Saturday, May 31, 2014

We Can't Do It Without Them

Much of our effort over the last week was put toward removing the large stones from inside the pool. Most of the stones are from the collapsed terraces that surround the pool on its south, west, and north sides. Many of these stones are manageable in size, ranging from 25-120 lb.. Then there are the stones that would make most people (i.e. tenderfoot academics) either 1) build a road through the jungle in order to drive in an industrial hydraulic crane, or 2) just give up all together. But seriously, these stones have to be removed if proper consolidation of the feature is to take place. This requires lifting these monoliths from underwater, up about 4 meters, and then placed safely on the plaza floor…a total distance of about 10 meters.  So who ya gonna call? The Tzeltal Maya from Naranjo of course!

Hey, if you are in the mood for a dose of emasculation just spend a few hours watching these guys work. It’s the complete opposite of, let’s say, a trip to Walmart, which tends to provide a little self-image boost. After about 15 minutes you walk out of there thinking, “Hell, I’m not doing so bad after all.” This is not how you feel after watching the Maya move mountains for a day. You walk back to your field truck mumbling, “Am I a man, am I a boy, am I even human?”

Jesus getting loaded up with a large cut stone from the pool's floor.

From left to right - Jesus, Nicolas, Andreas, and Eduardo moving stones from the pool's interior.

Some of the workmen only weigh about 140 lb.. but can easily carry a 200 lb. stone on their back while walking out of the water and up a broken staircase in rubber boots that are filled with water! A few of the stones in the pool were upwards of 500 pounds. They asked for a pulley, some rope, and two more workers (four in all). It took all of us, the four workers and us four gringos (which by the way is the equivalent of five Maya workers), but we did it (see photo)!

All eight (or five) of us pulling a 350 pound stone from the pool using a rope and pulley.

Now I know for some readers, this is nothing new. You may have spent time in another country and witnessed something similar. I too have seen this before.  But I’ll tell you what, it will never cease to blow my mind.

Our first attempt to take the pump to the Picota Group.

Here’s another example. The water pump only weighs about 90 lb.. but it’s a bit awkward. Before I hired any workmen we tried using a small cart to carry the pump to the site (see photo). That proved too difficult, plus everyone was looking at us like we were crazy. I wonder why (see photo again)? The next time the pump went out with us Kirk Straight grabbed one side and Reed grabbed the other. This was much more practical, but the 1 km hike on a narrow trail did take it’s toll on them. This past Thursday I decided to take the pump to the site one more time. Although I knew it would not dewater the pool, I wanted to see how it would help with removing light sediment. It didn’t by the way. At 7:30am Andreas and Eduardo met us in the parking lot, like they do everyday, to help us carry equipment (buckets, shovels, etc.). I explained to them that we have a new piece of equipment, so while they carry the pump, we will take all the other stuff. At that moment, Andreas grabs the pump with one hand and lifts it onto his shoulders, positions it on the back of his neck and just starts walking. Immediately I thought that many years ago I must have been the victim of some sort of alien abduction involving castration followed by reconstructive surgery. What is going on here? We all looked at each other in disbelief. Oh, and when we got to the pool, Andreas sat the pump down gently and didn’t show a single sign of distress. I on the other hand I was soaked with sweat from carrying a machete and two liters of water.

Archaeologists throughout much of the world could not carry out their research without the brawn and ingenuity of local workers. The Tzeltal Maya that live in the Palenque area have been the backbone (literally) of every archaeological project that has taken place here since Patrick Walker and John Herbert Caddy arrived in late January of 1840. We owe them so much more than the meager wages our projects provide. I raise a glass of pox (or whatever the local drink is) to the workers around the globe who make archaeology happen.  We couldn’t do it without you.

A shot of pox from Chamula, a Maya community on the outskirts of San Cristobal. I bought a three liter gas can of it across the street from the ceremonial pool in Chamula. Salud!

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Week 1 Recap

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

-- from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

            A first principle of archaeology is that research designs can and will change. Despite preparations for a dry excavation, including the use of a gas powered bilge pump, we've found ourselves waist deep in Palenqueño water, what it means to be from Maine, Chiapas. Our PI, Kirk French, quickly realized that the ancient pool was built into bedrock, its limestone basin dipping beneath the water table. When the pool's depth leveled off soon into draining, the team was quickly disabused of illusions for neatly defined strata (goodbye, Harris matrix), and was encouraged to look for creative solutions. We decided that the best possible approach involved the feature's division into neatly defined sections, with wet screening of removed sediment for artifact recovery. This required that we shift gears from more traditional dry land archaeology, to a type of underwater work (well half underwater, anyway). And this is most welcomed: shaded by dense jungle and cooled with spring water, the change in methods has offered a welcome respite from unrelenting humidity in the tropical environment).

