December 03, 2007

Rare Maya "Death Vase"...sort of

There's an article on today's National Geographic News website about a marble vase that was excavated where I work in Honduras in 2005. In 2006 I excavated the structure where it was found. It's an "interesting" article:

An extremely rare and intricately carved "death vase" has been discovered in the 1,400-year-old grave of a member of the Maya elite, scientists say.
The vase is the first of its kind to be found in modern times, and its contents are opening a window onto ancient rituals of ancestor worship that included food offerings, chocolate enemas, and hallucinations induced by vomiting, experts say.
Archaeologists discovered the vase along with parts of a human skeleton while excavating a small "palace" in northwestern Honduras in 2005. (The dig was funded by the National Geographic Society, which owns National Geographic News.)
Soil samples taken from in and around the vessel were found to contain pollen from corn, cacao, and false ipecac, a plant that causes severe nausea when eaten.
These traces suggest the vase may have been used in ancient rites the Maya practiced to produce trancelike states through intense physical purging, said Christian Wells, an anthropologist at the University of South Florida who lead the excavation.
"The way to have contact, to communicate, with ancestors is to have visions," Wells said of the Maya rituals.
"And you have a vision either by cutting yourself and bloodletting—which there's really no evidence for in this case—or by having some very powerful chocolate enema, or by drinking your brains out and throwing up.
"We think this beverage [in the vase] may have contained ipecac, which would have made the person who's drinking it throw up—a lot. Then, by throwing up a lot, they could've had visions that would have allowed them to talk with the ancestors."

Read the full story here.

Posted by Will at 12:20 PM

January 28, 2007

Pirates and indians, oh my

This is probably the fourth or fifth post I’ve written to let the few people that read this blog know I’m alive (I recently found out a that couple of my grad school colleagues here at USF have discovered my embarrassing little nerd secret…hi Diana and Jamie). I just haven’t had anything worth while to post about. The semester is steaming through at full speed, although I’m not always on the train. This weekend was completely useless as far as work goes. Ever look at your calendar, know you have things that you have to do, yet you don’t do them in your spare time just to get them out of the way? That was me this entire weekend: I got one chapter of Osteology read and the first section of a GIS lab due in a couple of weeks. In the grand scheme of things, that would be like setting out to paint the house and getting a set of shutters done. But hey, I like my shutters perfect.

The Gasparilla pirate festival was this weekend in downtown Tampa. I didn’t go because although I am fond of pirates (and of females in revealing pirate costumes) I didn’t want to deal with the parking, the drunk frat boys, and the even drunker middle-aged men who think drinking Miller Lite from a plastic bottle and donning plastic Marti Gras beads takes years off (just browse the Gasparilla photo album at the St. Pete Times website to see examples of all of the above).

I also spent the bulk of Saturday evening digitizing and organizing my Radiohead discography, perhaps the nerdiest activity I’ve done in months beside write this blog. Nearly 13 hours of music, 200 song files, and over a gig later I discovered that I’m more obsessed with Radiohead than with what brought me to Tampa in the first place (interestingly, someone has actually written a legit doctoral dissertation about Radiohead at the UT-Austin).

I also finally saw Apocalypto this weekend, Mel Gibson’s less than flattering treatment of the ancient Maya civilization. I’m not going to write a review because it’s been analyzed to death elsewhere on archaeology/anthropology blogs, but I will say that I am on the fence about it. On the one hand, I agree with those who say that there are some important inaccuracies that need to be addressed, but I wouldn’t go so far to say that it is an overtly racist portrayal. Traci Arden (U. of Miami) in Archaeology magazine mentions the colonial history that has wreaked havoc on indigenous Maya since the 16th century all the way up to modern times. Andrea Stone of U. of Wisconsin, also writing in Archaeology magazine, addresses the smallest details that do not match with the archaeological record. For example “She [Jaguar Paw’s wife] has loose hair (Maya women put their hair up in neat buns and tresses), an absurdly short, pubic-length tattered skirt (they wore mid-calf skirts and dresses of cotton cloth), stacks of tiny beads conveniently covering her breasts (never seen that before), and tight, woven armbands. Some Maya scholars have criticized Apocalypto by citing such minutia because we don’t have evidence for it. While much liberty was taken with respect to certain aspects of the film, complaining about something as obscure as hair length borders on denying the ancient Maya of variability within their own culture (in other words, I’m sure there was a Maya woman somewhere at sometime who wore her hair long on a regular basis). Overall, it is a good film, beautifully filmed and costumed, with quite a bit of inaccuracies that have been addressed elsewhere. Is it dangerous in the sense of focusing too much on Maya brutality and blood-thirst and emphasizing the “saving” effect of Christian Missionaries? Perhaps. But history is not owned by anyone and Gibson’s is but one interpretation; academic archaeologists do not have a monopoly on what happened in a long-disappeared culture.

