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.

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

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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.

Museo_de_America_Madrid_Codex

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.

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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.

 

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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

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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.”

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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!

References:

  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.

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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.

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mos - arch - arch tool kit leveillee

mos - arch - native american tools

 

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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

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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/

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.

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http://www.archaeological.org/news/aianews/14112

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

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(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