Kirk French, attempting to get a better view

            Between donning bathing suits and transporting frogs from one water source to another (more on that in another post), the excavation has proved to be unique in every way, with each moment presenting a new learning experience. To begin with, we knew from earlier studies that the ancient Maya of Palenque were ingenious hydrological engineers. Since the beginnings of habitation, water was an abundant resource, even in excess at certain times of the year. This ecological fact surely played into the site's ancient name, Lakamha,' or "Big Water." And as a result, the Palenqueños had to devise a means to control runoff during the rainy season, diverting streams into underground aqueducts that ran beneath plaza floors, thereby practicing flood control and, significantly, expanding inhabitable space (on what was then, and remains today, a relatively restricted escarpment).

            The exact timing and degree of Palenque's waterworks, however, remain poorly understood, though our work is already shedding light in this important area of research.  We have located a monumental staircase on the eastern side of the feature, leading down into the pool. Its stones are monolithic, single-coursed blocks, some of which remain in excellent condition. An impressive wall, fashioned with at least some terracing, faces the southern side of the pool, though it's still too early to speak to its original design. Overall, the structure required a much greater degree of engineering and planning than we originally envisioned. 

Kirk Straight, project ceramicist, drawing the staircase

            To back up a bit, our feature, located in the Picota Group, is recharged from the stream of the Arroyo Picota, and sits astride an ancient aqueduct. That aqueduct remains largely intact, continuing to channel water beneath an early plaza floor, just to the southeast of the pool. These architectural phenomena are just over a kilometer from polity center, forcing the observer to reconsider notions of a centralized site plan. In addition, the pool is within meters of Palenque's only known stela, a type of stone monument presumed to be associated with kingship. The seeming monumentality of the pool, made apparent with little more than a week's worth of work, and its location in and articulation with other features from the Picota Group, clearly signals an important role of water ritual and technology for early Palenque.

Stela in the Picota Group, just beyond the pool (photo taken by author)

Monday, May 19, 2014

Weekend Trip to Ocosingo and Tonina

Over the past few days we’ve experienced unprecedented amounts of rain for this time of year. Coupled with cooler temperatures, this cold/wet weather has made for a few slow days around the house. Yesterday we decided to combat the cabin fever by visiting the town of Ocosingo and the site of Toniná, a Maya site about two hours from where we’re staying.

Though long and winding, the drive was pleasant and the views of the surrounding landscape exceptional, especially as we climbed higher in altitude into the Chiapas highlands. The road between Ocosingo and Palenque is dotted with the rural villages of modern Maya, and we saw many of them planting corn and weeding their milpas as we drove past. This area of the Chiapas highlands is the heartland of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN), a largely indigenous peasant-based leftist group seeking indigenous control over local resources, especially land. The Maya communities of Chiapas live in impoverished conditions and are largely excluded from modern development, with over 90% of indigenous households without electricity and running water. In response to historically poor living conditions and economic disenfranchisement, the EZLN staged a rebellion from their base San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas on January 1, 1994. Since then, insurgency has developed into a powerful political movement that advocates for Mexico’s disenfranchised indigenous groups. Many of the Maya villages we passed along the road from Palenque to Ocosingo displayed signs and murals in support of the EZLN and their political objectives.

A horse grazing outside of Tonina, overlooking the Ocosingo Valley. 

After a two hour drive, we arrived in Ocosingo, and took a brief stroll around the zocalo (town square) before sitting down to lunch. After lunch, we moseyed over to the Toniná Archaeological Park to tour the ruins and visit the museum on site. Toniná is a medium sized Classic Period site located in the Ocosingo Valley, about 40 miles south of Palenque. The monumental site center of Toniná was established during the Early Classic, though early components of the site are not well known. Toniná bears the last long count date in the Maya lowlands – AD 909 – marking the “collapse” of political institutions centered upon the kuhul ajaw, or divine kings.

The presence of the EZLN influence marked with a sign, with Tonina in the background.

Emily makes a new friend on the way to the ruins.

