Rainforest Reconnoitering

Some of the most exciting archaeological fieldwork takes place during the survey phase of a project. Survey consists of various methods of covering a selected region to determine where concentrations of artifacts, features, and/or sites are present across the landscape. Survey usually makes up the preliminary phase of a project, which is why many of us first and second year graduate students are reporting on such work this summer. Typically, survey is done by walking (though satellite and remote sensing technologies have become increasingly useful in recent decades). Archaeological survey should be done systematically to cover as much of the landscape as possible, yet variables outside of the control of the archaeologist often determine our approach.

The western Maya lowlands, showing the project area within the white circle

The western Maya lowlands, showing the project area within the white circle

Here in Chiapas, Mexico, as part of the Proyecto Arqueologico Busilja Chocolja (PABC), we have had to be flexible to the realities of working in a remote area where jungle obscures many of the features we are trying to find. And where ranchers have cleared the jungle, we still have to be respectful of the desires of the various landowners and stakeholders, many of whom are wary of outsiders crossing their barbed wire fences to do “reconnaissance.” Indeed, many villagers here are self-identified Zapatistas, who proudly announce on the numerous signs along the highway that in this region the “people command and the government obeys.” Thus, archaeology here is oddly anthropological, as we spend much of our initial work getting to know landowners and ejidos (communities that share in the use of designated tracts of land), building trust to reach a compromise that benefits everyone.

The Usumacinta River between Mexico (left) and Guatemala (right) near Piedras Negras

The Usumacinta River between Mexico (left) and Guatemala (right) near Piedras Negras

In the last two years, I have been fortunate to be a part of this process, joining project directors Charles Golden and Andrew Scherer, as well as a number of local and foreign students. The PABC project area is defined by the space between the Chocolja River to the north and the Busilja River to the south, both of which flow into the Usumacinta River, which marks the eastern boundary of not only the project but also the frontier between Mexico and Guatemala. To the west, the foothills of the Chiapas highlands mark the extent of our survey area. These foothills are famous for their protected lowland rainforests, as well as important archaeological sites such as Palenque and Bonampak, visited by thousands of Mexican and foreign tourists each year. Along the banks of the Usumacinta River are other less-visited sites including Yaxchilan and Piedras Negras, in Guatemala.

Piedras Negras Stela 12 depicting a victory against Pomona with the aid of a La Mar sajal

Piedras Negras Stela 12 depicting a victory against Pomona with the aid of a La Mar sajal

PABC surveys in the last five years have been filling in the gaps between these large Classic period (AD 250-900) Maya kingdoms to identify sites such as La Mar and Budsilha first documented by Teobert Maler in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and to find archaeologically unknown sites such as Rancho Bufalo and Flores Magon, to name only a few. Some of the sites within the project area, notably La Mar and El Cayo are epigraphically-attested, meaning these kingdoms were mentioned in numerous monuments belonging to Piedras Negras or Yaxchilan. These monuments suggest that subsidiary sites like La Mar were crucial to the military control of the landscape, and larger kingdoms would often support the kingship of a secondary ruler (known as a sajal) at a nearby site. Indeed La Mar, at various times during the Classic period, fell under the sway of Palenque or Piedras Negras, and secondary rulers are shown on monuments accompanying kings on military attacks against other kingdoms. Archaeologically, we have documented dozens of outposts that we have identified as military lookouts or checkpoints that may have been used to control travel and trade throughout the region during the Late Classic period.

The modern boundary between Mexico and Guatemala is another complicating factor in the archaeological survey of the region. This season, we have been given access to survey parts of Guatemala across the river from Yaxchilan. I hope to report on this survey in a few weeks! In the meantime, I encourage you to visit the PABC website for updates, publications, and field reports: http://usumacinta-archaeology.blogspot.com/

Mound group between two hills. A defensive wall is located beyond the tree line likely to monitor movement into the site from the adjacent valley

Mound group between two hills. A defensive wall is located beyond the tree line likely to monitor movement into the site from the adjacent valley

Drawing a defensive feature

Drawing a defensive feature

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