaeology.

Check out the DIG Magazine website! http://www.digonsite.com/index.html

Ask Dr. Dig a question: askdr.dig@caruspub.com

Or see questions she has already answered: http://www.digonsite.com/drdig/index.html

Learn more about Dr. Dig (Dr. Angela Murock Hussein)! http://www.digonsite.com/drdig/AboutDrDg.html

Do you have a child (or a niece or nephew) who loves to draw?  Check out their Art page: http://digonsite.com/awesomeart.html

If your local bookstore doesn’t carry this magazine, please ask them to start doing so! Your voice matters.

Many, many thanks to Rosalie Baker for her generous responses and her time! And many, many thanks to Ann Dillon at ePals Media for the images of Dig covers!

Dig Magazine Nov 2013

(November 2013 cover, courtesy of ePals Media)

Boston Archeology Fair – Its origins through the Archaeological Institute of America

This past October 19th was the 7th Annual Archeology Fair, but it was my first experience of such an event, and I LOVED it.  It is the reason I reached out to some of the archeologists who participated and why I asked them about their remarkable work (please see previous posts).  For those who were not able to attend or did not know of the event, I wanted to be able to share how wonderful it was.

The event is the brainchild of Dr. Ben Thomas, Director of Programs for the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA).  As Kelly Lindberg, Site Preservation Program Administrator at AIA, explains below, Dr. Thomas worked with the Museum of Science, Boston (MOS) to bring this day to fruition.

The estimated number of people who attended that weekend is close to 5500. (“…the AIA and MOS estimate that we spread the wonderful world of archaeology to around 5469 people over the weekend.” from: http://www.archaeological.org/news/aianews/14283)

That is phenomenal.

Kelly very generously responded to further questions about the origins of this fantastic event:


1. Per the flyers, this is the 7th Annual Archeology Fair. Does this mean it’s been held at the Boston Museum of Science for the past 7 years, or that it has been celebrated for 7 years?

Both, actually. The AIA began working with the MOS 7 years ago to bring together this great event, and we have held it at the Museum each year.

2. What prompted the AIA and the Boston Museum of Science to work together on this?

The idea for the fair started back in 2005 when our current Director of Programs, Ben Thomas, started working at the AIA. At that time, the AIA held an archaeology fair at each of its annual meetings, which are held in a different city each January across the US, and Ben wanted to start an annual fair in Boston, where the AIA has its headquarters. He approached Mike Adams, an educator at the Museum of Science who had attended our annual meeting archaeology fairs in the past, with the idea and everything developed from there. The AIA and the MOS had our first archaeology fair in 2007, and we have grown and expanded every year since.

3. How are the archeologists and presentations chosen for the fair? Are they always based in New England?

Each spring the AIA contacts a number of different professional organizations (historical societies, archaeological institutions, museums, university departments, etc.) in the New England area who share an interest in archaeology, history, anthropology, and other related fields; all our presenters volunteer their time at the fair.

4. Can you tell me more about your role in the fair?

I am the AIA’s point person for this event. I work mostly with presenters, getting commitments to present and making sure their activity needs are met. I also work closely with my colleague at the MOS to finalize scheduling, logistics, and publicity for the fair. On fair days I provide any support presenters and volunteers may need, from assisting at presenter tables to covering lunch breaks.

5. Do you want to share any anecdotes about the planning process or reactions to the fair?

Each year the AIA and MOS have the opportunity to work with a fantastic group of presenters and volunteers, and we are so glad to be part of these organizations’ outreach and education programs.

In addition, every year we see so many fair attendees with a great interest in archaeology, and we are honored to make this learning experience available to them.

6. Will the fair be on the same date at the same location next year? How far in advance do you start planning for the event?

We try to schedule the fair at the MOS to fall on the same weekend as International Archaeology Day, which is the third weekend in October, though scheduling conflicts do sometimes arise either at the AIA or the MOS. We start planning the next fair in the spring, generally March or April.

7. What do you enjoy most about archeology?

For me the best part about archaeology is learning about how people lived, and thrived, in the past; it amazes me how far we’ve come in a few short millennia.


I cannot thank Kelly Lindberg enough for her time and fascinating insights, nor Dr. Ben Thomas, for creating such a wonderful event.  An enormous thank you to everyone involved in this year’s Archeology Fair!!