Toniná is best known as a militaristic polity, evident in its art, inscriptions, and architecture. Images of bound captives are shown on many of their carved and sculpted monuments, including one of the only Maya depictions of a female captive. While Toniná apparently feuded with several Maya kingdoms, its greatest foe was Palenque. Many of the glyphic texts at the site detail sporadic warfare events between the two sites over hundreds of years in the Late Classic Period. At the end of the 7th century, inscriptions at Toniná hint at the greater strength of Palenque. For instance, Ruler 2 of Toniná disappears from written records in AD 687 after a conflict with Palenque. Toniná later became the dominant center when it captured several vassals of Palenque in AD 699. Ballcourt 1 at Toniná shows the six sculpted prisoners with their hands bound and heads lowered. In the 8th century, Toniná successfully launched a “star war” against Palenque, and in AD 711 the Toniná ruler B’aaknal Chaak entered the Palenque site core and sized its ruler K’an Joy Chitam, leaving a 10 year gap in Palenque’s dynastic history. Toniná remained the dominant site in the region in the Terminal Classic Period.

Tenon heads at Tonina Ballcourt 1.

Stela depicting the 6th century ruler Jaguar Bird Peccary.

Toniná is also well known for its elaborate sculpted friezes. The Frieze of the Dream Lords, shown below, depicts the parallel universe of the wayob’, where the alter egos of the Maya nobility lived. The skeletal figure depicted in the frieze is called “Turtle Foot Death’ because he wears turtle shells on his feet. Decapitated heads, jaguars, and other fantastic images are also evident in the frieze.

Frieze of the Dream Lords, left panel, showing "Turtle Foot Death" in the center.

 One of the features at Toniná we (Claire and Emily) most enjoyed was the carving of an Earth Monster near the top of the Toniná complex. Though part of the sculpture is missing, it is still possible to see the monster opening its mouth and the scorched insides where fires were most likely lit. It’s easy to imagine how imposing this monument would have looked when a fire was roaring inside of its mouth.

Altar of the Earth Monster, showing a fanged serpent with a stone ball in his mouth.

View of the Ocosingo Valley from the top of the Tonina main temple. 

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Day 1

Following a drive that covered nine states and most of Mexico, we arrived at our destination last Wednesday evening, one week ago, on May 7th. The trip presented a number of firsts: for one of us, this included venison sausage, hushpuppies, and a look at the ruins of one of the most famous of ancient Maya sites, Palenque.

Palenque, looking northwest from the Temple of the Cross (photo taken by author)

Before heading south of the border, we picked up our project investigator's brother, Mark (our PI, Kirk French, did the driving). Fortunately for the three of us, our musical tastes were in line, and we shared stories about and listened to, among others, ZZ Top's Tres Hombres, Dylan's Blood on the Tracks, and, of course, Willie Nelson's Shotgun Willie.

Our first night in Mexico was spent in the Federal District of San Luis Potosi. We stayed in a room with floor to ceiling windows overlooking the historic city center. After recharging on enchiladas potosinas, we took in and admired the colonial architecture, numerous plazas, and looming cathedrals, especially the Templo de Nuestra Señora del Carmen. Leaving the window shades drawn open, we woke to sunlight throwing shadows across winding streets and open zócalos.

The next day involved fifteen hours on the road. Moving from the central highlands to the southern lowlands, vast altitudinal changes proved a first-rate lesson in cultural ecology. As we approached Córdoba in the Mexican state of Veracruz, irrigated fields around Tuxtla and Puebla gave way to slash-and-burn milpa systems and jungle. Temperatures rose a remarkable twenty degrees in little more than two hours. Dense swarms of flies and screeching cicadas, brought on by the still night air, reminded us that Pennsylvania was far behind. We were also reminded--the hard way--that streets in other countries are not marked like those in the States, and that we Americans are far too dependent on a GPS and cell phone.

Milpa burning, near Ocosingo (photo taken by author)

The weekend was spent finalizing permissions and taking in the sights of San Cristobal and the cathedral of San Juan de Chomula. Here, a traditional Maya community integrates native mythology with Catholicism, producing a hybridized practice of saintly veneration and animism. The floors of the church are covered in pine needles and laurel leaves, symbolic of the church as a cave within a forest. The inner sanctum is filled with burning candles of various shapes, sizes and colors, all representative of a particular sacrament. Between the prayers, smoke and pungent foliage, the interior has a sense of mirth and sadness, all at once.

Today we officially begin work. The project involves the draining and excavation of an ancient Maya pool in the Picota Group, one of Palenque's earliest monumental precincts. Most likely used for rituals, including the ceremonial washing of clothes, the digging and restoration of the pool will be a first for the site. Remains are buried beneath layers of anaerobic mud and we are expecting excellent preservation. Ultimately, our work should provide a means to reconstruct a more definite chronology for the building phases of the site's earlier periods of occupation.

Kirk French, machete in hand, locating the spring that feeds the pool