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Archaeology and Technology: Recent Work in Mesoamerica

In March, 2005 Freddy Cuevas, writing for the AP, noted the results of ongoing explorations in the ancient Mayan city of Copan which is in modern day Honduras.

Copan is 200 miles west of Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras. Copan is a large and important site in the Mayan world which encompassed Mexico and Central America. Copan was most important between 250 and 900 A.D.

The recent discovery was of the bodies of 69 people who died about 1450 years ago. They also discovered the remains of 30 more edifices in the site. Looking at many ancient sites in mesoamerica, the realization of the nature of architectural archaeology is a surprise. All of a sudden one realizes the puzzles of stones and ruined building bases, sculptures, bas reliefs and stelae (hieroglyphic columns often with histories chiseled into the stone) that they uncover and try to put together.

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The writer has opened a photoblog at Mayan World Photoblog that has a collection of pictures from Mayan ruins in the Mexican Yucatan.

Many anthropologists think that the metropolis of Copan was probably abandoned due to cyclical population pressures. Seiichi Nakamura, a Japanese scientist working with a team at the site, thinks these bodies were buried about 550 years ago. This part of the site is planned to be opened to tourists in 2007, although the sense of time in the tropics might make that more of a hope than a plan.

Copan was first “discovered” in 1576 by Diego Garcia de Palacios who represented Spain’s King Felipe II. In the 1840s, the team of John L. Stephens and Frederick Catherwood (see Incidents of Travel in the Yucatan which is a wonderful adventure story of their travels and travails) made Copan a famous place name.

UNESCO made Copan a World Heritage Site in 1981. Sadly, the Honduran mainland is presently noted for its violence. Still, as a world site, it would be one of the safest places in the country.

In October of this year NASA Science News reported on a new high tech, space age “situation room” that has been located in Panama. This communication and observation center is trying to help Central Americans avoid some of the fate of the ancient Maya.

Although Central America has 0.5% of the land mass of the earth, it has 7-8% of its plant and animal species, many little known and some possibly of great potential use. However, the region is constantly under attack by earthquakes, illegal logging, ranching and hurricanes (more and more of them, it would seem).

NASA is using its high tech wonders in the SERVIR system to try to stop the loss of biological species and to stop environmental crimes. SERVIR, in Spanish, would translate to “Mesoamerican Regional Visualization and Monitoring System”.

NASA scientists at SERVIR have developed satellite tracking of forest fire “hot spots pixels” acquired from images from orbit. Teams can then be dispatched to control the outbreaks. Many or most of these fires begin when sugar cane fields are set on fire to burn off the sharp, cutting leaves so that the harvesters can work by hand in the fields. Others come from “slash and burn” clearing of the remaining rainforest.

According to Dan Irwin, the project manager,

“This kind of environmental monitoring is important to a region that has seen the collapse of at least one grand civilization, that of the Maya. There’s mounting archeological evidence that the once proud Mayan civilization, with 10 million citizens throughout Mesoamerica a thousand years ago, may have been due to colossal environmental foolishness.

“The Maya had totally destroyed their forests,” Irwin explains. “That deforestation and local climatic conditions, we believe, led to such a severe drought that … the entire Maya culture disappeared in just a few years.”

The new program of cooperation among Central American governments and the SERVIR program began in 1988 when pictures from the Landsat satellite were examined by NASA’s only archaeologist, Tom Sever, used an image to look for ruins in the area of the Guatemala-Mexico border (at the top of the Peten region). He saw more. He saw the razor sharp delineation between as yet undeveloped Guatemala and the slashed and burned development in Mexico. The picture was picked up by the National Geographic.

[The picture]… became a catalyst for the president and congress of Guatemala to set up what they call the Mayan Biosphere Reserve—Guatemala’s largest protected area.

The Mayan Biosphere Reserve led, in turn, to the creation of something even bigger: the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, an environmental greenway the length of Central America, connecting parks and preserves among all Central American nations. NASA has helped monitor this so-called “biocorridor” from space…

Discoveries, changes, and new knowledge continue to uncover more and more of the great Mayan civilization of southern Mexico and Central America. In The Maya by James D. Coe the Maya were described as:

… hardly a vanished people, for they number an estimated two million souls, the largest single block of American Indians north of Peru. Most of them have resisted with remarkable tenacity the encroachments of Spanish American civilization. Besides their numbers and cultural integrity, they are remarkable for an extraordinary cohesion…

All of the Mesoamerican Indians shared a number of traits which were more or less peculiar to them and absent elsewhere in the New World: hieroglyphic writing, books of bark paper or deerskin which were folded like screens, a complex permutation calendar, a games… with a rubber ball in a special court,… specialized markets… and emphasis upon self-sacrifice and mutilation…

This is one of what will probably continue as an occasional these since we live surrounded by ancient sites and present day Mayans. Theirs is a fascinating and too long ignored history only recently being seriously and successfully unearthed. It lasted from its Archaic period (1500 B.C.+) to the Late Post Classic (1530 A.D. with the invasions of the Spaniards).

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Visit the sites for further study and wander through my photoblog where I am putting up our explorations of ancient Mayan sites. These aren’t, as we have heard from some American tourists, “just another pile of rocks.” They are interesting and sometimes blow you away with the deep realization and vision of these cities as bright, bustling, peopled metropoli with houses and gardens, markets and the all-important temples to pantheons of gods.

Here is a summary of links:

There is, of course, mine: The Mayan World Photoblog

An interesting Mexican site is The Mayan Culture which starts with a quotation from the Popul Vuh a sacred book of Mayan cosmology.

There are more paths to follow backwards in time into this mesmerizing civilization and, obviously, new and high tech ways to follow them.

The Mayan gods brought the sun, mathematics, and architecture to mesoamerica. We are starting to understand and protect it.

About hfdratch

  • Bennett

    Well done, alpha. The pictures on your blog are wonderful! I saw a bit of the Guatemalan temples that could hardly be called ruins, while covering Survivor:Guatemala. The Mayan works are an arcitectural history that need to be preserved.

  • Natalie Bennett

    Fascinating – thanks!

  • pogblog

    Alpha, I’m so grateful you’re highlighting this remarkable civilization. We have so much to learn from them. I use Carl Johan Calleman’s fascinating Mayan Tzolkin Count Calendar every day. Tomorrow is 12 Deer . Manik . West . tzolkin 207 12.25.05 sun. This calendar alerts us to energy patterns as real as the weather — just not a weather we’re used to attending to. I’m in awe of the Mayans’ perspicacity.

  • Bennett

    I’m in awe of anyone who knows what “perspicacity” means!



  • pogblog

    Let’s just say that Washington DC is not a Perspica City these days . . .

    . . . if I may troll(in the fishing mode) for droll.