Please be sure to check the AIA’s website for archeological events throughout the year: http://www.archaeological.org/events

Please also check the MOS website for their events and exhibits: http://www.mos.org/public-events or http://www.mos.org/coming-soon

Boston Archeology Fair – Spotlight: Alan Leveillee

It is not hard to spot the enthusiasm in Alan Leveillee’s eyes when he talks about archeology.   Speaking with him at the AIA-MOS Archaeology Fair, I was struck by his warmth and easy-going manner, and I had to remind myself not to monopolize his time as he discussed some of his experiences in the field.

Alan explained that, although he does some teaching at Roger Williams University, he works largely in “cultural resource management” at a company called PAL (the Public Archaeological Laboratory) in Rhode Island.  There, he is senior archeologist and principal investigator.

As discussed in a previous post, “cultural resource management” refers to the work an archeologist does researching a site before any construction or development can begin.  If any archeological resources are found, the archeologist is there to determine how best to preserve those resources.

Alan was researching a site in Millbury, MA when he discovered a Native American cremation site.  This discovery lead to his book in 2002, An Old Place, Safe and Quiet: A Blackstone River Valley Cremation Burial Site.


1.     You mentioned discovering an archeological site (a Native American cremation site) at Blackstone River in Millbury.  Can you explain how you determined that it was a cremation site?

We determined it was a cremation because of thousands of fragments of calcined (burned to the point of a chalky-white appearance) bone- both human and animal.  There were also artifacts included as burial offerings.

2.      Were you able to tell when this site was used?

The site was used by multiple generations of Native Americans between 2,800 and 3,800 years ago.  It was also recognized as a burial ground by subsequent Native American peoples in the Woodland Period, approximately 1,500 years ago.

3.      Do you know what Native American tribes used this site?  Or do you have theories on this?

They were the ancestors of today’s Wampanoag, Nipmuck, and Narragansett peoples.

4.      Have you participated in the Archeology Fair at the Boston Museum before?

Yes, there have been a total of seven fairs- I’ve had the pleasure of participating in all of them.

5.      What do you enjoy most about being an archeologist?

I work with great colleagues at PAL, get to teach a bit, and attend public events like the Museum of Science Archaeology Fair.  With a little academic background, imagination, and luck, I get to time travel- what’s not to enjoy about a career in doing that!!!


For more information on Alan’s book regarding the cremation site, An Old Place, Safe and Quiet: A Blackstone River Valley Cremation Burial Site: http://www.abc-clio.com/product.aspx?id=65710

Public Archaeology Lab (PAL): http://palinc.com/

Many, many thanks to Alan Leveillee!!

Boston Archeology Fair – Spotlight: Dr. George Mutter, Egyptian Images in 3D

I’d like to return, on this post, back to October 19th at the AIA-MOS Archaeology Fair.

One of the featured events was referred to as “3D Images of Egypt”, and it was held twice on that Saturday.  I was able to catch the second presentation (held directly after the “Ask Dr. Dig” panel discussion), but I did so based on the mention of “Egypt” alone.  I hadn’t been able to read anything about it.

Each visitor was given 3D-glasses, and we were instructed to sit in the middle section of the theatre at the Museum.  This, it was explained, was for optimum viewing.

The lights went down; Dr. George Mutter took the podium; the images began to populate the screen.

And I listened with rapt attention.

This was not simply “3D Images of Egypt”.

This was a fantastically unique slideshow narrated by Dr. Mutter, who peppered his descriptions with fascinating details of what it might have been like as a European traveler viewing Egypt and its archeological sites around 1870.

The images he displayed, largely in black-and-white, became that much more alive in 3D.  Coupled with his narration, one could actually begin to feel as though they were traveling back in time and across continents.

Images of 19th-century Cairo, the people of Egypt, and archeological sites–some with debris scattered everywhere–sent my imagination reeling.  What was it truly like?  What were the sounds? The smells? How was the heat? What did the Egyptian people think of the European people?

As many know, Europe was generally introduced to Egypt (and ancient Egypt) after 1798 when Napoleon made his military conquest there.  The images in this presentation were almost a century later.  Howard Carter wouldn’t discover Tutankhamun’s tomb until 1922.

One of the initial images was of a houseboat, and Dr. Mutter explained that this was used on travels on the Nile, as there weren’t any hotels along the way.  Before each trip, the boat was sunk to “get rid of the bugs and vermin”.

This was the kind of detail I absolutely loved throughout the presentation.

Dr. Mutter is an academic physician trained at Harvard and Columbia, and he very graciously responded to my questions below.


1. When did you first become interested in 3D images?

I was captivated by the immersive experience of historic stereophotographs about 30 years ago, when I ran across some in a New York City flea market.  It was the images, not taking pictures myself.  A sense of discovery took over, never knowing what would turn up next.

