Volume 12 Year 2005


Archaeologist Digs The Past, Preserves The Present In Guatemala

After David Freidel joined SMU’s Anthropology faculty in 1974, a veteran in the department advised him that a successful archaeologist drew on his capacity to take risks when digging through the remnants of an ancient culture. He recalls that Fred Wendorf, now the Henderson Morrison Professor Emeritus of Anthropology, “told me that there is a need for courage in the field – that I would be working on the edges.”

Freidel realized that to achieve his goals with each dig he had to engage the local citizens and governments in preserving their past and to create economic opportunities for them. In the intervening 30 years, the research has taken him to the jungles of Mexico and Central America to unearth the ruins of ancient Maya civilization, in areas that were sometimes risky and unsafe.

Today, Freidel, the University Distinguished Professor of Archaeology in Dedman College, co-directs an international archaeological project that is attempting to combine scientific research on the ancient Maya past of Guatemala with conservation of the country’s tropical rainforest. The site of the dig, known from ancient Maya inscriptions as Waká and today as El Perú, is located in the middle of the rainforest in the area of Petén.

Waká was once an important economic and political center of the ancient Maya world. It formed one corner of a triangle of major sites that also included Calakmul (Mexico) to the north and Tikal to the east. The site, comprising 672 monumental structures and untold numbers of small house structures, sits atop an escarpment 6 kilometers north of the San Pedro Mártir River. Oil prospectors discovered the site in the 1960s. Harvard researcher Ian Graham recorded the site’s monuments in the early 1970s but did not conduct any excavations. SMU is the first institution to undertake scientific excavations at Waká.

The Waká Archaeological Project is part of an alliance of government agencies, citizens, and conservationists trying to halt a cycle of destruction in Guatemala’s largest national park, Laguna del Tigre, where Waká is located. The park, Central America’s largest nature preserve, serves as a refuge for several endangered species, including the scarlet macaw, for which the park is one of the last remaining habitat zones. Cattle ranching, drug smugglers, and arsonists are encroaching on the park, however, and illegal activities that involve slash-and-burn agriculture and clearing for pastureland threaten the park’s future. Last year 100,000 acres of the park burned, endangering the area’s wildlife and cultural history.

The Waká project, together with the Government of Guatemala, the Wildlife Conservation Society, and ProPetén, is trying to save 230,000 acres of the park from deforestation. The organizations have formed the K’ante’el (Cahn-tay-elle) Alliance, which means “precious forest” in Maya and refers to the mystical place where the Maya Maize God was reborn and where the Maya believe their civilization began. The goal is preservation of the park and development of alternative sources of income for local communities that emphasize conservation of the park’s rich natural and cultural resources.

“This is an initiative that can position archaeology, not only as scientific research, but as a useful activity for the community and the country in which we work,” says project co-director and archaeologist Héctor Escobedo of Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala. “Researching the site and learning its secrets are the first steps toward making a meaningful contribution to Petén, and to Guatemala as a whole.”

Freidel and Escobedo are directing a team of Guatemalan, American, and Canadian archaeologists as they unearth the treasures of Waká. The site was inhabited as early as 500 B.C., but reached its peak between A.D. 400 and A.D. 800. At its height, the city may have been an economically and strategically important center, and home to tens of thousands of people. Over a period of 700 years, 22 kings ruled at Waká.

“We know a great deal about the ancient inhabitants of this site from their monuments,” Freidel says. “The more than 40 carved monuments, or stelae, at the site chronicle the activities of Waká’s rulers, including their rise to power, their conquests in war, and their deaths.”

Excavations have focused on a number of significant areas, including a large ceremonial complex in the southeast portion of the site where evidence of extensive termination rituals may provide clues to events that occurred at the end of the site’s life. At this location, SMU graduate student Olivia Farr found dozens of complete ceramic vessels, fragments, and human remains scattered in front of the building.

“This kind of termination is an act of desecration and speaks to a violent event in the site’s history,” Freidel says.