Posted by Will at 12:04 PM

September 18, 2006

"Maya culture 'ahead of its time'"

From BBC News:

Elaborate ritual objects and carved masks have been uncovered in the ancient ruins of a city in Guatemala.
Exploration of the 2,000-year-old site has caused archaeologists to question the established chronology of the enigmatic Maya civilisation.

Full story here.

Posted by Will at 09:15 PM

September 06, 2006

SAA Paper

I will be presenting a paper at the 72nd meeting of the Society for American Archaeology in Austin, Texas at the end of April. The title is "The Mesoamerican 3-Dimensional Database." It is a project that I am working on with two PhD students at USF and will hopefully get off the ground in the next few months. Meanwhile, here is my abstract:

Recent advancements in 3-dimensional laser scanning, High Definition Documentation Survey, and digitization have facilitated the application of these geospatial technologies to the preservation of archaeological data. Due to the nature of ancient carved artifacts and the limitations of traditional methods, previous attempts to record and illustrate indistinct or obscure details have proven inadequate as a visualization tool. The Mesoamerican 3-Dimensional Database is an expandable electronic archive designed for researchers who wish to incorporate high-definition, 3-dimensional laser scans into their interpretations of carved stone, wood, shell, or stucco sculptures.

Posted by Will at 07:29 PM

May 16, 2006

Written on the Walls

A great piece in the New York Times today, including some cool pictures and multimedia extras.

On Ancient Walls, a New Maya Epoch
On the sacred walls and inside the dark passageways of ancient ruins in Guatemala, archaeologists are making discoveries that open expanded vistas of the vibrant Maya civilization in its formative period, a time reaching back more than 1,000 years before its celebrated Classic epoch.
The intriguing finds, including art masterpieces and the earliest known Maya writing, are overturning old ideas of the Preclassic period. It was not a kind of dark age, as once thought, of a culture that emerged and bloomed in Classic times, at places like the spectacular royal ruin at Palenque beginning about A.D. 250 and extending to its mysterious collapse around 900.

Full NYT story here.

Posted by Will at 05:46 PM

March 21, 2006

Cenotes in the news

One of my favorite topics in Maya archaeology is making some news: the large limestone sinkholes that had ritual as well as practical use for the ancient Maya. If I wasn't so obsessed with agriculture and subsistence I would probably be doing something with cenotes.

Mayan underworld proves researchers' dream
TULUM, Mexico (Reuters) - The ancient Maya once believed that Mexico's jungle sinkholes containing crystalline waters were the gateway to the underworld and the lair of a surly rain god who had to be appeased with human sacrifices.
Now, the "cenotes," deep sinkholes in limestone that have pools at the bottom, are yielding scientific discoveries including possible life-saving cancer treatments.

Posted by Will at 11:22 AM

February 15, 2006

Far out Maya archaeology

NASA, University Scientists Uncover Lost Maya Ruins -- From Space
Spotting ancient Maya ruins -- a challenge even on the ground -- has been virtually impossible from the sky, where the dense Central American rainforest canopy hides all but a few majestic relics of this mysterious civilization. Now, NASA archaeologist Dr. Tom Sever and scientist Daniel Irwin of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., and archaeologist Dr. William Saturno of the University of New Hampshire in Durham are using advanced, space-based imaging technology to uncover the ruins. High-resolution satellite imaging, which detects variations in the color of plant life around the ruins, can pinpoint sites of Maya settlements from space. The research, primarily conducted at the National Space Science and Technology Center in Huntsville and the University of New Hampshire, is made possible by a partnership between NASA and the Guatemalan Institute of Anthropology and History.