2. Your website mentions that you and your colleague have “access to a unique collection of 26,000 original images of broad topical and geographic coverage from 1855 through modern times”.  From where does this collection originate?

They were produced in the 19th century by commercial studios in Europe and the United States, who sent photographers all over the world.  Mounted on cards, the paired stereoviews (right and left were taken by separate lenses) were sold for education and entertainment.    Piles of stereoviews collected in Victorian parlors but became gradually dispersed over time, and today are generally available through flea markets, auctions, and specialised dealers.   Its hard to re-aggregate a large collection now, but easy to get a few.  The 26,000 images at Photoarchive3D were collected by myself and collaborator Bernard Fishman through 60 years of combined experience combing through these sources.  Bernard and I met at a photo show, and decided to create a virtual (digital) single “collection” derived from our separate holdings.  Our goal is to share these treasures with others, getting them excited about history and learning something in the process.  

3 . How did you select the images shown on Saturday?  And have others been able to see these pictures through your organization before?

“19th Century Egypt in 3D: A Victorian Trip Up the Nile”  was designed to simulate a real journey c.1870.  The best available images from this period corresponding to a typical Nile tour were arranged geographically, from Alexandria to the second cataract.   Only 50 or so were chosen from a total of several thousand Egypt views we had at hand.   We are biased towards visually and technically superb images, both in what we acquire and what we showcase for display.  The absolute best are rare stereophotographs printed on glass, as they retain microscopic detail and unparalleled tonal range.   Some subjects, such as local people and mummies, we were careful to include because Egypt is not just monuments and they were part of the experience.

We have shown the Egypt images at a convention of Egyptologists, to college students as part of their coursework, and to a groups of photohistorians.   Our website (www.Photoarchive3D.org ) has a few Egypt images, but we prefer to do it live.   In addition to Egypt, we have done presentations on the Ottoman World, 19th century 3D education, and historical preservation.

4. I was absolutely fascinated (and horrified) to learn that, prior to each journey down the Nile, the houseboats were sunk in order to get rid of the bugs and vermin.  How was this fact discovered?

There are plenty of vintage guidebooks and travelogues which have these everyday details.  There were no group tours before about 1870, so the guidebooks are very explicit about how to plan and execute a successful trip.  My favorite is “1000 Miles up the Nile” by Amelia Edwards who traveled in 1873 and later founded the Egypt Exploration Society.    Just so your readers do not think boats were disposible, I should clarify that they were sunk temporarily in shallow water, and then bailed out, nicely cleaned up, before the voyage.

5. Have you, yourself, been to Egypt?  And if so, what are your favorite archeological sites?
I personally have been to Egypt twice, and Mr. Fishman is a trained Egyptologist who worked at Luxor.  All the sites are special in their own way, and that is the beauty of it.  Alexandria evokes the past without showing much on the surface, Giza impresses with scale, at Amarna you feel like the only person around, and Luxor exceeds all expectations.     

6. Your presentation focused on images of Egypt, but do you have a favorite time-period and set of pictures in your organization’s collection?  Why is it your favorite?

The biggest appeal is a sense of being able to freely journey anywhere, going back 150 years, and seeing something that would not be encountered today.  I like ephemeral showcases like the Crystal Palace in Victorian London, or worlds fairs such as the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition.   Classic archaeological sites such as Rome and Pompeii are beautifully captured before they crumbled further.  For atmosphere there is no better place than Ottoman Constantinople (Istanbul).  Natural history museums are a favorite, as the displays remind me of my childhood boiling skeletons in the basement.

7.  Were it not for photoarchive3d.org, would these images be lost?

No one knows what fraction of original production remains, but most views were “published” as many identical copies which have been preserved by virtue of being scattered about.  This means there is a lot out there still to be discovered, but 25-30% of our inventory is potentially unique, as I have not seen other examples in all the years of searching.     Although many individual images do exist outside of Photoarchive3D, there is added value to reassembly of groups of images which create a thematic virtual experience for the viewer.   This is our strength.

8. What do you hope people will learn from your organization?

It would be wonderful if our audience could see a bit of themselves in the people and places of the past.  We do that by putting them in unfamiliar environments, and letting them react with their own sensibilities.  Wouldn’t you sink your boat to kill the rats and fleas if you had to live on it for several months?


An enormous thank you to Dr. George Mutter for his generosity, his insight and his fascinating responses!

