Saturday, July 28, 2007

Water, Water, Everywhere!

The field work continues in the mighty scrub forest of Yucatan. As in any good scrub forest, water is a vital commodity. For those of you unfamiliar with such an environment, you might imagine it as a forested desert. For a few months a year rain buckets down in almost disastrous quantities, but for the remainder of the year it is nearly bone dry. In addition, northern Yucatan has very thin soils. The solid limestone bedrock is found only a foot or two beneath the surface of the soil, and in the case of Xtobo one can frequently see bedrock right on the surface. So the sum results of these conditions are a forest composed of smaller trees that are quick to grow and reproduce. Thus if they do not survive the dry season they can quickly be replaced in the next wet season. Typically, the only large trees to be found in a region are directly associated with a permanent water source. Which in the case of Xtobo would be a small natural well reaching the water table, or an artificial well dug by the ancient inhabitants of the site. Due to these conditions wells are typically easy to find. Alas, my dear Xtobo has largely bucked these traditional rules.

In previous years spent working at the site it was rare to encounter water sources at the site. I repeatedly badgered local informants asking where water was available in the region, but repeated the only answer was at the “noria,” or colonial well, of Rancho Xtobo. I was forced to conclude that the said noria must have been built on a previous water source, but resigned myself to never being able to prove it. This reluctant conclusion may still be correct, but this last week of work has suggested it may no longer be a necessary assumption.

As the workers from Ucu have continued to cut trails across the site to provide access to its remote corners, they have literally crossed over three previously unknown ground wells. Three new wells is a serious addition when one considers that previously only one was known, with a second hypothetical water source at the noria. Even more remarkable is that these wells have showed up on 1 meter wide trails being cut every 100 meters. The odds of three showing up on the brechas would seem to almost insist that more wells will be encountered as the grids squares being formed by the trails are searched.

In triumphal confirmation of the above hypothesis Dan Griffin and Scott Johnson encountered a fourth water source on Friday afternoon a few meters inside of one of the prepared grid squares. Now both Scott and Dan have claimed responsibility for finding the well, and they have also both proclaimed that the other person found it. They seemed to have lost a bit of perspective as I, as project director, am clearly the individual responsible for having found it, despite being half a kilometer away checking on trail cutting. Nevertheless, this new fourth source of water presents an interesting possibility. Unlike the previous three wells located this season, there is actually water in it. The other wells are filled in with all manner of leaves, rocks, and general sediment, thus blocking access to the water table some 6 meters below. The new well has water only a half a meter or so below the ground surface. One potential reason for this is that it is not a well at all, but rather a “chultun.” That is to say it may be an artificial water reservoir carved by the long ago inhabitants of Xtobo, and lined with plaster to hold water.

Given the aforementioned general scarcity of water in a scrub forest, its conservation would have clearly been of vital importance to the people living at the site. After all, while working at the site, approximately 10 people consume 5 gallons of water in a day. Those sort of quantities start to quickly add up, thus finding viable water sources around the site of Xtobo adds a vital piece to our understanding of the life of those who once lived at this place.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Ni Chac, Hoch, and Africanos, Oh My!

Well so far the work has continued well at Xtobo. The system of trails providing access to the site is over half done, and lots of great architecture is emerging from the forest. Next week the work crew should jump from 6 people to 10, so we should start moving much more quickly.

The most notable feature of the week though would have to be the army of insects present at Xtobo. The workers repeatedly ran into nests of Ni Chak, a local species of hornet. Even my ayudantes (helpers) Scott Johnson and Dan Griffin felt their wrath. We also spotted a few Hoch, which are giant inch long ants. So far I have avoided their bite, but, so I’m told, they are as painful as the Ni Chak. And, last but not least, was a nest of Africanos. And for those of you wondering, yes, that does mean Africans. But in this case it refers to the Africanized Honey Bees, or as they are better known in the States, “Killer Bees.” That lovely name was of course propagated by our wonderfully hyperbolic media outlets, but none the less they are not pleasant creatures. They have a tendency to swarm attack, which is what makes them dangerous. So far we have avoided any incidents, and I hope it will remain that way.