See more photos here.

Posted by Will at 08:43 PM

February 08, 2006

Praise (bordering on obsession) for The Ancient Maya, Sixth Edition

The other day I purchased the sixth edition of The Ancient Maya, a book that can only be described as “The Bible” of the field. The fifth edition came out 12 years ago, which is an eternity in the world of Mesoamerican scholarship. Comprehensive books such as this one can be compared to computers. When you buy it you think you have the latest and greatest only to learn that a few weeks later it’s obsolete. With computers that’s a bad thing. With books, it’s a mixed blessing: on the one hand you can almost see your $25 investment depreciating cent by cent over the years as new and exciting evidence comes to light and old theories are discarded in favor of more informed ones.

The Ancient Maya was first published in 1946, having been written by the great Sylvanus G. Morley. His goal was to bring together the mountains of information and ideas about the Maya that were scattered throughout the discipline. His motivation was something pure and real; something that you can still find in the pages of the latest edition 60 years later. It turned out to be the first comprehensive book on the ancient Maya and is still one of the few good ones out there today.

I first bought the 1994 edition, written by Robert Sharer of U Penn, a few weeks before I was to travel to Belize for my first extensive archaeological experience with a UNC-Wilmington field school. It came recommended by my mentor at the time as the book on all things Maya. Indeed, when I received it in the mail (I got that one from too) and began leafing through it I found that this was going to be a well-traveled book. Despite being almost 1,000 pages and a little over three pounds I hauled it to Belize with me because I knew I would use it. I ended up referring to it quite a bit. From information about the roots of Maya civilization, to their writing and monumental architecture, it soon showed the battle wounds that come along with spending a month in the humid and dirty conditions of a one-month field school. The fact that a handful of my friends wanted to borrow it from time to time didn’t help the book’s appearance. It eventually became a staple in my growing library, every once in a while coming off the shelf to remind me of when agriculture arrived in Mesoamerica or what a certain inscription tells us about Maya religion.

Late last year I received a nice, glossy postcard in the mail from Stanford University Press letting me know that the sixth edition was on its way. SUP was preaching to the choir because I would have found out eventually and didn’t need to be asked to buy it! The first half of the new edition is almost completely revised due to the extraordinary amount of research that Mesoamerica has produced in the 12 intervening years. The preface mentions the effect many of these discoveries had on the text. It was a huge undertaking as suggested by the fact that Sharer’s wife, Loa P. Traxler, is listed as a co-author. Either Sharer got lazy or simply couldn’t keep up with all the working going on. I prefer to believe it was because of the latter. The Ancient Maya was and still is the book to have if you’re a Mesoamerican archaeologist. I have yet to see such a comprehensive and well-written treatment of the Maya or any ancient civilization for that matter. For $25, you can’t go wrong.

Posted by Will at 10:00 PM

January 25, 2006

Two sides of the same coin

At (an excellent site by the way), blogger gringoperdido has an enlightening post about the disparate natures of the American and Latin American education systems. Besides pointing out the differences in the logistics of degree-seeking, he speaks to the dynamics of actually carrying out archaeology (and interpretation) in the Maya world when two different educational structures (and languages) collide in the same region: one emphasizing method over theory (Latin America) and the other theory over method (US):

This has resulted in 2 separate dialogues about the nature of the ancient Maya. The gringos pay little attention to Guatemalan archaeologists and the Guatemalans are unable to access many of the interpretations and a lot of the recent theoretical schools. In addition, there is the actual language barrier. As most of the American projects in the Maya world are in Belize (an English-speaking country), there are many gringos who do not speak fluent Spanish and are thus unable and/or unwilling to read the reports of the Spanish-speaking projects. Most of the Guatemalans do not speak English and the few English-language books and articles that make it here are in out-of-the-way libraries, they do not use them much.

