Digging the Mayans:
- Archeologists excavating a 2,500-year-old Maya city in Guatemala have unearthed buildings and massive carvings indicating the presence of a royal metropolis of more than 10,000 people at a time when, scientists had previously believed, the Maya were only simple farmers. New studies at the Cival site in the Peten jungle have unearthed the oldest known carved portrait of a Maya king and two massive stone masks of the Maya maize deity, discoveries indicating that the Maya developed a complex and sophisticated civilization hundreds of years earlier than previously believed. [LA Times]
Besides making news, archaeology plays a strong role in helping to define how we view ourselves, and plays a central role in addressing one of the really Big Questions: Is there such thing as progress? Put another way, does history have a direction? More prosaically, the more we know about past peoples, the more our lives can be informed by their successes and cautioned by their failures.
A couple of years ago I interviewed some experts on archaeology and culture for an NPR radio series I was involved with at the time, the first of whom was Dan Fuller, popular culture expert and English professor at Kent State University, Tuscarawas campus. I asked him what archaeology means:
Dan Fuller – It seems to me that archaeology is simply genealogy in a more scientific sense. People have always been fascinated about where they came from, and that’s what so much of the stimulus for archaeology has been: find the mask of Tutankhamen and he shows up on the covers of over 100 publications and that fascination with this was then and this is what we came from.
EO – So deep down, archaeology may help serve some of the same needs as genealogy – our need for roots, for belonging to something greater than our fleeting existence. Each of us is a point on a vertical line of descendants through time, but we are also points on a horizontal line representing humanity here and now. Learning of our past also allows us to measure current humanity against those who have come before. How do we measure up? Dan Fuller is an optimist:
DF – It usually takes me about 30 seconds to convince someone that the good old days were not better: if you consider a life span over thirty to be a desirable thing. Of course there are things that we don’t like about our civilization but in fact, most of us really subscribe to an optimistic belief that man can progress. We wouldn’t have the United Nations if in fact we did not believe that civilization can improve.
EO – While English professor Fuller sees humanity’s improvement as inevitable and manifest, Curator of Archaeology and Director of Science for the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, Brian Redmond, is a bit more cautious and measured.
Brian Redmond – In the general sense, I don’t believe that civilization has an intended arrow – I don’t believe there’s a progressive nature to it. I think that’s just how we perceive it. Talk to any culture at any one time, they probably think this is the best of times and it could never get much better than this. If you look at different aspects of culture, things do improve. There is a tendency toward greater complexity: in civilizations things get more complex, whether it’s religious organization, or political organization, government formation, and of course technology. There is a trend to be more and more complex.
But does that mean things are better? I don’t think necessarily. You don’t have to worry about the wolves coming to your door tonight and carrying your children off, or having enough to eat tomorrow, because we provide for ourselves in that way. But I think that there are other concerns that are there and other stresses that we deal with that never existed before, and in that sense we are probably not better off than people 100 years ago in terms of our lives. And there is still warfare, but the wars are worse and more consequential.
EO – Dr. Redmond, where and when would you like to live if you had a choice?
BR – I probably wouldn’t be happy in any other time if I went back with the knowledge of today’s time because you know what you’re missing, what you don’t have. I would like to go back and visit different time periods: I’d love to go back to the Cuyahoga Valley in 1500 AD and see what was going on. I think, of course, it would be great to see some of the classical civilizations of the Mediterranean world: Greece and Rome, or the Middle East – watch them construct the pyramids and how did they do that. it would be fun to go back to East Africa 3 million years ago and see an early human. Wouldn’t that be neat to go and see what your distant ancestors look like? Maybe you would say, “Hmm, that doesn’t look like me at all.”
EO – Much closer to our own time and place is the Maya civilization of Central America, which thrived between 250 and 900AD. Peter Dunham is an archaeologist at Cleveland State University, specializing in ancient civilizations, and in particular the Maya. Why should we be interested in the Maya?
Peter Dunham – I think we identify with them. They had all the complex features that we do: a remarkable system of mathematics, they invented their own writing system. Remember, we didn’t – we borrowed ours. They had absolutely fantastic astronomical knowledge, terribly accomplished architects. They were very, very talented artists and sculptors.
They managed to build this remarkable civilization in the middle of a tropical rain forest: precisely the environment that most successfully resists our inroads today. There are huge areas of Belize that I work in that are full of ancient ruins and not one modern human being because we haven’t really figured out how to sustain our civilization in that environment, but they did.
EO – The Mayas may have thrived in the rain forest of Central America, but after peaking between 600 and 800 AD, their civilization declined alarmingly. What happened?
PD – Many of us labor under the misassumption that the Maya disappeared – they didn’t. There are still several million Maya people today who take exception to the idea that they disappeared, but they certainly underwent a significant transformation in the century between 800 and 900-or-so AD. And, I think one of the things that draws many of us to the Maya is just that: because if we identify with them as being like ourselves and they experienced this dramatic and traumatic decline, then doesn’t that mean that we too ourselves could face something like that? And the answer to that question is “yes.” The rules of civilization are the same no matter where or when you play the game.
EO – Through the work of archaeologists, including Peter Dunham, we have learned that a multitude of factors piled up on the Maya until their civilization could bear the weight no more, including environmental degradation caused by overfarming and overpopulation, climate change, drought, malnutrition and disease, and the inability of the political, social, and belief systems to deal with these problems.
PD – We have the good fortune that we actually recognize these issues and we have sciences devoted to trying to address them. This happened so quickly to the Maya that I’m not quite sure they recognized what the problems were, let alone figure out how to resolve them.
EO – Since 1992, Dr. Dunham has led an archaeological project in Belize, on the Yucatan Peninsula just below Mexico. What’s it like working there?
PD – Basically, what you have there are canyons in the jungle. You also have sheer towers of stone, so the environment is really a glorious one. It’s also for those very reasons, however, a very challenging one. It’s very hot, very humid. When you get into these canyons there’s no breeze whatsoever, and you have to carry a pack full of your gear, and it gives you a real sense of the terrain. Along one of the rivers, this one river in particular is one of the most beautiful hikes I’ve ever seen anywhere: the water is sort of like liquid turquoise.
EO – Regardless of the surroundings, archaeologists dig – are there any changes forthcoming regarding how archaeologists work? Brian Redmond:
BR – The development of instruments to detect archaeological deposits below the ground without digging, where we can actually go out and survey a site, look for artifact concentrations and identify and map them without doing a lot of digging – which essentially, every time we dig something, it’s destroying it. It’s kind of controlled destruction, but that part of the site is gone when we’re done. Also, it’ll help do some of these large scale surveys in the advance of construction and development, and get a better idea of what’s there, and maybe save more things before they’re destroyed.
EO – Discovery, preservation, understanding: archaeologists are helping us find out who we are through knowledge of who we were.