Saturday, August 2, 2014

Season's End

As rains returned in the early weeks of July, season one of the Palenque Pool Project came to a close. Excavation transitioned into restoration and consolidation, and I had the unhappy experience of seeing team members off. First to leave were Claire, Emily and Elijah, from whom I learned, respectively, how to decode an unnecessarily complicated total station, the advantages of a system of organization that borders on the pathological, and that not everyone born after 1990 has poor musical taste.

Andres, touching-up a cal application on the monumental staircase

Eventually, the two Kirks and I were all who remained, and our focus turned to the monumental staircase. One of the more edifying results of these final weeks was learning how to mix, make, and apply Quicklime (mixing cal is one heck of a shoulder exercise, let me tell you), as well as secure and strengthen our feature against the inevitable runoff of a tropical rainforest. We also watched a handful of Maya workmen take down a towering tree in fifteen minutes, using no more than machetes and rope.

Kirk Straight mixing cal with Alfonso, the project stone mason

In retrospect, this was the first time I'd been on board from the outset of a new excavation, and out of all the invaluable lessons learned (including the fun stuff, like building screens from scratch and having first pick of sleeping quarters, to the not so fun stuff, like the ever mercurial permit process), undeniably the most important, from a personal point-of-view, was adaptation. For an anthropologist, this might seem like a given. After all, Darwin's elegant but simple theory is what continues to give a great deal of our discipline meaning. But for the non-biological, intra-generational realm, otherwise known as the day-to-day, it's equally fundamental. Moving from Middle Eastern to Mesoamerican archaeology requires a willingness to adapt, to let go of previous held notions or ideas of how things work or should work, and, along with the physical landscape, to change one's mental geography. I'm fortunate to have experienced this now rather than later. And if I'm certain about anything, it's that anthropology, like no other discipline, breaks down barriers, jolts the proverbial Weltanschauung, and bestows a profound degree of open-mindedness in our professional and personal lives.

Eduardo and Andres, sectioning the felled tree

From an archaeological perspective, the apt lesson, stated by Kirk French, was that the first and most important goal of excavation is not learning what something means, but how it works. All that ideational jazz will follow. Fortunately, outlining basic mechanics is exactly what these past months accomplished. Having discovered a number of drains that connected the pool to the aqueduct, we can now begin to understand its function, both independently of, as well as in relation to, other hydrological features in the Picota Group. And because of the alignment and interconnection of those drains, we can also say, without hesitation, that the pool's construction was contemporaneous to that of the aqueduct's, and was also likely to have occurred early in the site's developmental sequence.

Cal getting carried by tumpline to the site

Overall, the project was a success, having much to offer to an archaeologist in transition, like myself, and more broadly (and importantly), to our understanding of Palenque.

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