Posted by Will at 12:58 AM

January 22, 2006

Some things archaeology can't tell us...

UPDATE: It was brought to my attention that the disk in the cartoon is the Aztec calendar, not the Maya calendar. My sincere apologies if any confusion resulted in the posting of this cartoon:)

For more information (in true archaeology dork fashion): and

Thanks to my Dad for the cartoon:


Posted by Will at 09:50 PM

U. of New Hampshire's Indiana Jones

Here's a pop piece to entertain you:

It took Bill Saturno nearly a year to tell his wife and kids about his discovery of a lifetime.
That’s because the University of New Hampshire assistant professor of anthropology had nearly killed himself when he trekked into the Guatemalan jungle in March 2001 in search of artifacts rumored to have been uncovered by looters.
"I didn’t want to tell her what an idiot I had been - how I had put her and our family at risk," Saturno said with a guilty chuckle during a recent telephone interview from Santa Fe, N.M., where he is on sabbatical writing a book about the discovery of a mural that has set the Maya anthropological clock back some 500 years.
"We didn’t tell anybody until March of 2002 - that’s when the April National Geographic was released with the first article about the site," said Saturno, 36, a research associate at Harvard’s Peabody Museum, who set out with a small party funded by National Geographic on what was supposed to be an afternoon search for the as-yet undiscovered site of San Bartolo, north of Tikal (one of the great ancient Maya cities of Guatemala).
The group leaders heard rumors that looters had found stele (elaborately engraved stone slabs) and wanted to try and secure the site before it was pilfered.

Full story here.

Posted by Will at 01:16 PM

January 05, 2006

"Earliest known Mayan writing found in Guatemala"


ANTIGUA, Guatemala (Reuters) - Archeologists excavating a pyramid complex in the Guatemalan jungle have uncovered the earliest example of Mayan writing ever found, 10 bold hieroglyphs painted on plaster and stone.
The 2,300-year-old glyphs were excavated last April in San Bartolo and suggest the ancient Mayas developed an advanced writing system centuries earlier than previously believed, according to an article published on Thursday in the journal Science.
The glyphs date from between 200 BC and 300 BC and come from the same site in the Peten jungle of northern Guatemala where archeologist William Saturno found the oldest murals in the Mayan world in 2001. Radiocarbon tests prove the writing is 100 years older than the murals depicting the Mayan creation myth.
(Photo from the National Geographic News story)

Posted by Will at 09:38 PM

December 10, 2005

Naachtun Photos

The University of Calgary has a photo gallery up of the recent rediscovery in Guatemala:

A University of Calgary archaeologist and her international team of researchers have discovered the earliest known portrait of a woman that the Maya carved into stone, demonstrating that women held positions of authority very early in Maya history – either as queens or patron deities.

Posted by Will at 09:17 AM

September 28, 2005

"Site Q" discovered in Guatemala

From Reuters UK:

GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - A Mayan city whose fabulous art has beguiled collectors for decades but whose true location was until now a mystery has been pinpointed in the jungles of northern Guatemala, scientists said on Tuesday.
'Site Q' has been a Holy Grail of archaeology ever since an exquisite set of Mayan artworks from the period A.D. 600 to 900 showed up in U.S. and European museums and galleries in the 1970s.
Now researchers have found a sculpture at ruins long known as La Corona in Guatemala that matches the mysterious gallery pieces, said Salvador Lopez, Guatemala's head of historical monuments.

Statement from Yale U is here.


Posted by Will at 09:00 AM

August 05, 2005

Guatemala's Popularity on the Rise

There's a great story in the LA Times (via Newsday) about the reemergence of Guatemala after decades of violence and civil war. Along with its booming tourism industry, Guatemala has Francis Ford Coppola's new resort on Lake Petén Itzá. I also learned from the story that CBS is planning to film the next season of "Survivor" in the country. It's easy to see why Guatemala is experiencing an incredible growth in tourism: it's simply one of the most beautiful countries in the world. I've only been to four countries other than the United States but when I was in Guatemala for a few days last summer I was awestruck by the beauty of the culture and its people. It seemed so full of life and energy despite its history of violence and bloodshed; a stark contrast from attitudes in the United States. While part of me felt sympathy for the poverty that plagues Guatemala I had infinite respect for the character of the people. I was only there for four days but I got a strong sense of the pride and quiet dignity they possessed. Most of them knew violence all too well but they were somehow above that, at least on the surface.

