Saturday, September 29, 2007

Water, Water, Everywhere! Part 2

So, some time ago now I wrote an entry telling you all about the many pozos, or ground water wells, that we had been finding. Indeed we have found several more, and more then ten viable water sources are now known for the site. It looks as if I will have to retract some previously made statements about the surprising lack of water found at the site.

However that is not the reason for this week’s installment on water at Xtobo. This week we received a backhanded slap from a new friend named Lorenzo. Most tropical weather systems form out in the Atlantic, and make there way to the west, eventually either effecting some portion of the coastline, or turning back out to sea. But Lorenzo decided to form in the actual Gulf of Mexico. The first satellite views hardly gave me cause to worry though, because the storm was well on the Western side of the Gulf. Nevertheless the storm found a way to feed no small amount of moisture onto the Yucatan Peninsula.

In an average month of September this region receives approximately 7 inches of rain. Due to the wet and soggy nature of working at Xtobo this month, I have little doubt that we were already over our 7 inches before this week even began. Thanks to rain stats delivered by Dan, we can conservatively estimate that we received another 7 inches this week alone, if not much more. By playing dodge the clouds we were able to work Monday and Tuesday. Wednesday was called off due to a lack of space between the clouds to use as dodging space. And Thursday, well Thursday we made it about halfway out to the site before turning back. Although my truck does have the secret button, which turns it into James Bond’s convertible boat/car, I didn’t think it was time to give that secret away in front of foreign agents. By Friday the storm had moved on, and we could go back to our lives. There was plenty of evidence of massive quantities of water (i.e. mud), but we were able to work again.

It would seem that the majority of you who have already heard about our rains are low on your own annual rain totals. There is only one possible explanation … Global Warming!!!

Saturday, September 22, 2007


This was to be a big week as we were going to reach a grand total of 200 structures mapped at Xtobo. However, we instead decided to roar past 200 and by the end of the day on Friday we had finished mapping in a total of 229 structures. What particularly makes these numbers significant is that my original, admittedly by the seat of my pants, estimate was that we would map in around 250 structures for the entire site. And here we are sitting at 229 with almost half the site still to go. The fancy interpretation of which is, more structures equal more people. Xtobo appears to have been a more active and vibrant community than even I had expected.

As an additional measure of progress I invite you all to click on the map posted below. The base map that you can currently see was put together before the beginning of this season. It shows the previously mapped structures of the site center, along with points representing other known structures. On a week by week basis I have been updating this map to track our progress. When you click on the map below it will show you an animation of the last 11 weeks strung together. The black lines represent trails that have been cut, and the filled squares represent cleared and then mapped quadrants. Regrettably the quality of the maps has been somewhat degraded by the animation program.

There is much work still to be done at Xtobo, but week by week we are making great progress. I originally estimated, again by the seat of my pants, that it would take three months to map the remainder of the site. It looks like we will go over that estimate by a few weeks, but considering how far off I was on the estimate of total structures at the site, I think we’re doing pretty good. I hope that all of you are making as much progress towards your goals.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

An Illinois Yankee in the Maya Court

One of my perpetual favorites of American literature is Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.” Perhaps not as well known as good old Huck Fin and Tom Sawyer, but nevertheless a wonderful example of the imaginative capabilities of Twain’s mind. The protagonist of the story is an inventive Connecticut engineer from Twain’s era who through a fortuitous bump on the head is transported back in time and place to King Arthur’s court. With the best of American ingenuity the protagonist introduces modern technology to the court and soon he is considered the greatest magician of the day. After all Merlin could only mutter and wave some smoke around, he never produced a fancy metal rod, which made a loud bang and smoke while at the same time killing a knight in his tracks.

As of yesterday the protagonist of this journal (that would be the author) had his own engineering puzzle to ponder. Regrettably however no one bumped me on the head sending me 2500 years back in time. Oh Dan was all eager for the challenge, but it was decided that it might not work. A relatively large building was discovered by the workers from Ucu early this week. The first few times I saw the building it looked a little odd, but with it still covered in vines and dense vegetation there wasn’t much point in trying to figure out quite what was going on. Well yesterday the building was finally clear from the tenacious grip of the forest, and at first glance it still didn’t make much since. The vast majority of the larger buildings at Xtobo, and through out the rest of the Maya world, are basically rectangular. This building had two long straight sides arranged at right angles to each other, but then the other side of the building was more or less missing. The stone that it was built with also looked different; it lacked many of the refining touches used on all the other buildings. Then it was noticed that to the North East there was a smaller pile of stones located exactly in position to make the building a roughly 100 x 80 feet rectangular platform. In short, the pieces of the puzzle seem to suggest that this building was begun, but never finished.

