Fall 2003
Lost empires, forgotten kings
Unforgettable professors
Q & A with Eric Hyman
Taking death out of the equation
Alma Matters
Mem´ries Sweet
Riff Ram
Class Notes
Back Cover
Back Issues

TCU Magazine

Lost empires, Forgotten kings

TCU students with the Maya Research Program are helping unearth ancient Maya civilization -- one trowel full of dirt at a time.

By Nancy Bartosek

Incense probably perfumed the air as the Mayan king gathered his elite one somber day in 500 A.D. As they stood around the posthole used to hoist their banner high over the temple, a priest bent down and carefully interred two clay vessels. Laden with treasures of the kingdom, the pots crowned the offering that filled the 10-foot, stone-lined shaft in layers of dirt and jade. The people were on the cusp of war; these 1,500 pieces of precious jewelry, dedicated to their god, was insurance against loss.

The city of about 20,000 had become a hub of prosperity at the junction of two major rivers in what is now western Belize. Because of its wealth, war with the neighbors was probably inevitable. But this was a war they could not afford to lose. For 1,000 years this kingdom had thrived on an escarpment overlooking the waterways that connected the coastal zone with the rich agricultural interior. The offering they made that fateful day indicates they had no intention on letting others take control.

No one knows what happened, but it appears that the war was indeed lost and the royal family, which had been in power 400 years, was forced out.

In another 300 years the civilization collapsed, possibly due to climate changes that destroyed the agricultural base, and the once heavily-settled region emptied as people moved to the coast.


It was the end of the final day of the 1995 excavation season for archeologists with the Maya Research Program (MRP), and most of the group had returned to camp to pack. Suddenly one of them stumbled on a plaster surface hidden under a stair step.

"We had no idea what we had found," recalls TCU anthropology Professor Thomas Guderjan, founder and president of the MRP. "We actually thought, 'Crud, we're going to have to come back tomorrow to take notes before we leave.' "

But curiosity got the best of them. They lifted the plaster and stared, dumfounded. There sat two intact pots. One contained 365 pieces of jade. The other housed a rare, tubular slab of jade and another 30 pieces of jewelry.

Eight years later, Guderjan's eyes shine at the memory. "The feeling?" he said, shaking his head. "I can't describe the feeling."

The group had just unearthed the third largest jade cache ever discovered in Mayan ruins. The archeologists stayed two more weeks to finish the excavation.

And they're still unearthing the city's secrets today.

If Belize on Central America's east coast seems off the beaten path, then Blue Creek in the northwest corner of the country even further defines remote. The village rests quietly at the end of a 40-mile stretch of sparsely inhabited gravel road, parts of which are barely passable in the rainy season. Settled by German-speaking Mennonites in the 1950s, the tidy farming community is the summer home of the nonprofit Maya Research Program, which Guderjan started in 1992 after discovering the ancient city tucked among the farms there.

Today, the Blue Creek site is the flagship of the MRP, which has expanded to include several other archeological and anthropological projects. What was once a tent camp has become a full-fledged research facility that can house and feed up to 60 people as they excavate sites in the area.

Modeled after Earthwatch, which furthers scientific endeavors through volunteers in 150 countries, MRP uses students and others to help fund the program, as well as provide the copious man-hours demanded of an excavation season. The volunteers get unexcelled experience in the field; the program gets its research goals accomplished.

But participating in an MRP dig is not for the faint-hearted. Nor is it a vacation. The volunteers spend a minimum of two weeks with the dirt, the sweat, the bugs and the occasional poisonous snake. They sleep in small metal caba–as and rise with the sun. After a quick meal they head to the jungle, or maybe a barren hilltop in the hot Belizean sun, to scrape out trowels full of dirt as they meticulously unearth ancient structures. This truly is working in the trenches.

Yet the volunteers come back year after year. Jared Fuller, a senior anthropology and RTVF double major from Aledo, found the experience so rewarding professionally and culturally -- "last year they were teaching us Mayan words and songs," he said, pointing to two local men on the top of a mound struggling with a tree root -- that he dedicated a second summer vacation to MRP this year.

Fuller hopes to combine his majors into a career producing documentaries about projects like Blue Creek.

