Every year, the Penn Museum provides support to Penn undergraduates and graduate students as they deepen their understanding of the human experience outside the Museum’s walls. Follow these blog posts from our intrepid young scholars as they report on the sights and sites that they encounter throughout their travels in the field.
When we left off in the last blog post, we were celebrating the end of the season of field research in Chiapas, Mexico. This year, the Proyecto Arqueologico Busilja-Chocolja, directed by Charles Golden and Andrew Scherer, conducted survey and preliminary excavations with the communities of Nueva Esperanza Progresista, Palenque and La Selva, Ocosingo surrounding the Maya archaeological sites of La Selva and El Infiernito. These two sites revealed very different chronological contexts suggesting a change in settlement patterns at the end of the Late Classic period (AD 600-800) that reflected larger political crises within the region.
Local members of the community of La Selva showed us the archaeological site of the same name during the 2014 field season, and we placed this site at the top of our to-do list for the 2015 season. La Selva is a relatively small site, with its epicenter consisting of about ten structures surrounding a formal patio. Abundant settlement likely lies on adjacent parcels, but a systematic survey of the area will take many more seasons of fieldwork and permission from other landholders.
Though the archaeological site of La Selva is small, the scale and quality of its architecture suggests the settlement was the seat of an elite group who monitored the travel route between the Usumacinta River and one of its tributaries, the Busilja River. Evidence from sites nearby, including La Mar and Budsilha, suggest that during the Late Classic period, these valley sites served as extensions of the noble court of Piedras Negras, Guatemala, a nearby dynastic center.
Further evidence from excavations of a large looter’s pit in the main structure support this possibility. Though almost completely destroyed, we uncovered evidence of at least three burials underneath the structure, with the remains of fine polychrome plates and jars with close ties to a ceramic phase associated with a Late Classic period florescence and Piedras Negras. The lack of evidence of ceramics from earlier or later periods at La Selva suggests that the site was directly aligned with the fate of Piedras Negras, which collapsed during the Late and Terminal Classic period transition, between AD 808 and 850.
In contrast, excavations at the hilltop archaeological site of El Infiernito uncovered only evidence of occupation from the Late Preclassic period (450 BC – AD 250) and the end of the Late Classic period (late 8th century and early 9th century AD). This preliminary data suggests a shift in settlement patterns at the end of the Late Classic period from valley sites integral to the management of land routes and agricultural areas to hilltop sites associated with defensive locations. El Infiernito provides an interesting opportunity to understand Late Classic period settlement in a unique, defensive setting.
Due to its isolated location on a hilltop, the trip to El Infiernito involves a half-hour drive and a one-hour hike through cattle pastures, maize fields, jungle, and hilly terrain. Luckily, our colleague Juan Carlos was able to provide his horse and his dog to accompany us to the base of the hill (the dog only offered emotional rather than physical help). From there, we carried the necessary tools and supplies up the hill for the last 15 minutes of the hike.
We have much more work ahead of us for subsequent field seasons, but we have many promising avenues for research. The main question that will continue to drive research in the future has to do with how rural populations in this region during the Late Classic period adapted to the larger political crisis that enveloped the Maya area by the Terminal Classic period (AD 800-900). Comparing materials recovered from sites like La Selva and El Infiernito will begin to shed light on a turbulent period in Maya history. I look forward to returning to Chiapas, Mexico next summer to develop and test this question further.