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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

 

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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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From the Depths of an Indiana Cave: A Fossil Treasure Trove

Around perhaps 25,000 years ago in Southern Indiana, an injured Dire Wolf made its way into a cave and never came back out. With three good legs and one that had been out of socket for a year or so, the wolf crawled through the smaller spaces and eventually—whether through an accidental fall or otherwise—landed at the bottom of a deep pit. It was trapped.

Ron Richards, Senior Research Curator of Paleobiology at the Indiana State Museum, and his crew discovered its skeleton after digging in that particular room for 3 or 4 seasons.

Ron took that set of bones to pathologists for more information. However long that injury was sustained, and it was not a short amount of time, that wolf was a survivor. They determined the one leg probably didn’t touch the ground, but that it could probably still run using the other three.

“What normally is a circular ball-joint on his thighbone was flattened on one whole side,” Ron explained in a phone interview.

“I think that probably affected his ability to back out. Maybe he smelled some rotting carcass smell or something, got too near and couldn’t back out, and probably went over the top [of the pit.]”

A reconstruction of that event, complete with an actual cast of that specific room in the cave, can be seen at the Indiana State Museum today.

What may not be apparent was the work involved in creating that cast.

The word “cave” might invoke images of enormous open spaces underground. This is not at all that kind of cave. Not at the initial opening, nor at any space within as one moves deeper inside.

“Years ago, you had to go into a belly-crawl,” Ron said of the entrance, “but now we’ve moved through it so much, we can do a hands-and-knees crawl.”

They built a platform to work above water pooling at the bottom of the pit, and—in order to keep the walls dry for rubber molds—they used blowtorches. Ron, cave dig crewmembers and people from RCI (Research Casting International) worked together on the beginning stages of the room’s cast. The finished product was done at RCI headquarters in Ontario.

RCI - Dire wolf replica

[Image of the cave cast and wolf replica, http://www.rescast.com, by Research Casting International for the Indiana State Museum]

Nothing done in that cave is an easy process.

When Ron first began digging in that cave, he said, “I thought it would take 9 people 9 days, and we could finish the project.”

That was in 1987. The dig was prompted by the discovery of a single peccary bone.

Ever since, for approximately two weeks each year, Ron and his crew have returned to dig.

“[It was] the first big cave dig we had done,” he continued, describing that first year. “We’d done a couple of mastodon digs at the time, but we really had no money for the budget. There was nothing there. We had no trained staff. We had almost no equipment.”

“I remember pulling this together, pulling different people from different sections of the museum.”

And when it came to potential funding for this excavation, Ron recalled that he was asked, ‘Can’t you do this another time?’

“I didn’t know what to say,” he admitted, “so I didn’t say anything. The next day, we got the gear loaded, and we headed down for the cave. We just did not look back!”

“As it worked out, we dug, we found more bone: parts of little peccaries, parts of big peccaries, and other animals that no longer occur in the region.”

Peccaries are relatives of modern pigs, but instead of upper canine teeth that curve up—as in modern hogs—their teeth “drive straight down like daggers,” as Ron explained. Today, modern peccaries live within the Southwest United States, as well as in Central and South America. But during the Ice Age, peccaries were common in Indiana and Eastern U.S.

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[Pleistocene peccary by Karen Yoler, image courtesy of Ron Richards, the Indiana State Museum.  Per Ron Richards: “This image is artist Karen Yoler’s  concept of what the peccary looked like.  We did drop off the larger dew claws on the front legs and added a little more canine tooth size and gave it a more perpendicular orientation.”]

 

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[Angry javelina–or collared peccary–close up. Javelina go by many names such as wild pig,boar,etc.; image and caption from Getty Images.]

Working deep in the cave initially, the crew created a system that they continue to use, with some improvements, to this day: some people dig in the cave and place the soil into buckets; other people haul the buckets out of the cave and bring them down to a stream; still others screen the soil for fossils.

All of the data is recorded; all of the soil is screened.

“Above you are big spiders—lots of cave spiders and cave crickets. They don’t bother you, but some people get the heebie-jeebies, you know? I mean, you look up, and there [are these] massive things moving around,” he said and chuckled.

In recent years, they’ve developed what Ron refers to as “tramways,” 60-70 feet of ramps created by parallel boards with cross slats. Tramways—some with rollers—help bring the buckets out of the entrance to the cave and down the hillside.

ISM - Cave with tramway

 

[Digging…with the tramway in position for hauling buckets of sediment out, image courtesy of Ron Richards, the Indiana State Museum.]

To help carry 15-20 buckets at a time down to the spring to be screened, they employ an ATV with a tractor.

“[From all of the] tons of soil that gets screened,” Ron stated, “[there remains some] soil that’s left with small bones. We bag that out, bring it back to the museum, and then they rescreen it and clean it. And then–spoonful by spoonful–they go under the binocular microscope, and they pick out all the small bones and teeth.”