"There's this cliche about what this work is like," he said as he paused between shovels of dirt. "But it's a lot different than you think. You can talk about these things all you want in a class, but you will never really get the feel of it."

"Nope," added Kirsten Davis, an ad/PR and anthropology double major from Kingwood, Mass. "It gives you a really different view of what anthropology is all about. You can't get driving-on-a-muddy-dirt-road-in-the-back-of-a-truck in a book. It's really made me realize what they go through to get this knowledge."

Davis speaks from experience. The day before, the group took a trip to Lamanai (La' ma nye), a site about 40 miles away that the Belize government is restoring. The students bumped there over a battered road in the back of a small pickup. In the pouring rain.

"Archeology and anthropology in general have completely changed my direction, my perception of what I want to be," she said, noting that she's applying now for graduate school. "I want to do sociological and culture studies and make comparisons of historical and contemporary anthropology."

Davis spent six weeks in the field this summer. After a month-long stint digging, she lived among the ancestors of the ancient Maya in Yaxunah (Ya' shu na), a traditional Mayan community in the Mexican state of Yucatan. This ethnographic field school on the lives of contemporary Maya, headed by TCU anthropology Professor Grace Bascope, is one of MRP's new programs.

Until now, MRP field opportunities were limited to Blue Creek. But this summer the TCU students started their trip at Ichpaatun (Ish' pa tune), an ancient walled city on the coast near Chetumal in Mexico, where they surveyed the site and began preliminary excavations of several buildings.

Traveling next to Blue Creek, they learned about that site, as well as others nearby. Their last week found them in Honduras and Guatemala, where they visited Tikal and many other Mayan locations.

Altogether they visited 22 sites -- one just a small cave where archeologists were excavating charcoal flecks. At each stop they learned how that community fit into the bigger story.

"We saw everything from major restorations to very small sites known only to archeologists," Guderjan said. "And since they [the students and volunteers] had now participated in this work, they understood what really goes into it."

Stitched together, the month-long effort is designed to provide a rich educational experience. Students earn six course credits.

"Since we do work with volunteers and students, it's crucial for us to provide them with good resources, a good environment and good food," Guderjan said. "If you look at these types of programs elsewhere, the students are often going through a meat market and don't get much out of it. They're just labor."

The program also serves as a collaboration that trains professional and amateur archeologists. Blue Creek is a field project for more than a dozen archeological specialists around the country, and they drop in during the season to do their work. Once there, they teach as well as conduct research.

There's a soil analyst from Georgetown University, a professor from the University of Kansas who studies microscopic plant remains called phytoliths in burial caches, a Boston University pottery analyst, a stone tool expert from Texas A&M, a doctoral candidate from Illinois University who studies ancient architecture, even an archeological illustrator from the University of Sussex in England.

"The students couldn't get this sort of expertise at one university," Guderjan said. "Here they have 12 specialists coming in to talk to them about their field. It's a very intensive experience."

Bringing that knowledge to life while the students sit in the dirt is a challenge. But one the professors excel at, said Ramy Gorkowski '03, an Ad/PR major from Wyoming. She sees the professors in a different light now -- not just as teachers, but as friends.

"They are this vast resource of knowledge," she said, her voice filled with enthusiasm. "We get a lecture every other night and it's fun. They're always questioning one another, always posing new ideas and possibilities based on what they find each day."

With journals to keep and reading to be done, lectures to attend and of course daily excavations to conduct, the work can be exhausting, but no one complains. The mood is upbeat, even as the workers fill water jugs and don hats to head out for a long day of hard labor.

A searing sun blazes relentlessly on the backs of the team at the Rosita site, a grass-covered hill where one lone tree stands sentinel on a large mound. It's the loftiest spot around, with an inspiring view of the rolling topography. Knocking on Heaven's Door by the rock group Guns N' Roses blares from a portable CD player, and several of the students are singing along.

"What's important in archeology is a good CD," Fuller said, wiping the sweat from his face with his shirt.

"Otherwise you're just sittin' in the dirt," chimed in Meghan Dennis, a finance and anthropology senior from Florida.

They both laugh. They are sitting in the dirt. Shoveling the dirt. Sifting the dirt through large framed screens to ensure no small artifact is missed.

And they insist that they're having fun. It's hard to dispute when you hear the back-and-forth banter.