There are of course gentler creatures to be found in the environs. A small but unmistakably cute snail oozed its way across our path earlier in the week. There was a certain lizard who just refused to stop sunning himself in the open trail. Every time I passed by he ran for cover as if his life depended on it, but each time I returned he was back out in the open. And before leaving the site on Friday afternoon Anselmo brought us a turtle that he had found hiding under his bag of gear. The poor little guy wanted nothing more than to find some shelter, but he was denied his release a few times to show him off to someone new. But in the end he was allowed to run, or rather crawl, free.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

The Week in Review

Well the first week of field work is done and gone. It was a bit of a transition going from waiting and waiting and waiting, to working under the gentle rays of the Yucatecan sun, but it was still one heck of a week.

So far we have started to open a system of trails in order to allow access to all quarters of the site. The opening of such trails involves chopping your way through dense, thorny brush. And it’s a very good thing that I don’t have to do it myself. They say that the Yucatec Maya are born with machetes in their hands, and its not hard to see why. They can fell trees with one smooth blow that I have to hack away at four or five times. Fortunately I get to be responsible for the mapping.

As the trails have opened, a few previously unseen building have come to light. It makes me all the more excited for the actually clearing of architecture to begin. So far what I know of Xtobo consists primarily of the large public buildings. Its sort of as if you knew the downtown region of a city, but nothing about what laid around it. This year is all about the people. I want to know who was living at this site, and under what conditions they were living. And most importantly I hope that I will be able to say roughly how many people were living here.

After a good starting week, I am looking forward to all the rest of the weeks to come.

Monday, July 09, 2007

A Day Two Years in the Making

Today field work officially began at Xtobo. It’s been two years now since the end of the last field season, and nothing could have felt better than to begin working again. Although the site has endured the torments of 2500 years, in my comparatively short time working at the site I can see it dissolving bit by bit each year. I hope to save the information about these pioneers before it disappears for ever. The more I can do each given year the better.

The workers from Ucu were fantastic. They cleared more distance on the new trail system that I had expected they would. And things always go more slowly on the first day, we can only go up from here. The current roster of workers is on average older than my last crew. As such they are far more prone to speaking Maya. Of the five of them, four definitely prefer to speak in Maya, as such something tells me my Maya will be getting better this year. If anyone needs some help with translation just let me know!

I’m not sure if I can really relay the sense of excitement that I have had all day. The forest surrounding the site is usually described in rather harsh terms. Every plant has its own form of thorns. Some are down right toxic. There is also a plentiful supply of biting insects. And of course the temperature was easily pushing 100 degrees. Despite it all, everything I see before me is beautiful. The contrasting shade and sun, the vibrant growth, and even the thriving tick population all stir some emotions. Maybe after five months of hard fought days my opinion will change to some extent. But I know that ever time I return to Xtobo, she will always be more beautiful.

And a few photos to share:

Tuesday, July 03, 2007


That’s right, believe it or not, but field work on the Xtobo project will officially begin this coming Monday morning. Its been a long time coming, but it will definitely be worth it.

This evening I attended the official town meeting in Ucu. It started off really well. When I arrived there were about 10 or so people waiting at the building where the meeting was to be held. This was far better than last week when there were only about 3 people there. So I greeted the Comesario Ejidal (the individual who oversees the use of town lands). He is someone who worked with me back in 2002 during the Costayuc project. Having a preexisting relationship with the current town official has helped a lot. I sat down with him and the other people who had gathered. I proceeded to explain to them what it was I wanted to do at Xtobo, and answered a few of their questions.

All was going really well, but they seemed to be waiting for something. It turns out this was just the warm up meeting. In all about 50 or 60 people showed up, at which point I was asked to speak to the whole group and explain what it was I wanted to do. Impromptu speeches in Spanish are always fun, but I had pretty well thought through what I wanted to say. For the sake of those more comfortable talking in Yucatec Maya, my speech was regiven in that language by one of the officials. After that everyone seemed to break off into individual discussion groups, pretty much all of which were going on in Yucatec as well. Most of the discussions seemed to be revolving around the issue of worker rotation. I have agreed to change work crews every two weeks. It will mean a little more work on my end, but it will distribute the work among all those in town that need it.

After individual discussion had worked its way through I faced some questioning from the people gathered. One gentleman was particularly concerned about my legal status, so I read my official government permission letter out loud. And another very fierce looking woman asked about what would happen to any valuable objects recovered. Despite my efforts to reassure her, she maintained her fierce expression.

Eventually a vote was called for and the yea’s carried the day. As I thanked them and prepared to leave, my fierce faced lady cracked a joke about the site maybe being famous one day, and her face broke into a smile more beautiful than I could have imagined her capable of given her earlier expression.

It was a night I will not soon forget.