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

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