It's hot on this hill, though. Very hot. A blue plastic tarp fashioned into a makeshift lean-to shades the lunch cooler. Occasionally the students rest. But mostly they dig.

In the third week of excavation, the shape of the building is discernible. Much of the front wall has been exposed. The field director carefully documents the 40-meter wall on paper, drawing each stone and noting dimensions. This large structure was likely a public building in an outlying area. Maybe a government office. Other mounds within a rock's throw indicate that it was part of a group of buildings, all facing a large courtyard.

Excavating a building follows a distinct pattern. First dig a trench through the median of the structure to locate the front and back walls and any interior rooms. If anything of value is buried in the building, it likely will be in the center or at the center front wall.

Then drop a trench along the outside of the front wall to determine the building's length. This should also reveal any older structures beneath. Once you've measured and mapped the building and removed all of the artifacts, refill the trenches.

What? Fill them back in?

"It maintains the integrity of the structure," Guderjan said. "These buildings are not going to be restored, so we don't want to leave them open to the elements. Or the looters."

Only sites with major tourist potential are restored. The work is costly and so must have economic value. Most digs are like this site -- mundane and often tedious, then reburied.

Twelve miles to the west, another field director wields a large machete as the researchers leave the road and head into the dense jungle. He whacks back low branches and taps tentatively on every fallen tree before clambering over it. Just yesterday one of the team nearly stepped on a large, highly poisonous fer-de-lance snake coiled in a path. The machete is for just such occasions.

The jungle is sultry and dank. Sweat drips off eyebrows and drenches the thin cotton clothing needed for such a climate. Light crawls through the thick canopy in splinters and it takes a few moments for your eyes to adjust to the dimness. The thick air presses on your chest and makes simple tasks like walking in the tangled foliage even more difficult.

As the alien screech of a howler monkey pierces the sodden atmosphere, you realize the earthiness of the place surely played a part in the worship of the land. The humidity envelops you, pressing you down into the musty soil and vegetation, making you feel one with the earth.

But somehow, being immersed in the elements of the ages connects you to the past.

At this site, called Ixnoha (Ish' noh ha), the work involves three houses, none much bigger than a storage shed by today's standards. The small housing group sits near a medium-sized city center, which was surveyed and mapped last season. But other than one large temple that was looted over the winter, most of this site will keep its secrets.

Being here, where history is ancient, has changed Katie Allerman forever.

"My passion is the Mayans now," said the social work and anthropology senior. "This research is much broader than I thought. We have an idea of what we are going to find even before we start digging. People tend to think Indiana Jones and adventure, but it's all very scientific and meticulous. And when it all comes together, it all fits."

Pointing at the mounds all around her, Allerman said she was surprised to discover the scope of the civilization. Each mound was once a building.

"This was a fully developed society with everything you'd find in a modern society," she said. "The political, social and economic structures become apparent when you walk through the cities. When you study in a classroom, you're left with the impression that the rulers ran everything. But it wasn't that way at all. Even the lower classes had so much complexity.

"You know, you work your butt off, but it is so rewarding. It's so hot and there are so many bugs, but you really want to do it anyway."

No one knows what the Maya called the city at Blue Creek. No one knows the name of their first king, who was installed around 100 A.D. But much has been determined in the 12 years since Guderjan and his MRP associates began excavating the site.

Settled around 900 B.C., the community evolved into a major trade route. The residents grew corn and beans and squash, which they bartered for jade and obsidian and other goods from cities like Tikal and Copan.

In 100 A.D., the city was large enough to support a king, who installed himself in a bloodletting ceremony involving more than 300 of the male population. The dedicatory cache found by the MRP included 302 obsidian blades used in such a ceremony. What seems barbaric now was sacred, a way to honor and connect, through their blood, with their ancestors. Likely it was also a symbol of allegiance to this new ruler by the leading citizens of the community.

At its zenith, the city included two temples that rose 50 feet, two large plazas, a palace and a ball court, an indication of the city's status as a ceremonial center for a large population.

In 500 A.D., there was that seminal event marked by the jade cache. And by 800 or 900 B.C., the area was abandoned.