Posted by Will at 12:23 PM

August 02, 2005

Ancient Maya origins reconsidered

From the LA Times (via

New theory on genesis of Mesoamerican culture
Analysis of 3,000-year-old pottery shards from the ancient Olmec capital of San Lorenzo contradicts the notion among some researchers that the Olmec civilization was the "mother culture" that laid the foundation for the Inca, Maya and other civilizations of Central and South America.
Impressed by these sculptures in the 1940s, artist Miguel Covarrubias argued that the Olmec must have been the progenitors of the other cultures in the area. In one form or another, this idea has been roiling the often contentious world of Mesoamerican archaeology for at least 50 years.

Posted by Will at 04:21 PM

July 08, 2005

Underwater Archaeology in Belize

Channel 5 in Belize has a story about the Archaeology Symposium going on there and the discovery last year of a wooden paddle in a peat bog in the Toledo District of the country. Makes me want to go back so bad:(

Dr. Heather McKillop, an archaeologist based at Louisiana State University, and a team of graduate students made the find in the Punta Ycacos Lagoon in 2004 while searching underwater for evidence of how the ancient Maya produced and distributed bulk products to its cities inland. One such everyday item was salt.
Intensive tests on the paddle and posts have since determined the artefacts date back to the late Classic Maya, AD 680-880. But more significantly, the discoveries have led experts to theorize that the more than forty sites in Punta Ycacos are the remains of the infrastructure of a large factory, with a production line of standardized pots, hundreds of workers, and a number of buildings.
Archaeologists are now desperately searching for the canoe that was used to paddle up the various rivers to deliver the precious salt. According to Director of the Institute of Archaeology, Jaime Awe, the unique find in Meso-America is just one of the more than thirty presentations made in the third annual Belize Archaeology Symposium.

(Thanks to ArchaeoBlog)

Posted by Will at 11:34 PM

June 28, 2005

Maya Beekeeping

I never cease to amaze myself at the things I find interesting: National Geographic reports on the threat posed by Africanized honeybees (introduced by Europeans) to the Maya beekeeping tradition that has been around for thousands of years. Apparently the Africanized bees don't play well with the stingless meliponine, which are native to the Yucatán. You would think the colonists would be satisfied decimating the native human population, but they just had to go for the bees as well...

Posted by Will at 10:34 PM

June 21, 2005

Maya Stuff has an excellent piece about the dangers archaeology. The story focuses on Mayanist David Friedel in Guatemala. While a great read, it does little to dispel the myth that archaeology is not always about digging up lost tombs and dodging looters' bullets. It does, however, give a pretty good rundown of where archaeology is heading as a profession and what needs to be done to protect our past. (thanks to Anthony of ArchaeoBlog)

Also, the new issue of Archaeology magazine came in the mail today with an article I can't wait to sink my teeth into. It's about investigating ancient cenotes, or sinkholes, with the help of Spanish colonial accounts written at the time of contact:

Few archaeologists are trained for the dangerous diving required to search these deep, dark, underwater caverns, and thousands of sites across the peninsula still await discovery and exploration. Now, researchers at the Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán in Merida are trying to narrow their search for cenotes of enormous ritual importance to the Maya by using the detailed colonial accounts of human sacrifice.

There are many things about archaeology that excite me but cenotes have always been toward the top of the list. Perhaps the most well-known cenote is at Chichen Itza, the "Cenote of Sacrifice" (pictured).


Dredging has turned up everything from jade and gold jewelry to human bones. All thoughout and even after Chichen Itza's occupation, Maya pilgrims came from all over to toss sacrifices into the void. As you might of guessed, the cenote was believed to be a gateway into the underworld and its inhabitants.

Ref: Sharer, Robert J. The Ancient Maya, 5th ed. 1994. Stanford University Press: Stanford.

Posted by Will at 07:11 PM