Please be sure to visit the website of Dr. Mutter and Mr. Fishman: http://photoarchive3d.org/

And check back to see their events; I cannot recommend them highly enough! http://photoarchive3d.org/DOCS/Events.htm

Boston Archeology Fair – Spotlight: Caitlin Davis

The AIA-MOS Archeology Fair, held at the Boston Museum of Science, had archeologists–with artifacts, presentations and activities–spread throughout sections of the museum.

I was honored to meet Caitlin Davis, an eloquent member of the Archaeological Institute of America, a writer and a woman of adventure (as one can easily see from her gorgeous blog), and one who describes herself as an ‘archaeologist-in-training.’

She was at the Mayan archeology table focused on activities for children.  These activities centered around an ancient ballgame, including pictures of Mayan stelae to color.  When asked, Caitlin explained that the letters were written in Ch’olan Maya.  And it was then that she described her interest in Mayan epigraphy.

mos - arch - caitlin davis

1. What interested you in Mayan archeology and more specifically Mayan epigraphy?

I have been interested in archaeology since childhood ever since reading a Nancy Drew book in which our fearless heroine travelled to Peru and visited Machu Picchu. Coming to college at BU I planned on studying the Inca and had even began learning Quechua, the indigenous language of the area I wanted to study, but no courses in South American archaeology were being offered. I decided to do what I considered the next best thing and took a class titled ‘Ancient Maya Civilizations’ which completely blew me away. I was completely amazed by the writing system of the Maya and the interaction between the textual history and the archaeological record. It was in the middle of that semester that I decided that Mesoamerican archaeology, specifically the Maya, was what I really wanted to study.

As for epigraphy, I have always been interested in languages. I attended a specialized language program in high school in which I took classes in two languages and took classes separate from the rest of the study body with focused on global languages and cultures in other subjects, like English and History. I think epigraphy exemplifies what archaeology is truly about – knowing the people behind the artifact. To be able to read about the Maya in their own words is incredible, and every time I translate something, even just a syllable, I am blown away at the fact that the thoughts of someone who lived thousands of years ago are now revived in front of me.

2. Were you in charge of creating the activities on the table at the Museum of Science? (If so, what prompted you to discuss the ball game?)
I was not in charge of creating the activities at the table. The AIA has had the ball game activity for at least the past 3 years, and it always does well with drawing in younger children who may not be interested in archaeology itself.

3. Do you have any fun stories of reactions from kids to the activities at your table?  Or questions they asked?
A lot of kids were surprised that the ball game required players to bounce the ball on their hips and that a modern version of the ball game, ulama, was played today. Many parents were also shocked when I told them how long ago the ball game was first played (3500 years ago). And of course, mentioning the human sacrifice at the end of elite games always gets a reaction.

A few kids mentioned the scene in El Dorado, a children’s movie in which Spaniards discover a city of gold in Mesoamerica, when the two protagonists play the ball game using an armadillo as a ball. It’s very cute!

4. Can you tell me more about what you do at the AIA?
I worked at the AIA when I was an undergrad as a work-study and now I work there part time, mostly working on paperwork for the AIA’s national lectures circuit and academic fellowships. For the past few months, in preparation for International Archaeology Day, I have been working on emailing possible collaborating organizations, making blog posts about archaeology events, and generally just publicizing IAD.

5. What do you like most about being an archeologist?

I would still consider myself to be an archaeologist-in-training, as I do not currently have a Ph.D. (although I am in the process of applying to graduate programs). What I love most about archaeology is the aspect of discovery. Excavating a site and knowing that I am the first person to see something in thousands of years is an incredible feeling. It’s also amazing when research comes together and an artifact assemblage begins to tell a story. There are a lot of things to love about archaeology, and anyone who is even the slightest bit interested should look to get involved!


Warmest thanks to Caitlin Davis for her time, her insight and her enthusiastic responses!

Boston Archeology Fair – Introduction

International Archeology Day was this past October 19th.

The Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) held its 7th Annual Archeology Fair in conjunction with the Boston Museum of Science.

mos - arch - welcome sign


It was an incredible event, and I highly recommend putting it on your calendars for next year!

Tables of archeologists were scattered throughout the museum, and activities were available for all ages.  One could speak with local archeologists, representatives of museums and the AIA, authors and members of a “living history” group.

mos - arch - arch tool kit leveillee

mos - arch - fried mealworm - voelkel

mos - arch - brigitte

(Brigitte Keslinke, a freshman studying Greco-Roman archaeology at Boston University and an engaging host at the Mayan Archeology Table!)

mos - arch - Stephen H. native american drilling

(Stephen Hulbert from the Massachusetts Archaeological Society demonstrating how Native Americans used to drill into wood.  I am not sure in which time-period this was used.)

mos - arch - native american tools