The Vilmita de Demarest Strategy

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!

So, while our team continued to carry out the season’s excavations in the central zone of the Semetabaj site under the direction of my great co-director, Carlos Alvarado of the Universidad del Valle de Guatemala, I myself began to investigate the rest of the ancient site and its satellite centers by using a whole new research design strategy, which we dubbed as either the “Vilmita de Demarest strategy” or the “cuñado [brother-in-law] or yerno [son-in-law] strategy.” This research scheme consists of following my wife around as she visits, dines, or celebrates with her local relatives and friends; They then tell us where all of the archaeological remains are to be found.  The only cost is to my ego, since I must be told ad nauseum about how my wife is the most beautiful woman from the town who went to Guatemala City at 15, worked and earned herself an education, and now has returned in glory – albeit with a strange gringo husband in tow. 

I follow awkwardly, standing about waiting for someone to pay attention to me – after receiving, of course, the lecture on the royal qualities of my wife, Vilma Lorena Anleu Diaz de Demarest, and of the generations of San Andres Semetabaj Anleu and/or Diaz family luminaries who had preceded her and who fill the old cemetery of the town.  I guess it is good tonic for my inflated Harvard PhD “Distinguished” Professor ego.  As I follow Vilmita around or attend events of her friends and family, sometimes with her father as patriarch, I can hear in my head the refrain of the old Earl King blues song:  “You ain’t nutin’ but a son in-law!”.

In coming years we will excavate the different areas in or near San Andres identified by Vilmita’s “royal subjects,” supervised by the town’s Kaqchiquel spiritual leaders, and all the finds, sacred objects, etc. will remain in the pueblo in a town museum. 

The museum project is due to the efforts of the co-sponsor of the dig, the archaeology department of the Universidad Del Valle de Guatemala – whose department director, Tomas Barrientos, is my former Vanderbilt graduate student and now a famous Vanderbilt PhD alum.  The Del Valle University Board and donors from the Mac family have created, as we did in the lowland jungle at Cancuen, an archaeological and sacred site park at San Andres Semetabaj, run by the Kaqchiquel Maya community.  They are finishing the museum where all of the best artifacts will be on display under local supervision – keeping everything in the town as mandated by the spiritual leaders. This is an outstanding example of “Ethical Maya Community Archaeology,” the program pursued in the Peten sites by our Vanderbilt Institute of Mesoamerican Archaeology and Development down there in collaboration with the Q’eqchi’ Maya of those regions. 

Here in the highlands, the Universidad del Valle (the “Vanderbilt of the Far South”) continues this ethical strategy and over the years, as we give classes to the children and with the trained local Maya guides giving tours of the site and museum, this program will help educate members of this indigenous community on their own impressive heritage. Thus, the archaeology will provide some economic benefits and, more importantly, pride and empowerment.

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