Excavations also have delved into activity at residential compounds and at the main palace complex of the site, where at one time the rulers of Waká presided over the sprawling ancient city. The palace served as a place of residence, politics, trade, and governance, but evidence also indicates that the palace served another function – as a burial site. While conducting excavations in the palace complex to collect stratigraphic ceramic samples, Canadian archaeologist and SMU graduate student David Lee discovered a royal burial chamber. The burial contained remains identified as that of a female ruler or queen and more than 2,400 artifacts.

The individual was interred in a vaulted burial chamber that was built inside the shell of an existing building atop the palace acropolis. A preliminary analysis of the 23 complete vessels found in the chamber suggests a burial date estimated between A.D. 650 and A.D. 750. The interment, which contained artifacts of green stone, shell, and obsidian, provides significant information about the importance of this person during her life. The individual’s royal status was identified by the presence of greenstone plaques that form a war helmet and of a carved royal jewel, or “huunal,” that once may have been a part of this headdress. The woman buried in the chamber also had stingray spines placed on her body in the pelvic region. Stingray spines are bloodletting implements that are depicted being used to let blood from the genitalia of Maya kings.

“That this female ruler had these implements supports the idea that in ancient Maya culture, gender roles were sometimes blended,” Lee says.

Freidel and researchers hope that additional analysis will help shed light on the lives of the kings and queens of Waká. The project’s 10 different research operations are focusing not only on the substantive hieroglyphic record at the site or on archaeological discoveries, but also on site conservation. Starting in 2003, the Waká Project began stabilizing, restoring, and reassembling buildings and monuments that have been disturbed in the hundreds of years since the site’s abandonment in the ninth century.

“One of our most ambitious projects has been the stabilization of an 18-meter temple pyramid that was structurally undermined by looting,” Freidel says.

Under the direction of Guatemalan archaeologists, a team of masons has worked to consolidate the structure so that scientific excavations can proceed. In addition, Guatemalan specialists have reassembled the fragments of broken stelae and copied them using latex molds to create fiberglass replicas. “We see it as our obligation,” Escobedo says, “not only to retrieve the archaeological information that this site has to offer, but to preserve it for future generations.”

Once an important center of political, social, and economic activity, Waká is once again at a strategically important crossroads, central to the efforts of the K’ante’el Alliance to save this important site, and the national park it resides in, from destruction.

“The future of this area,” Freidel says, “will depend on our ability to do what the Maya did here: establish a stable system for managing this area, protect it from threats as they may come, and establish an economy that will see it survive into the future.”

Freidel, author of numerous books and articles on the ancient Maya, recently completed a manuscript titled Flintshield that attempts to understand the presence of warfare that occurred throughout the ancient Maya civilization. “Through the book I try to explain why the Maya fought unceasing wars that eventually damaged their economy and precipitated their collapse,” he says.

In an article for The Dallas Morning News (February 19, 2005), Freidel wrote about the lessons he has learned from 30 years of conducting research on the ancient Maya and how they apply today.

“The Maya created one of the world’s great civilizations in the middle of a tropical forest environment,” he said. “They were ingenious farmers who managed to produce vast quantities of staple foods like maize and beans while also growing enough cacao (chocolate) and cotton to support wealthy and cosmopolitan cities.

“They were no saints. They cut down vast tracts of trees for charcoal to manufacture lime plaster to cover their majestic palaces, temples, and plazas in gleaming white and red.

“After a thousand years of pre-Columbian civilization, the Petén rainforest likely survived as precious royal parks. ... But around 760, the Maya world in the Petén started to collapse.

“Within a century most of the great cities were depopulated. By 950, classic Maya civilization was, for all intents and purposes, dead; the forest began reclaiming its territory.

“The Maya people survived, and today they number in the millions again. Some of them work with me excavating the ruins of El Perú-Waká, trying to figure out why the world of their ancestors collapsed.

“War, environmental degradation – the likely reasons are depressingly familiar.”

Freidel returned to Guatemala this spring to conduct a fourth season of site excavations at Waká. For more information and images from the site, visit smu.edu/waka.