The Archeologist

Forty-year old Edwin Román-Ramírez is an archeologist who grew up in Chimaltenango, a town of about 75,000 people that lies 30 miles west of the capital, Guatemala City.  In the first part of this two-part series, Dr. Román-Ramirez discusses his ideas on Mesoamerican archeology: his work in Zacapa, the public’s impressions of the Maya and his own, and the new technology that is being used to uncover gigantic settlements here-to-fore unknown. He also comments on how funding is difficult to come by for the enormous excavation projects he and others carry out.

Working in Zacapa

Zacapa has a lot of archeological sites, but this area is not well known to many people. We call the people who lived there the Motagua people since the society was near the Motagua River.  They are not Mayas, and that is something really interesting to us because when people talk about jade they only talk about Mayas, but these people were extracting jade.  They were from another culture apart from the Mayas and they had huge communities, like La Vega del Cobán, which has 800 sites.  The Motagua people seem to have been insulated, and they were able to survive for so long.  We need to know the relationship between these places, how this culture was able to sustain itself without any interference from the Mayas.  We need to think more about which strategies they deployed to communicate and negotiate the politics with the rest of the Maya region.

The earliest evidence we have of the Motagua culture is from 800 BC, and they were there until 900 AD, a really long occupation.  When I finished my thesis in 2006, we had discovered 100 sites, and I wrote on the sociopolitical organization that these sites reflected. For me, it was the first experience as an archeologist, being in the field.  

I think that now that we have more time and there are more people researching different sites, we can start to understand how complex this society was, but it’s hard to know everything about a culture; there are many unanswered questions.  

Impressions of ancient Maya culture

As a culture in general, I love it.  Every time I look at some of the pieces of art that they were able to create, I am amazed.  From the past to the present, I think they were unusual in their creativity.  The way they secured food was so smart also. Many of the things that we enjoy today came from their efforts, like chocolate. Other foods can be associated with Maya innovation in agriculture: tamales, avocados, maiz, tomatoes.

They also were able to adapt to a very difficult environment.  I work more in the lowlands, in the Petén region, but all the regions were difficult to live in. When you read a lot of history about Egypt, why were they so successful?  Where did they place their cities?  They are next to rivers where they can get water to drink and grow crops. But the Maya had to sustain their big cities depending only on the rain during the rainy season.  

We have different types of jungles, and in them there are some small islands where the cities were, and there are swamps around the cities we call “bajos” and for some communities, lakes were nearby.  So there was water in these bajos during the rainy season, and we know that they were able to create channels in those bajos, and that’s where they were farming.  And that’s where they could get their water to sustain the larger communities.  

The problem is that for four months you are going to have the dry season, and the rain goes not to the swamps or lakes, it goes to those places that are driest.  So it is fascinating to research how they managed to secure water for such large populations during those times.

Take El Mirador, which was one of the largest cities around 300 BC to 200 AD; it’s huge.  We don’t see a city that big again during the ancient Maya period.  It is so grand and ostentatious. This city had maybe between 60,000 to 100,000 people living there during the year.  Tikal is small compared to it.  We can see from our measurements of the lakes, how the climate became drier in the year 100 AD, and that is when you see a decline.  You see a lot of wars between cities.  Maybe it’s harder to get water, and there is fighting.  The problem with this period of time is that we don’t have a lot of writing, and the writing that exists doesn’t have those types of narratives about war.  The writing we have is “tagging,” tagging people, deities, or objects. They started to write about it later.

The public portrayal of the ancient Maya

Of course, there are a lot of things wrong about how people see Maya culture. We can talk about movies, which will always reflect what the director wants to show.  For example, Apocalypto, a film on the ancient Maya.  Much of the history was wrong, but I think some of it was cool.  You have this huge movie, a Hollywood production, where you can hear Yucatec Maya throughout the entire film.  I think that’s good.  When we look at some of the ways that the movie portrayed the kings, they are how we imagine them. I liked that part; the director did that well.  And there are also documentaries that are good.

What I don’t like is that a lot of the movie (and other productions) focused on the theme of sacrifice, and every culture has had some type of sacrifice.  Even Christian cultures did.  For Mayas, we know a lot of sacrifices happened, but the problem is that sometimes we only show that.  It’s discouraging because it will reinforce the stereotype that some people are less civilized and people will use that feeling to continue to discriminate against indigenous people today.  But the popular media are never going to show that western cultures engaged in sacrifices.  It has been part of human evolution, the history of mankind.

