Friday, November 30, 2007

Sucker Punched in the Yucatan

Hello loyal readers, and anyone else happening to check in. Well with the incredible success of the first two weeks of excavations there was bound to be a week of slower progress for one reason or another. This week lined up a few of those reasons one after another.

First of all we were down one this week as last week was Emit’s last week on the project. He may miss being an archaeologist, but I don’t think he’ll miss the Subim ants. Come Monday morning two of the Ucucians (Dan’s word for the people of Ucu) also failed to show up. Apparently they had both found other work that was more tempting, or at least promised to be more stable, as all are aware that the project is winding down. Wednesday we were beset by our old friend Mother Nature. Despite several weeks of very dry weather, it managed to drizzle on us for much of Wednesday. We kept the digging up for as long as we could, but there’s just only so much digging and screening one can do in the rain before everything becomes a smear of mud. Thursday Dan abandoned us for a bird watching festival. And on Friday two more Ucucians took the day off for personal reasons. Thus bringing the grand total of excavators down to three, when just a week ago it was nine. Our numbers should be back up to a healthy seven people come Monday morning, but who can say what force may strike next.

On a side note, for those of you who haven’t seen the new pictures yet, on Thursday I managed to get some great close-up pictures of a massive Tarantula. She measured about three inches from stem to stern, and was more than happy to pose for me. It was a nice morale boost for me after watching the workers wound but not kill a beautiful rattle snake on Tuesday. I’m fighting a losing battle here to explain to the Yucatecans that such creatures do not set out to hurt humans, but I hope that all of you recognize that far more of these “fierce” creatures are killed by humans then humans by them.

Oh, and you can find the photos here:

P.S. Some of you may have noticed that Dan is mentioned more frequently in the blog these days. It’s somewhat of a survival mechanism as any week I don’t mention him he gets very grumpy!

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Is That a Sherd, or a Rock, or Flint, or Shell, or a Fossil?

So many months ago now we began the game of “Is That a Structure?” While wandering our way through the monte of Xtobo we would come across random rocks that almost, but not quite, looked like an old house mound. The rather frustrating part of the game was that there was no real answer. Now we have begun a new game, which sometimes has a few more answers, but not always.

As we continue tearing through test pits like Grease Lightening (go ahead and sing the song, you all know it), we continue to find geological oddities. Most of the pottery sherds are relatively obvious. They have flat sides (since they were once part of a plate or jar) and they tend to be relatively soft. But sometimes they can be strangely hard, and we frequently run into look-a-like rocks, and soft crumbly rocks that feel like pottery. Then there are all those random limestone fossils. They can be quite pretty, but for an archaeological study they don’t mean too much. So I have to occasionally dash the hopes of an eager Mayan who just made the find of a century. Perhaps the most difficult determination has been Flint (or Chert) vs. fine grained limestone. Flint was used by the Maya, and everybody world wide, to make chipped stone tools like knives and arrowheads. Since flint forms naturally inside of a limestone system, that also means we get things that almost became flint, but not quite. So far I think we only have two real pieces of flint and a lot of look a likes.

In order to break all this overwhelming tension involved in making these complex decisions, the boys from Ucu have invented yet another new game, “Who threw that pebble at me?” Now since I’m sure none of you will be familiar with such a foreign game I will explain. While screening through the dirt, or digging it up, everyone finds a ready supply of small pebbles. When no one is looking these pebbles can be thrown over one’s shoulder at another fellow excavator. Then they have to try and guess just who threw the rock. Dan has shown great cultural literacy and has been able to insinuate himself into this uniquely Mayan game.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Test Pits R’ Us

The grand switch has finally been made. The mapping of Xtobo has been finished, and this week we began excavating the test pits necessary for this year’s project. Some of you may have been surprised by just by just how much time an archaeologist can spend not digging, well that’s all changed. Every day now I get to come home covered in dirt from head to toe.

