25 June 2011
I’m writing from Palenque in Chiapas, Mexico, where I’m currently working on excavations of the Maya site of Chinikihá. Palenque is home to the eponymous archaeological site, and so the town is popular with tourists from Europe and North America. There are many cafés in town that stay open quite late and, after a day of hard work in the sun, it’s great to grab a paleta de fresa y crema (strawberry and cream ice cream) at La Michoacana (a Mexican chain) or a pan dulce at one of the many local bakeries.
Our small team begins each weekday around 5:00 am. Yes, 5:00 am! I’m not a consistent coffee drinker, but for this, I can make an exception. We load our van with equipment and drive to the site, located an hour away from Palenque in the ejido of Reforma Agraria, where signs are posted marking the village as Zapatista territory. It’s a long drive, but the sun rising over the mountains, the Shakira and Usher tracks coming from our iPods that we’ve hooked up to the van’s tape player, and the occasional turkey that decides to cross the road directly in front of the van always keep us entertained.
The goal of our project is to explore how the Maya used the spaces — the patios, the alleyways — around their architecture. We’re able to understand these “activity areas” through interpretation of the artifacts we excavate (ceramics, obsidian, limestone, shell, etc.) and their proveniences — how they are associated with the soil and with each other. We first dug 120 test pits, simply using a shovel to dig approximately an arm’s length deep. These test pits were little “windows” into the stratigraphy at different locations around the site. Based on these pits, we decided where to open larger excavations, usually 2x2 or 1x2 meter spaces.
What do we do as we excavate? We use trowels and brushes to clear soil, trying to define the edges of artifacts — in some cases removing them from the soil to be bagged with artifacts from the same locus and in other cases leaving them in-situ in order to continue defining them. We also make drawings once we’ve finished excavating loci. These drawings, when studied together, allow us to see how different loci overlap and relate to one another. I’m managing three of these larger “windows,” and one has generated incredibly dense concentrations of pottery. We think that this area may have been used as a ceramic dump for pots that the residents did not need any longer.
Our main team is very Berkeley-oriented, with myself, a current Ph.D. student, along with a recent Ph.D., a college professor with a Berkeley Ph.D. and two recent undergrad alumni. But we could not be so successful without the local workers who help us excavate and wash pottery. We’re constantly telling jokes and sharing music, which helps the long days to pass more quickly. We usually work from 7.30 am to 5:00 pm and take an hour break around 12.30 for lunch. The wife of one of our workers cooks us lunch and dinner during the week. As our project director said, a well-fed team is a happy team, and indeed, we’ve all joked that we’re more likely to gain calories than burn them this field season. We’ve had tamales con mole de pollo (chicken in a mole sauce cooked in banana leaf), empanadas con carne molida (small pastries with ground beef inside), along with a variety of homemade aguas (water-based fruit juices) and popsicles with jamaicaand guanábana usually featured.
While my dissertation research is not related directly to Chinikihá, helping with excavations at the site is making me think carefully about issues like deposition, discard and one of the most important for any archaeological investigation: sampling methodology. I will travel to Mexico City in one week to continue work on my own project, involving microanalysis of gold and copper alloys (in the forms of animal figurines, bells, rings and other objects) recovered from the Cenote Sagrado (Sacred Cenote) at the site of Chichén Itzá in the Yucatán. My goal is to learn about the metals’ chemical composition and microstructure, trying to identify patterns in order to determine whether there are certain technological traditions characteristic of different communities of metallurgists within Mesoamerica evident in the assemblage. In fact, there is no evidence of on-site metallurgy at Chichén, and so I presume that all of the metals were imported, perhaps through pilgrimages of people from different regions of Mesoamerica to the Cenote. My work in Mexico City in July will involve discussions with professors at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México who are providing me with access to microanalytical equipment for the study of objects in Mexican museums. Also, I will submit my proposal for analysis to the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (a government institution that manages archaeological projects in Mexico) and read background literature at the Archivo Técnico on use of cenotes in the Yucatán and pilgrimages.
I’m looking forward to the City — a definite change in landscape from dense forests and dirt paths to crowded plazas and concrete roads — but I hope that I’ll be able to return to this area of Chiapas soon. Now, off to watch Chicharito score more goals as Mexico plays the U.S. in the final of the Copa del Oro!