Mayan Deep Pit Thoughts

What Interests me the most regardingMaya excavations is their date of founding. This one was founded around 1,000 BC or coincidentally and certainlyoverlapping in terms of human memory the fall of the European Bronze Age (EBA)in 1159 BC.  That date is the one we canbe sure of to a high degree of confidence. This Mayan city appears at a time it could well have been inspired bytraders.

Olmec civilization certainlyoverlapped the EBA by at least several centuries and thus this site looks to bea late founding in terms of temple building, but carrying on the foundingtraditions.

This structure reached itsmaximum height over around four hundred years and thirty separate levels. Thissuggests that each generation added a layer in an ongoing build that was neverending and likely was done on an annual basis.

The apparent founding of theoriginal Mesoamerican civilization appears to coincide with the mid point ofthe EBA presence in the Americasand supports a far longer formative presence that ultimately led to the floweringof indigenous monumentalism.

These ideas, not so long ago weredismissed out of hand, but the eras are now lining up and confirmingplausibility.    Mesoamericais looking more and more like relic of the EBA based on local resources andcultures.  The monumentalism is a furtherreflection of the palace economy I have addressed elsewhere.

Deep Into the Big Pit and Beyond

February 23, 2011, 12:12 PM

Takeshi InomataExcavation of the “Big Pit.”

Takeshi Inomata,a professor of anthropology at the University of Arizona, writes fromGuatemala, where he and DanielaTriadan are excavating the Maya site of Ceibal, Guatemala.

Sunday, Feb. 20

Archaeological excavation is a series of decisions: where to dig, howto dig, whether to dig large in a few places or dig small in many places. Largeareal excavations are time-consuming, but they have a definite advantage.Diverse types of structures and features, as well as ancient people’s actionsassociated with them, become visible in large excavation areas. In small pitsit is sometimes difficult to interpret what kind of structures or deposits weare dealing with. But many Maya centers had populations of 5,000 or more. Theexcavation of one location, even a large one, would give us a very limited,often skewed, view of these large settlements. To gain a balancedunderstanding, we need to place excavations in many locations over thelandscape. Realistically, many of them have to be small. A common compromise isa combination of a few large areal excavations and more small ones. This is ourstrategy at Ceibal.

Because we have to take into consideration Ceibal’s unusually deepsequences of constructions, the total number of excavations has to berelatively small. We can take only a few shots at our targets, the earliestbuildings. Fortunately, previous work by Harvard archaeologists providedgeneral information about the history and organization of this site. Using thisknowledge, we carefully chose our locations of excavation. Our foci are theceremonial complex around the Central Plaza and large platformsaround it. We placed our largest excavation, which combined a 10-by-8-meterarea and a 14-meter trench, on the southern platform. Through this wide areaexposure, we hoped to gain spatial information on types of buildings and theways people used them. And it should give us enough space to excavate when wereach its deepest levels. This is the fourth season of this most ambitiousoperation of our project. We have to finish this pit this year.

Takeshi InomataVictor Castillo, left, excavating a burial site found in2010 with Mónica Cortave.

Takeshi InomataA cache of polished axes found in Victor’s excavation in2010. These deposits point to the importance of the southern platform.

The archaeologist in charge of this “Big Pit” is a highly capableGuatemalan professional, Victor Castillo, a poised, perceptive young man whocan turn into a dancing machine once music starts. He effectively manages thischallenging excavation and takes care of the project’s political and logisticalmatters as project co-director. The Guatemalan government requires all foreignprojects to have a Guatemalan co-director and at least a one-to-one ratio ofGuatemalan to foreign members. But even without such regulations, I would notthink twice about hiring the same Guatemalan archaeologists and students. Theproject needs and depends on these dedicated investigators. In the excavation ofthis platform, Victor revealed a series of Preclassic structures, meticulouslydocumenting associated middens, greenstone ax caches and the burial site of achild, all stacked in more than 30 layers of construction. A figurine head thathe found in 2010 provided clues to a connection with an enigmatic civilizationcalled Olmec that flourished on the southern gulf coast.

At the beginning of this month, he hit a clay fill at a depth of 4.6meters. This sticky, hard material quickly shrinks and cracks as it dries. Twodays after we dug through this fill, large chunks of clay fell from the walls,putting the entire excavation in danger. Five years ago, we had to close a7.5-meter-deep pit into this platform because of the same problem. This time webraced walls with wood planks and continued deeper. At a depth of 6.3 meters,Victor exposed an irregular surface of a mixture of rocks and clay, whichlooked very much like a natural layer from before human occupation. I needed toconfirm that I was seeing it right by digging even deeper. After two metersmore of excavation, we found no artifacts or no signs of human construction.Everybody agreed that this was a natural layer. A triumph for Victor and forall of us!

Takeshi InomataVictor, right, finally completed his “Big Pit” afterfour seasons of excavation. The final depth was 8.3 meters.

This is the first time that we dug through all the construction layersof a monumental building at Ceibal down to its bottom. It appears that thepre-occupation terrain was higher in this part, but our 2006 pit must have beenwithin half a meter of the natural layer. Now we have firm evidence that theinitial construction of this platform was quite substantial, measuring 2.5meters in height and more than 30 meters in width. After its beginning around1,000 B.C., the platform steadily grew to reach a height of six meters by 600B.C. It was one of the largest buildings in the Maya lowlands at that time. Ourhypothesis of the dramatic beginning of Ceibal is looking more and more likely.

Some Guatemalan archaeologists with good field skills can still benefitfrom training in anthropological theories and scientific analyses at graduate schoolsin the United States.Our former Guatemalan project member Juan Manuel Palomo is now studying in Tucson. Victor is alsoapplying to doctoral programs this year. They are the future leaders ofGuatemalan archaeology.

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