In my career I have been constantly compared to Indiana Jones — most notably by PBS, The LA Times, and New Scientist. I’ve always chuckled at this comparison, but I do understand why and how this is an unending theme of my work. In colloquial terms: my job is to dig up lost cities in the thick of the jungle while negotiating with armed and dangerous drug lords. This is what I do for a living, plain and simple.
I know most people find it hard to believe that anyone really lives the way I do. Believe it or not, this is my normal lifestyle and has been for over 30 years, but I do realize how strange this must seem for some viewers. I thank you for taking interest in my world and the discoveries that keep me going! In my final set of videos of our Cancuen tour, we’ll navigate through the jungle as we explore the hieroglyphic staircase, the throne room restoration, the buried palace rooms, two large fallen stelae, and the royal ballcourt.
Due to its strategic economic position as the transfer point between the ancient highland world and the lowland cities, Cancuen became incredibly rich with the largest workshops of the Maya in both jade and obsidian, and one of the largest Classic Maya royal palaces. Follow along while I continue our tour through Cancuen!
Cancuen sits in a narrow peninsula where the Pasión river sharply bends and first slows down to be navigable by canoe. It’s a huge rich city built at “the head of navigation of the Pasión river,” the beginning of the great river trade route of the Classic Maya world. Due to its strategic economic position as the transfer point between the ancient highland world and the lowland cities, Cancuen became incredibly rich with the largest workshops of the Maya in both jade and obsidian, and one of the largest Classic Maya royal palaces.
This year at Vanderbilt University (VU), I’m teaching two courses – Intro to Archaeology and an advanced seminar on The Collapse of Civilizations. The educational gap between these two classes is causing me intellectual whiplash, but seeing the impact of my teaching, from intro to advanced, is something that I feel privileged to encounter.
A great excitement in my life is being part of a small but thriving community of devout Kaqchiquel Maya who make the most of unceasing rituals and holy days, such as The Semetabaj Rituals. This includes San Juan “Toritos” or “Negritos” bullfighting, which you can see above. Each member of our family loves to dance and participate in the Semetabaj celebrations.
In my latest blog post, I hinted at my new research design strategy and my fateful discovery of Mayan artifacts (including a beautifully carved and polished hardstone mortar in the shape of a turtle with an anthropomorphized head and face, perforated large banner stones, figurines, and grinding tools) in the backyards of friends and relatives in the San Andres Semetabaj town area. After talking to their other relatives it became clear that their houses were all sitting on a 2,600 year old Middle PreClassic cemetery!
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. Continue reading “In The Field”
Mayan artifact wrested from nefarious looters [with the help of Arthur Demarest, Vanderbilt University ( VU )].
By Dan Vergano
Now safe in Guatemala’s National Museum, the limestone altar, whose recovery was announced Wednesday, sheds light on the political life of the Mayan era. Carved in the year 796 to honor a treaty in the Mayan city of Cancuén, the altar depicts two kings playing a ritual ballgame.
The altar’s recent past sheds light on the extent of modern looting.