Excavations, which began with the city center in 1993, have moved into the outlying areas like Ixnoha, where researchers study the city's support base. They're looking at neighboring communities and what would have been suburbs to the main city.

"The real value in studying Blue Creek is linking it into the big picture about the Maya," Guderjan said. "This was a small community that grew because of its ability to trade what it produced. It was at a major strategic location and became very wealthy. You can't really begin to understand the greater Maya civilization without looking at the economics, and Blue Creek is a particularly good example of that."

It's also a great example of change and dynamism, another important facet in the big picture. Yes, there was that jade offering, but the real treasure at Blue Creek lies in the details: the food the Mayans grew, the pots they cast, the tools they used, the very land they lived on.

Jon Lohse, a research associate at UT Austin and project director at Blue Creek, said the research has become a "holistic view of the region more than a site-focused investigation." And yet it is from those small, seemingly insignificant house groups and farm fields that evidence emerges for later study.

"Most of what we learn from a season's digging here we'll learn long after we go home," Lohse said.

It all adds to the broader archeological questions, such as Why did they abandon their cities?

Blue Creek has yielded one possibility already.

"We discovered that a population expansion corresponded to more farming on the plain below the escarpment," Lohse said. "In conjunction with that, we now know that later there was a corresponding rise in the water table of several inches during just one generation."

The drainage ditches created the economic power on which to sustain public projects like pyramid building. However, as crops began to rot when the water table rose, the agricultural economy failed to sustain the elites and royals. And eventually the community faded into history.

With the MRP branching out to new areas, even more questions will be addressed. The goal at coastal Ichpaatun, for example, is to examine the whole theme of maritime trade and its effects.

"We've learned a lot about the role of the peripheral regions in the larger state-level society," Guderjan said. "These sites aren't Tikal or Chichen Itza, but these people were integrated into that society. And we're learning how."

The famed archeologist Walter Taylor once said there's no proof in pre-history. Which makes archeology one of man's greatest puzzles.

"We can make a model, but we can never prove it to be correct," Guderjan said. "And that makes it one of the most intellectual challenges I can think of." Maybe those elusive answers are what draw so many to argue with snakes and heat and thousands of years of jungle growth. "The more questions I get answered, the more questions I have," Allerman said. "When I go home, I'm never going to look at a hill the same again."

For some it's the hunt for that hidden treasure.

"I'm amazed at how dense the artifacts are," said Eddie King, a speech communication senior from Waco. "You just pick a spot and start digging, but you don't even keep it all because there's so much stuff."

But maybe it's even more. Maybe it's just the adventure of it all.

"Yesterday we were on a hill and it was raining and the wind was blowing and we were trying to eat our lunch with no cover," King said, grinning. "I felt like was on an expedition to Patagonia or something.

"It makes me feel tougher than dirt."

Contact Guderjan at guderjan@tcu.edu. Comment on this story at tcumagazine@tcu.edu.

Modern Maya

In the shadow of an ancient Maya trading center, a modern study is underway in the town of Yaxunah (Yah' shoe nah), Mexico. There, anthropology Instructor Grace Bascope works with a Maya community of about 500, studying their way of life and helping them adapt traditional ways to the modern world.

This year Yaxunah came under the Maya Research Program's umbrella, and four TCU student volunteers spent two weeks with Bascope and others, conducting census interviews, mapping a nearby community and teaching the Yucatec/Spanish-speaking villagers a third language -- English.

Bascope has spent 12 years years in the community studying children's health issues and assisting the residents in their own community-generated development initiatives. She also helped them convert former archeological field camp buildings into Campamento Yaxhuna, an eco-tourist hotel that is perhaps the only one of its kind owned and operated totally by Maya. Two ruins, the ancient Yaxunah site and the colonial hacienda Ketel-ak, are located on the village communal lands.

This ethnographic volunteer opportunity is the kind of work senior Marchelle Jordan wants to spend a lifetime doing.

"I loved it because of the people," she said, noting they are tenacious and loving even while living in difficult circumstances. She would recommend the experience to everyone.

"I think seeing the world outside of yourself, outside of your perspective is important," she said. "It helps you see the world through a different pair of eyes."

Contact Bascope at gbascope@airmail.net. Learn about the ecoturist hotel at Maya.csuhayward.edu/campamento/camp1.aspl