Now, that may seem like a relatively minor conclusion for a once a week blog meant to try and keep people from forgetting that I exist while I’m so far away. However, if the conclusion is correct it could have a larger impact on the interpretation of the site. This building was among the largest at the site, and depending on how big it was intended to be, it could have been among the 5 largest buildings at the site. Given the close ties among large architecture, leadership, and religion, among the early Maya that would be some what like finding a church/court house abandoned only half completed. In the context of Xtobo there is one obvious conclusion that we can leap to. A building such as this suggests that either the rulers fell out of power rapidly or that the site was abandoned rapidly. Right now it is estimated that Xtobo was abandoned around 300 BC, but many other sites in the region continued to be occupied after that time. So there should be a specific reason why Xtobo itself was abandoned. This building may go a long way to uncovering that reason.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Visitors from a Foreign Land

The theory since day one has been simply that as we move further away from the center of Xtobo there should be fewer buildings, and thus the work would proceed more rapidly. This week reality decided to intercede. The boys from Ucu did a heck of a lot of clearing, but made relatively little forward progress in terms of the number of grid squares cleared. This is simply because they found a whole mess of structures. This is good, in that we most certainly want to document every piece of surviving evidence left behind by the former inhabitants of Xtobo, but somewhat bad in the simple since of it may take some what longer to complete that documentation. You never quite know what will happen out here though, so perhaps next week the pendulum will swing in the opposite direction. This week the mapping did speed up though due to the triumphal return of Dan. Xtobo had missed him.

The big event of the week however would have to be the royal visitation that occurred yesterday. Not only were we visited by Dan’s wife Cher, but also my parents made the long trek down from Chicago to check out just what the heck I’ve been doing down here. Surprisingly enough everyone seemed to be impressed by my piles of rubble. We made the grand circuit from the central plaza and its flanking pyramids, down to the humble house mound clusters. Everyone was taught which plants not to touch, and which insects would give the most pleasant greetings, and everyone came through the day with flying colors. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the day was the appearance of a fox on top of one of the structures during the tour. I was not even aware that there were foxes in Yucatan, but we were given a beautiful view of such a creature making their existence rather indubitable.

So in short tourism has begun at Xtobo. We are expecting the first bus load of camera wielding tourists to arrive some time next week, and the five star resort and spa will start construction later this month. So tell your friends they better come quickly if they want to see the true unspoiled glories of Xtobo. If they wait too long they will have to put up with someone trying to sell them a piece of kitsch at every turn, and a bunch of people clapping in front of every building in order to discover the truly remarkable properties of reflected sound waves off of stone. Boy, those Maya’s sure were geniuses.

Saturday, September 01, 2007


It’s perhaps not something that we always like to talk about or even think about, but all of us are vulnerable in varying degrees. There are of course those major life threatening events, but those are a universal in every walk of life. This week has brought attention to a particular vulnerability in my life, or perhaps you could say a lesson that I should have already learned.

In order to carry out the mapping at Xtobo I am making use of an instrument known as a Total Station. A Total Station is a fancy electronic distance measuring device. Basically it shoots a smaller laser beam out to a mirrored prism. That beam is then reflected back to the machine and the distance between the two is measured. Also measured are the horizontal angle (or compass bearing) and the vertical angle (i.e. whether the instrument is level with the horizon, or looking up or down). Using those three numbers and some fancy trigonometry three dimensional coordinates can be computed and then turned into a topographic map of the site. This piece of machinery is, to put it mildly, vital to the mapping efforts at the site. Therefore, it is a point of vulnerability.

The topographic map of the site was actually begun in 2005. During that season I brought a total station down from Tulane to be used at the site, only to discover upon setting it up in the field that it was broken. This was a crisis moment. As I looked into the possibilities of getting it fixed I discovered that would take approximately four weeks, when I only had five remaining weeks in country. I was lucky that year, and a magnanimous Bruce Dahlin, a neighboring archaeologist, offered a similar machine for my use. I will point out that I did learn at least a bit of a lesson from this experience. Earlier this year when I picked up the total station at Tulane I made sure to set it up and test that it was working. From what I could tell that day it was entirely functional, but as a vital piece of equipment the vulnerability remains.

Although this vulnerability was first tested earlier in the season by a malfunctioning data recorder, we were not shut down, as the tried and true pencil and paper data recording method shall not fail. However, this week further assailments have been made at the shaking fortifications. On Monday this week the total station refused to stay powered up. A call into a repair center brought about what was a very simple answer; just clean the battery contacts with a pencil eraser. Well that worked for a couple of days, but now the batteries are boarder line again. A call has been made to find a replacement battery, and it is hopefully on the way.

Perhaps I can never do away with all vulnerabilities, but I hope with each passing year I can gain the wisdom to avoid a few more of them.