Friday, June 20, 2014

Mapping the Palenque Pools

Archaeologists have long understood the importance of space in archaeological research. Beginning with John Lloyd Stephens and Fredrick Catherwood’s first foray into the jungles of Mesoamerica in the mid-nineteenth century, explorers and archaeologists alike have put a considerable amount of effort into mapping the monumental architecture of Maya sites. Specifically, archaeological inquiry has been focused on visualization, data management, and spatial analyses of monumental architecture as well as hinterland Maya households. Spatial data can include formal attributes concerning size and shape of archaeological features (e.g., artifacts, units, sites, regions, etc.), as well as their morphology. Consideration of spatial scales is also important for understanding how people built, modified, and lived in their environment in the past. Scale includes the extent and duration of archaeological phenomena: individual behavior taking place over short intervals of time in a small space; settlement processes including annual or seasonal rounds; and ecological processes that occur over large regions or long periods of time. The challenge for archaeologists is to infer processes from spatial patterning.

With the development of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) in the 1990’s, many archaeologists began to incorporate GIS into their archaeological toolkit in recognition of its ability to organize complex sets of spatial data. Maya archaeologists have been especially active in mapping large site centers and their hinterland populations. Detailed mapping projects have been carried out at Palenque under the auspices of the Palenque Mapping Project (1998-2000), as well as at the sites of La Milpa and Copan, to name a few.

The Palenque Pool Project team has focused our efforts on detailed mapping of the Pictoa Group, adding features uncovered during the 2014 field season to the larger site map produced by the Palenque Mapping Project. We used a Leica Total station to record the location of architectural features at the site.

Project member Reed Goodman using the total station to map architecture in the Picota Group. 

During excavations this season, we have defined the extent of one of the pools in the group, located two drain features on the west side of the pool, and found a series of 9 steps that lead into the pool also on the west side. All of these features have been added to the map in order to understand the spatial layout of the pool. We have also mapped two additional pools to the north and south in more detail. As archaeological investigations continue in the Picota Group, new features can be added to the map in order to understand how the ancient Maya used the pools. 

Map of the Picota Group with location of pools.

Close up of pool investigated this year as part of the Paleque Pool Project.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Sunday Drive to Bonampak & Yaxchilan

After a relaxing Saturday free of any plans, the team decided to take a day trip to two nearby Maya sites: Bonampak and Yaxchilan. An advantage of being in the heartland of Maya territory is the accessibility of many magnificent ruins in the area. Sometimes the journey can be a tad dicey, as we quickly learned on our trip, but it is certainly worth the trouble once you walk into these ancient centers.

Throughout our time here in Mexico we have experienced an endless number of topes (speed bumps), which team member Emily loves to point out quite audibly each time we approach one. Had she done the same for this trip, it is certain she would have no voice by the time we would reach Bonampak due to their frequency along this road. As you drive through the tiny towns that are scattered along Route 186, there is a tope just about every time you had enough time to reach 30 miles per hour.

Our first destination was Bonampak, a site that dates back to the Early Classic period (AD 580). This center is most famous for its illustrious murals, which were painted in AD 790 and are located in three separate chambers midway up the main hill. The fresco-style murals depict, in intricate detail, a robing ceremony in the first room, a war scene in the second and ritual bloodletting in the last one.

However, in order to see these famous murals we had to jump through a few hoops. As we neared Bonampak, we were flagged down by a group of Lacandon Maya who informed us we could not take our car the whole way to the site and had to ride in one of their taxis. So the team piled into a couple of cars and started on the gravel road, only to be met by a traffic jam in the middle of the jungle. In front of the line of about fifteen halted cars was a group of men trying to cut and move a massive tree that had fallen on the road during the torrential downpours that ravaged the area the past twenty-four hours.

Kirk helps a group of Lacandon Maya move a tree from the road.

Once we were finally able to reach the site, we were surprised at the compact size of the site. Bonampak makes Palenque, a site that is not known for being very large, seem absolutely massive. There are no separate groups of architecture, as is seen at most other Maya sites. Instead, there are a few stelae displayed at the base of a large staircase that leads you up to the Temple of the Murals. The vibrant color of the murals, which are dated to AD 790, is the most impressive part. It is stunning that the rich blues, reds and yellows have survived more than 1,200 years and are able to be viewed by visitors in 2014.
A portion of the mural in Room 1.

The second leg of our adventure brought us to the banks of the Usumacinta River, a portion of the border between Mexico and Guatemala. Tucked away in the jungle that lines the violently flowing river is Yaxchilan, a powerful Classic Maya center which experienced its height around AD 650. This site is home to more than 120 structures and large number of remarkable stelae.

Getting to Yaxchilan is also no easy task. After rumbling down a torn up road and paying numerous tolls just to get to the town of Frontera Corozal, you must take a half-hour boat ride down the Usumacinta to reach the site. The unique feature associated with this site is its careful layering as the elevation increases. At the base of the hills is the Gran Plaza, where many of these stelae and structures stand. As we walked up a seemingly infinite amount of stairs, we found ourselves in the Gran Acrópolis overlooking the plaza from the spectacular Structure 33.

The P3 team riding down the Usumacinta on the way to Yaxchilan.

Just when we thought that was the highest elevation we would experience, our team leader Kirk French took us to another steep path going higher into the hills. Suddenly emerging from the dense trees was the Templos del Sur, which hold a breathtaking view of the site. At this point we had just a half-hour left until our return boat arrived, so on the way out we stopped by the final part of the site: the Pequeña Acrópolis. Once back at the car, we set off on trek back to Palenque. Due to the cumbersome nature of the roads, the 80 miles that separate these two locations take about three hours to complete.
Structure 33 at Yaxchilan.

As a team we have determined that here in Mexico, there are no plans. You can only have vague goals that need to be accomplished someway, somehow. There are always going to be bumps in the road (sometimes quite literally), and you must learn to roll with the punches and stay focused on that objective. We did not expect many of the challenges we faced along our voyage, but it was all worth it in the end when we encountered the shear beauty and grandeur of Bonampak and Yaxchilan.