Archeologists have to be careful about this subject.  For example, once we were working  and we found the tomb of the founder of the dynasty at my site, and seven children had been sacrificed beside the king.  We had to issue this press release in the National Palace, and we had to report it because it was true, but we were trying to be careful about how we were going to say it.  I remember the directors (like myself), we were trying to position the information so that it would not get the attention. We did the press release and we didn’t mention a lot about it.  Some of the news came on an hour later — and we have social media now that makes the news even more immediate — and the media reported that seven kids were scarified with the royal king!  We tried to play it down so the media would not go there, but they went there.

Innovations in Mesoamerican archeology

Our understanding of these civilizations is constantly evolving.  We thought we knew a lot, but there are always developments that create a new paradigm and shifts our understanding of what happened.  For example, there was a big break in archeology when we were able to date people and events using carbon 14.  That was a big change around the world.

In Maya history, there was a great shift in the 1980s, when, after a long process, we were able to read glyphs. Now we could read the history and were able to make new assumptions.  That changed a lot of our understanding of Maya culture. 

Carbon-14 dating is a technique that provides age estimates for carbon-based material that originated from living organisms.  First developed in the late 1940s, the method revolutionized knowledge of the past.  The glyphs, or Mayan writing, are made up of symbols that represent syllables and words.  These glyphs are often found on walls, bark paper, and ceramics, and they were sometimes carved into wood and stone.

Today there is a new change: the technology to map sites. Now we have LiDAR (short for Light Detection and Ranging), a system of deploying lasers from an airplane to create images of what is below the jungle.  It’s like an MRI, when you go to a doctor and they can scan your entire body to see what is inside. That is what is happening with LiDAR.

In the Petén, the jungle is really thick and structures that are 10 meters tall can be lost.  Before LiDAR, we were not able to see everything because the jungle masked it, like areas where they were farming.  We know that the Maya were farmers, and at some sites we can see the areas where they engaged in agriculture, but we only knew that because we were excavating there.  It was by luck.

With LiDAR we can penetrate the different layers of the jungle: the top, middle and bottom. We  are able to recognize two phenomena that we were unable to see previously.  First, we can hone in and view the smallest structures and modifications and the exact locations of where they were farming. We can see terraces and things like that. Second, we can scope out and see really large structures.  Maybe we could see a part of something before, but we could not see the whole.  The area would be so large that we could not see it from our perspective on the ground. Now we can see structures like defensive walls or channels to conduct water that can be two kilometers long.  

What LiDAR can do is to remove digitally all the jungle, and then you have all the surface and any and every change that occurred. And this technology is still being developed.  In the future we will have better LiDAR.  But it is a very important technology because we can see entire cities.  We can see not just monuments or some group of houses. Now we can see some 60 structures at once.  Where I work at El Palmar on the Yucatán peninsula, findings from LiDAR made us change a lot in a book we were writing.  For instance, we used to say this site was very small compared to Tikal, but now we know that El Palmar has 920 more structures to it than we thought.  It was about the same size as Tikal, but we were not able to see it before. 

The funding challenge

Archeology is really expensive.  It cannot be done by one person, like in other fields, say history.  It requires a greater investment.  We need to pay workers for the excavation process.  We need excavators, helpers, cooks, drivers, and the number we need changes year to year.  Sometimes we need 45 to 50 people.

We know funding has to come from the government, something that we don’t have much of here. There is a Ministry of Sports and Culture that receives less than one percent of the national budget, and that one percent has to be divided among dance, painting, the symphony, everything that is culturally related, and sports as well, which takes up 60 percent of that amount that is already less than 1 percent.  

We do have money coming in from private donors in Guatemala as well as international sources.  We have private donors from the USA and others parts of the world, and also you have people that get grants from foundations.  In the USA you can get grants from the NEH (the National Endowment of the Humanities), and the NSF (National Science Foundation), and from Europe they have their own places to get money. 

The Guatemalan state does help, but it is not very much.  I think the institution in charge of archeology is doing everything it can, but it has to pay a lot of guards to protect the sites. So most of the money does not go to research, but rather to pay the salaries of people who are taking care of the archeological locations in different regions of Guatemala. I think the president should raise the budget to maybe two percent.    

The archeology being carried out by Guatemalans is very new; we started in the 1970s.  Here in Guatemala we have two universities dedicated to archeological research: San Carlos and Del Valle.  Before that, there were archeologists, but they were from the outside. Actually, most Guatemalans think archeologists come only from a foreign country and they cannot conceive of a Guatemalan archeologist.  They simply cannot believe it.  But now there are about 250 of us, and we are learning more and more about our ancient past.

Edwin Román Ramirez, Antigua, Guatemala, June 10, 2019.