His crew is a dedicated group: leaving their hotel rooms at 8am and working throughout the day—with a short break for lunch–until 5pm (or later if the weather holds). Ideally, there are nine crewmembers per season, but they have done it with less people. Digging has sometimes required breaking rock, so among the many tools used are sledgehammers and chisels.

ISM - Cave digging

 

[Digging for peccary bones, image courtesy of Ron Richards, the Indiana State Museum.]

 

Over the years, the cave rooms have gained descriptive names: the Peccary Room, for example, the X Room, and the Bat Room.

The “Microfauna Room” was named after the large amount of small bones they found when they began digging through the top layers of soil and rock. This is where the aforementioned Dire Wolf was discovered.

“Near the bottom of that room, down at the 25,000-yr level,” Ron explained, “we began to get fairly complete skeletons of things like Dire Wolf, Black Bear, an otter, a snowshoe hare, a lot of small shrews and mice.”

“We really believe that those animals fell in this pit. They dropped, and they went down about 15-20 feet. I think most of the time it was probably full of water.

“It’s just a lonely place to be. Whether they could stand at the bottom, I don’t know. But there’s no way out.

“There [was] enough mud washing in from the ceiling of that room that they were buried under real fine sediments. And that preserved them very well.”

Some of the fossils discovered have been both remarkable and rare. A tapir tooth—only the second to be found in the entire state of Indiana—was found in the cave. Several beautiful armadillo (Dasypus bellus) plates [osteoderms] have been discovered have been discovered (that is the actual name; ‘beautiful’ is not necessarily a description). Ron painted a picture of this by saying, “When one animal dies, there’s about 3,000 plates that disintegrate and go everywhere, like little dominoes.”

“Two years ago,” he said, describing the ‘Twilight Room’, “we started finding some articulated peccary skeletons.”

“Deep in the cave we didn’t find a lot of that. The bones would be disturbed, and you could just see sort of a jumbled mass that had been moved by water, by gravity, [or] by other animals.”

“In this room, we found things that were articulated, feet in place, all of the little toes in place. Really unusual.”

The earliest fossils found were parts of a giant land tortoise, a species that cannot live in cold climates. Finding this indicated that the area, at that time, did not freeze.

Also found were fossils of a pine marten, a species that, conversely, lives in Northern climates today.

And as for peccaries, Ron estimates that they have found the bones of approximately 650 individuals. They determined this number by by counting the total number of large, pointed canine teeth and dividing by four.

ISM - flat-headed peccary

[Bones & skull of the flat-headed peccary, image courtesy of Ron Richards, the Indiana State Museum.]

“So the question is then: did they live here? Or did they all have a misfortune and die here? It’s a little of both, but it’s mainly that they probably inhabited this cave and rock shelter for most of that time period.”

Ron mentioned that a number of the fossil discoveries in the cave are new to him.

So how does one identify unfamiliar fossils?

“We have a general reference collection of modern bones,” he replied, “and there is a big collection at Indiana University, Bloomington that I had become very familiar with in the 1970’s and 1980’s.”

He went on to explain that he referenced available literature and visited other museum collections.

“I had written correspondence,” he continued, “and the mailing of specimens with several experts in the eastern United States. My foremost ‘mentors’ were Dr. Russell Graham (then The Illinois State Museum), and the late Dr. J. Alan Holman (The Museum, Michigan State University), but I also had open correspondence with the late John E. Guilday (Carnegie Museum of Natural History), the late Dr. Paul W. Parmalee (The McClung Museum, University of Tennessee), Dr. Holmes Semken (University of Iowa) and the late Wm. R. Adams (Zooarchaeology Laboratory, Indiana University).”

“Everything [is] dug in square units,” he said. “We have thousands of these units. We can show the distribution and abundance of anything that pretty much died in that cave for thousands of years.”

And the work is hardly done. Ron estimates that the digging portion may be completed within the next 5 seasons (5 years), but the analysis of the immense amount of fossils has yet to begin.

“We’ve got probably 30 radiocarbon dates from the cave. Every year, we get one or two more.”

Ron explained that the cave has, so far, produced “probably 7,000 small plastic boxes of small bones, and 2,000-3000 larger containers of larger bones.”

“It’s my job to identify those. But, you understand,” he said, laughing, “life is short. I could spend all my time, day and night, just working with that alone. It’s an immense project.”

————–

Many, many thanks to Ron Richards, whose generosity astounds me.  I am profoundly grateful for his time, his patience with my “volley of questions” and his fascinating descriptions.  It is always a pleasure and an honor connecting with him!

A sincere thank you to Bruce Williams for prompting this post!

**The name and location of this cave were intentionally left out for security reasons.

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[Image of the Indiana State Museum, Getty Images]