The name of today’s blog is inspired by the rapid progress that has been made so far. Approximately 30 test pits need to be dug across the site, and in our first week we have already finished 5 and started the 6th. So obviously if we can maintain that pace I just might finish up this project sooner than I had expected. And not only have the test pits been proceeding rapidly, but they have also been very productive. The main thing we are looking for is pottery sherds (broken bits of pottery). With these I will be able to further confirm the dating of Xtobo, as well as, hopefully, gain some insights into the different sorts of activities that were being carried out at the different types of structures. So far the test pits have produced, not huge quantities of sherds, but significant quantities. In addition they have also produced four obsidian blades. Obsidian is a naturally occurring form of volcanic glass, which can be strategically shaped into long thing blades that can be incredibly sharp cutting tools. Finding these blades at Xtobo is particularly significant because the nearest sources of obsidian are highlands of Guatemala or central Mexico. Thus these little bits of stone offer instant evidence of long distance trade.

The other significant item coming out of test pits of pieces of marine shell. Now Xtobo is not all that far away from the ocean, it would be approximately a day’s walk with a direct road, but its nice to have confirmation that everyone likes to go to the beach for a day!

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Han Solo has saved the day!

So for those of you who have not memorized the original Star Wars movie, like Candy and myself, let’s go through a brief recap of the finale. As our protagonist, Luke Skywalker, zooms along the Death Star trench seeking to fire that perfect shot, which will destroy the entire station, he is beset from behind by a squadron of TIE fighters. Just when it seems certain that he will be blown from the sky, Han Solo sweeps into view dispersing the ever closing TIE fighters, and thus allowing Luke to get off that perfect shot, thus saving future of the rebellion against the evil empire.

Well my very own Han Solo has swept in to keep my very own rebellion alive a well. After four months of mapping and hacking through the monte, my parents insisted on a recuperative trip back to the homestead. It has been a very good break, and quite restorative, which will allow me to plunge full throttle into the new excavations come Monday morning.

We did work for the first two days this week, officially completing the mapping process at Xtobo. It’s likely there are more buildings out there in the forest, but they will have to wait for another season. We’ve successfully mapped more than 67 hectares, and 362 buildings (plus those sacbe things). It’s been quite a ride, and there’s little doubt that the excavations will prove to be just as strange and challenging.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Almost there … Almost there …

Now if only the TIE Fighters won’t shoot me from behind.

The clearing of the fancy grid squares of Xtobo was semi-officially finished on Friday afternoon. There are a few spots that need to be double checked or expanded upon, but we are very very close. The mapping process is running a few structures behind the clearing, but in short the process of mapping the site of Xtobo should be wrapped up by Monday or Tuesday. There will still be some data manipulation to be done, and of course the map will have to be redrawn to fit what I wanted to the site to look like, but the good news is we are almost there!

The mapping process has been both incredible and trying on a daily basis. We found far more buildings buried in the forest then I had originally speculated (the final tally will be around 360 or so). We also found many more pozos, or ground wells, then I had expected, which particularly helps to explain how the population could have survived here. What was once thought to be two peripheral sacbes has become some sort of defined open plaza that will likely keep me scratching my head for decades to come. And of course there was the constant battle with the creatures of the monte. Five and a half snakes were dispatched with (one corral snake was in the process of eating another corral snake, thus the half a snake). At least three colonies of Africanos (Killer Bees) were side stepped. Scott was stung by a scorpion. Juan Balam received a dose of Chechem sap in his eye. And Dan was given a black eye by an ant measuring about 2 millimeters long. But we are all still standing, and the map data has been backed up … twice.

The fight is hardly over though. Once the map has been finished we will transition to excavations. These will be a relatively minor affair for this season. There will be no grand tunnels dug into the pyramids, or massive horizontal clearings. Instead we will be digging small trenches along side a series of structures in hopes of finding the long discarded garbage piles of Xtobo’s residents. Garbage is the true “gold” of archaeology and will allow us a much greater understanding of the lives of these people. We’re not quite there yet, but I’m sure Han will be clearing the way for us any minute now.

P.S. Bonus points for anyone who can tell me what the TIE acronym stands for without looking it up!