Traveling Professor Henderson’s World of the Ancient Maya

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Henderson leading an Archaeological Conservancy Tour at Caana Pyramid a part of Caracol Mayan Ruins, Belize.
Professor John Henderson leading an Archaeological Conservancy Tour at Caana Pyramid a part of Caracol Mayan Ruins, Belize.

My active involvement with the Conservancy began — in the early 1990s, I think — with a phone call from Jim Walker.  Peter Harrison, who normally accompanied Conservancy trips to Belize and the Petén, had a conflict and Jim wanted to know if I could fill in.  I almost said no; I’m glad I didn’t.

At that point I had been taking groups to sites in Mesoamerica and the Andes from time to time for two decades.  Combining teaching at Cornell with educational travel was usually fun:  I liked helping people who weren’t fixated on grades discover the ancient Maya and it was always a pleasure to revisit sites.  I also saw it as an opportunity to undercut, at least in a small way, the antiquities trade by showing people first-hand the destruction that looters who supply the black market do.

Professor Henderson Discussing with Tour participant at Lamanai, Belize. Photo Courtesy John Henderson.
Professor Henderson Discussing with Tour participant at Lamanai, Belize. Photo Courtesy John Henderson.

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My feelings about looters were only partly based on professional considerations; they were (and are) also quite personal.  Early in my career, I found myself digging a small site in Guerrero, in western Mexico, trying to figure out why so many Olmec-related things were found there, so far from the Olmec “heartland” on the Gulf coast.    I had been warned, but even then I was a touch stubborn.  The puzzled Mexican bureaucrat who issued my permit had kindly tried to dissuade me, pointing out that looters were also interested in the Olmec and – like everyone else in Guerrero at that time – they went about heavily armed.  No one from his office, he said, was going to come and bail me out.  Things went smoothly, for Guerrero, until the last week of the excavation.

Excavations at Los Naranjos. Photo Courtesy John Henderson.
Excavations at Los Naranjos. Photo Courtesy John Henderson.

I was working alone at the site, finishing up drawing the stratigraphy, when I was startled by a series of sharp reports, each accompanied by a puff of dust near the pit I was working in.  After some contemplation, I realized that someone was shooting at me.  Happily, the pit was fairly deep, so I was able to cower at the bottom of it, wondering why no one had ever told me to include a change of underwear in my field equipment. To my own great surprise, after the shooting stopped, I delayed running away long enough to finish the drawings.  In retrospect, I am sure that the looters, with whom I was in competition, were just trying to make a point and had never intended to actually hit me.  Still, looting would never again be an abstract issue.

Visiting Official's Car Stuck in Excavator's Pit. Photo Courtesy John Henderson.
Visiting Official’s Car Stuck in Excavator’s Pit. Photo Courtesy John Henderson.

The trajectory of my career changed at that point too. Apart from feeling that I might enjoy doing archaeology in a less exciting place, I thought it might be more satisfying to investigate interaction in a context where historical documents could be brought to bear more directly. Eventually I landed in Honduras and began work on Naco, famous as a center of long-distance exchange at the time of the Spanish invasion.

I soon realized that earlier societies were at least as interesting as Naco itself because of the region’s location at the eastern edge of the Maya world. I finally recognized that what I really wanted to understand was not so much exchange as interactions in frontier regions. So when the Honduran government asked me to make sense of the archaeology of the adjacent and much larger lower Ulúa valley, as a basis for thinking about preservation in a region of intense looting and development, I saw a chance to investigate the frontier on a larger scale. I moved a few kilometers to the east to try to understand the relationships between lower Ulúa valley societies and their contemporaries in the Maya world. I’ve been trying to work that out ever since.

Excavations in the lower Ulúa valley. Photo Courtesy John Henderson.
Excavations in the lower Ulúa valley. Photo Courtesy John Henderson.
Cleaning road cut at excavation in the lower Ulúa valley, Honduras. Photo Courtesy John Henderson.
Cleaning road cut at excavation in the lower Ulúa valley, Honduras. Photo Courtesy John Henderson.

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Mostly the collectors in the groups I had traveled with previously — some of them major clients of New York dealers — allowed me to imagine that I had made them think about collecting in a different way, but a recent experience on a Peru itinerary had left me disenchanted. We had just returned to Lima from the north coast, where I had used the seemingly endless array of looters’ pits in the Huaca del Brujo complex to emphasize the destruction that the antiquities market and collecting cause.  As we got off the bus, one of the participants took me aside to ask me to accompany him to one of the antiquities dealers to authenticate the pieces he had his eye on.  Clearly there were limits to my persuasiveness.

