I’m in the field at our new project high up in the volcanic highlands of Guatemala – a two day travel by foot, jeep, and boat from Cancuen and our other lowland Peten jungle digs. This project, at the site of San Andres Semetabaj, is a new and unique experience for me, which is really saying something after 30 field seasons as a project director in every type of region in every imaginable political and physical context Guatemala!
The San Andres Semetabaj site is more than one thousand years earlier than the ruins being investigated by our Vanderbilt lowland projects – it’s closer to the beginning than the end of Maya civilization. The field is not Classic PreColumbian Maya, but rather it is of the distinctive early highland Maya culture, typically known for its monochrome ceramics, artifacts and hardened adobe architecture. It’s a tremendously important site in terms of understanding the earliest periods of the ancient Maya and the rise of their first states.
I feel a need to babble about this dig as a bizarre personal anthropological experience. It’s a completely different universe from my usual jungle digs for many reasons. For one, we live in a town, not a tent camp, with running water and intermittent electricity which is quite luxurious. This is a first for me! We’re working in the beautiful, cool pine forest highlands instead of the usual hot, smoldering, humid jungle. The dig is right in the middle of a small town of Kaqchiquel Maya with only a handful of mestizos – and only one Caucasian: me! San Andres Semetabaj is the hometown of my wife, Vilmita, and generations of her family, where she is beloved (if not worshiped) by her many close friends, former school mates, and relatives. I find it rather stunning how the ancient and modern mix and meet so intimately here.
While I do miss the magnificent jungle, the region of San Andres Semetabaj is breath-takingly beautiful, placed high above the famous Lake Atitlan which is surrounded by volcanoes and Maya villages. Lake Atitlan is famous worldwide for its stunning beauty, its photos gracing many calendars, yet our little Kaqchiquel town of San Andres is unknown, isolated on a ridge high above the lake. It’s a hidden gem in this gorgeous area. Well-worth putting up with the frequent tremors and landslides from all the volcanic activity. In fact, the ever present danger of an earthquake or eruption and the view of the towering volcanoes helps to keep one alert and alive! This year alone we were stranded several times due to two tremors, one minor earthquake, and three weeks of tropical storms, all causing landslides which temporarily wiped out the two small roads that lead in and out of the town. Never a dull moment!
Adding to the excitement is the experience of being part of a small but thriving community of devout Kaqchiquel Maya who make the most of unceasing holy days and rituals. My wife’s enormous extended family are all from, or still in, San Andres Semetabaj. They participate in many of these events. Aged “Tio Lish” leads some processions with his incense burner. “Tia Veronica” is a sponsor and adviser to the Cofradia (“the Order”) of the town’s patron saint/deity, San Andres (Saint Andrew) the Apostol whose identity was long ago fused with that of earlier Maya supernaturals. “Tia Fermi,” sadly recently deceased, sponsored the marimba for the peak ritual of the year, the somewhat violent Shutio rites. Vilmita’s crazy brother Felipe challenges that malevolent figure of Shutio every year in the ritual whip fights that leave Felipe’s back covered with bleeding lacerations. It’s amazing for an anthropologist and archaeologist to see the new and the old from the inside out.