Reporting Archaeology: Memorable Maya Moments from the Field

Celebrating 35th Years - Behind the Scenes with the People of the Archaeological Conservancy

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Michael Bawaya is the editor of American Archaeology. Credit: Chaz Evans
Michael Bawaya is the editor of American Archaeology. Credit: Chaz Evans

Introducing Our Editor of American Archaeology Magazine: Michael Bawaya

Once upon a time I was editing business, performing arts, and luxury homes publications. I knew little about archaeology and had never heard of the Conservancy. Then came the time when I interviewed for, and was offered, the job of editing American Archaeology. Articles about profits and losses, thespians and musicians, and home improvements were replaced by ancient acropolises, lithic assemblages, and mound complexes.

This was a learning experience for me, and a very interesting one at that. One of the pleasures of my job is observing archaeologists at work. I’ve covered a number of investigations, and I’ve come to realize that, though excavation is an essential part of most archaeological projects, there’s often far more involved than just digging.

For example, I recall about 10 years ago riding in the bed of archaeologist Jonathan Kaplan’s pickup truck along with several Earthwatch Institute volunteers. Kaplan, who was investigating an ancient Maya site in the town of Chocola in southern Guatemala, drove a handful of people to a nearby town where, he said, the region’s most powerful politician resided. Kaplan had arranged a lunch meeting with said politician to explain a land swap program that he hoped the politician would endorse.

Archaeologist Jonathan Kaplan (standing) instructs members of his crew in a crude laboratory at Chocola. Credit: Michael Bawaya
Archaeologist Jonathan Kaplan (standing) instructs members of his crew in a crude
laboratory at Chocola. Credit: Michael Bawaya

Kaplan’s land swap program was his attempt to preserve Maya sites. If evidence of an ancient Maya occupation was found on land farmed by the living Maya, that land would be exchanged for another parcel that had no buried cultural resources. I was in Chocola at the time covering Kaplan’s project, and he invited me and the photographer accompanying me to the meeting. His idea was to give the politician the impression that the meeting was so important that the “American press,” as Kaplan referred to us, had come all the way to Guatemala to cover it.

A woman walks by one of Chocola’s churches. Kaplan spent a considerable amount of time trying to get the town’s residents to support his project. Credit: Michael Bawaya
A woman walks by one of Chocola’s churches. Kaplan spent a considerable amount
of time trying to get the town’s residents to support his project. Credit: Michael Bawaya

 

Whether the presence of the American press swayed the politician or not, he did endorse Kaplan’s program. In addition to digging, Kaplan spent a considerable amount of time on meetings like this, hoping to convince local politicians, farmers, townspeople, and the like of the importance of preserving their heritage. Though Kaplan won that day, he ultimately lost: his project was subsequently shut down due to opposition from some of Chocola’s residents, who apparently believed he was digging for gold.

I’ve also had a number of memorable moments covering excavations, particularly in the Maya region. There was the time I took a boat up the Pasion River in Guatemala’s Petén rainforest en route to the remote, ancient city of Cancuen, where archaeologist Arthur Demarest believes the Maya collapse began in earnest. Demarest, closely trailed by a boy who carried a smoldering termite’s nest to repel mosquitoes, gave me a tour of the site.

The highlight of the site was seeing the uncovered portion of Cancuen’s impressive royal palace, which he had discovered earlier. This was the location of a massacre of more than 30 people who Demarest suspected were the city’s leaders. Like a number of other archaeologists, Demarest believes that warfare played a major role in the Maya collapse. If Demarest is right, I was looking at the place that, some 1,200 years ago, marked the beginning of the end of this magnificent culture.

And speaking of ends, you may recall that the world was going to do just that in 2012. Or so we were told by some observers of the Maya’s long count calendar, which supposedly ended on December 21of that ominous year. There had to be a reason why these amazing people stopped counting the days, after all, and so this curiosity of ancient timekeeping engendered a modern cottage industry of doom and gloom.

The world’s end, however, proved to be my good fortune. In the summer of 2011, the Belize Tourism Bureau invited me and a number of other journalists to visit several of their Maya sites to debunk the 2012 myth.

Lamanai was one of several sites that I visited in Belize on my Maya 2012 trip. Credit: Michael Bawaya
Lamanai was one of several sites that I visited in Belize on my Maya 2012 trip. Credit: Michael Bawaya
Lamanai, Belize
Lamanai, Belize. Credit: Jim Walker.

The trip was remarkable in that I saw some amazing sites, took part in a dinner with Jamie Awe, the former head of archaeology in Belize, tasted the chocolate drink that the ancient Maya savored, and spent an evening in the home of a living Maya family. But ironically, for the most part the events of the trip had nothing to do with 2012.

A woman grinds cacao beans to make the chocolate drink that her ancient ancestors imbibed. Credit: Michael Bawaya
A woman grinds cacao beans to make the chocolate drink that her ancient ancestors
imbibed. Credit: Michael Bawaya

The strangest part of the trip was meeting one Rosario Panti, who introduced herself as the last Maya shaman and (if that wasn’t distinction enough) the granddaughter of Elijio Panti, the last of the Maya healers. Brandishing a mushroom-like object she said was a 4,000-year-old “sastun,” Panti took the whole 2012 thing head on. Addressing me and the other journalists, she prophesized that, yes, there will be solar eclipses and technological shutdowns, but, no, our world will not end. For a brief time our cell phone reception will be terrible, and we’ll get half as many cable channels, but continue on we will. In fact, come December 22, humankind will undergo a reincarnation of sorts. The cosmic clock will be reset to zero, and a period of love and harmony will commence.

Once Panti was done speaking, I lined up with the other journalists to have her read our palms. I usually don’t go in for this kind of thing, but if the cosmic clock was going to be reset to zero, why not? When my turn came this prophet of love and harmony, having appraised my palm, looked at me sternly. “You have problems!”

“What kind of problems?”

“You know.”

True enough, but I also knew that the end of the world wasn’t one of them.

Hermenia Valentino (right) makes corn tortillas with one of her daughters. I spent a night in the home of this Maya family to learn about their lives. Credit: Michael Bawaya
Hermenia Valentino (right) makes corn tortillas with one of her daughters. I spent a
night in the home of this Maya family to learn about their lives. Credit: Michael Bawaya

-Michael Bawaya, Editor of American Archaeology Magazine

2 COMMENTS

  1. I’m doing an article critique on your “Mayan Archaeologists Turn to the Living to Help Save the Dead” piece for my anthropology class. Love seeing your photos and reading about your first hand experience! I’m jealous of your vast travels!

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