So when Jim called I was feeling jaundiced about the educational component of educational travel.  On the other hand, I admired the Conservancy’s work and wanted to contribute.  And, if you’ve ever had a call from Jim, you know that his infectious enthusiasm radiates from the phone.  People who travel with the Conservancy, he said, were accomplished, intelligent, engaged with archaeology, and generally a pleasure to be with.  So I said yes.

It was a great trip and I was delighted when the Conservancy invited me to do some of their other trips.   I soon learned that Mark Michel, who did not fit my stereotype of a foundation president, was also a great traveling companion. His enthusiasm may be a bit more understated than Jim’s, but it is no less intense and just as infectious.

Touring in Lamanai, Belize, with the Archaeological Conservancy. Photo Courtesy John Henderson.
Touring in Lamanai, Belize, with the Archaeological Conservancy. Photo Courtesy John Henderson.

They’re really good at trip planning. Unlike a lot of archaeological travel organizers, they insist on personal familiarity with routes, sites, and accommodations. That has been my rule, too, since I learned the hard way not to take groups to sites I hadn’t visited. I once upon a time foolishly agreed to take a group to Aguateca, in the Petén, without having been there, and even more foolishly acceded to the local guide’s wrong-headed insistence that the best path was the one through a sheer-sided cleft in the bluff it sits on. It wasn’t, and I managed to fall and break a few ribs trying to help a participant negotiate the perilous ascent. She was fine, but the rest of the trip was very painful. (The local guide later left the travel industry for a successful career in politics, eventually becoming governor of the Petén, no doubt on the strength of his decision-making ability).

The Chasm at Auguateca. Photo courtesy John Henderson.
The Chasm at Auguateca. Photo courtesy John Henderson.

I was very pleased to learn that Mark and Jim would never consider taking a group to a site we didn’t know. Scouting trips with them to develop new itineraries have been among the great pleasures of working with the Conservancy, with only the occasional near-death experience.

Jim was right all those years ago:  traveling with a Conservancy group is a trip with friends old and new. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to do it two or three times a year ever since.

-Professor John Henderson

Traveling with an Archaeological Conservancy group at Mayapan in the Yucatan. Photo Courtesy John Henderson
Traveling with an Archaeological Conservancy group at Mayapan in the Yucatan. Photo Courtesy John Henderson.

Dr. John Henderson is Professor of Anthropology at Cornell University, where he has been teaching since 1971. His research focuses on early complex societies of Mesoamerica including the Olmec and the Maya. His ongoing long term fieldwork centers on the lower Ulúa valley in Honduras. His work has explored issues of social stratification, identity, and the ways in which settlement and household archaeology can inform such investigations. In 2006, Henderson and Rosemary Joyce, along with their team, identified cacao in ceramics from the lower Ulúa valley, pushing back the then oldest known cacao consumption to circa 1,000 B.C. Vessel forms suggested a fermented beverage rather than the chocolate preparation. Publications on this groundbreaking find and its implications include “Earliest Chocolate Drink Of The New World.” (Science Daily summary of 2007 PNAS paper) and Brewing Distinction: The Development of Cacao Beverages in Formative Mesoamerica in Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao. This led to a flood of research on the topic of the origins of Chocolate consumption and its spread.  More about Dr. Henderson and selected publications.

Follow Professor Henderson’s Blog Perspectives on the Past

Interested in Traveling with Professor Henderson and The Archaeological Conservancy?  Join us for Exploring the Maya World: Copán & The Guatemala Highlands

More New Discoveries of the Origins and Spread of Chocolate Consumption:

2013 Maya and Aztec Chocolate History and Antecedents, in online Electrum Magazine

2013 Earliest Evidence of Chocolate in North America, summary Science online from JAS

2012 Chocolate residue found on early Maya plates, a first

2009 Evidence of cacao use in the Prehispanic American Southwest in PNAS and summary NYT Mystery of Ancient Pueblo Jars Is Solved

2007 Oldest chocolate in the New World in Antiquity Vol 81 Issue 314 December 2007

Interview with Dr. John Henderson, Cornell University on The Origin of Chocolate with The Academic Minute

Professor Henderson speaking to an Archaeological Conservancy group at San Lorenzo site of the fmous Olmec Stone heads and earliest Mesoamerican City. Photo Courtesy John Henderson.
Professor Henderson speaking to an Archaeological Conservancy group at San Lorenzo site of the famous Olmec Stone heads and earliest of the great Mesoamerican Cities. Photo Courtesy John Henderson.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Saludos al Profesor John S. Henderson, por su aporte en la Arqueologia de nuestras Tierras.
    Saludos desde Chilanga Morazan, El Salvador.

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