Friday, March 25, 2005

Mayan dig experts present findings

Armchair talk brings tales from the field to Ketchum audience

Express Staff Writer

Archaeologist Francisco Estrada-Belli is dwarfed by the enormous stucco face of a Maya deity, found at the Preclassic Maya site of Cival in Guatemala. Estrada-Belli and his team uncovered the second half of the mask in April 2004. Photo by Bruce Smith

Imagine a time when our ancestors might stumble upon the remains of our society and what they might find. Would they consider Sun Valley the key city for understanding our culture and place in history, or would it be Ketchum, or even Bellevue or Hailey? Which city was the center of power, when? It seems preposterous to pose such questions today, but stepping back 2,000 years and querying an entirely different and unfamiliar culture, hidden beneath layers of earth and time, the query fits the framework for the study of archeology and anthropology.

For Francisco Estrada-Belli, an assistant professor of archaeology at Vanderbilt University, and Nina Neivens, a Community School graduate working on her Ph.D. in anthropology at Tulane University, posing such questions has been their stock and trade during their work on the Holmul Archaeological Project in northern Guatemala. There, the couple is busy uncovering a second, earlier city, Cival, a major discovery made last year by Estrada-Belli and his team, the first important finding since Holmul was discovered in 1911. In fact, the discovery is so great, the work to uncover it in its entirety may encapsulate the majority of the couple's professional lives. Estrada-Belli and Neivens were married in August.

"It looks like that's probably what we're going to do for a good chunk of our careers when Francisco is not teaching and it's not raining," Neivens said. One of the biggest challenges the researches have is not getting stuck in the rain forest, which has some 10 months of rain.

On May 5, 2004, Estrada-Belli announced to the world the discovery of Cival, which proves that Mayan culture in the region is 500 years older than previously believed and on par with the most famous ruins in Guatemala, El Mirador, one of the first cities in North America. Cival turns out to be the largest hub of Mayan culture in its time in history and place in Guatemala.

"I always wanted to be an archeologist," Estrada-Belli said. "It fascinates me that there is an entire civilization out there we can learn from. I chose Holmul, in particular, because it is an area that has not been studied in any depth. I thought I could find something new there. It is all about traveling down different roads."

The couple will present their discoveries and adventures as the latest subject of exploration for the Environmental Resource Center's Armchair Adventure Series to be held at nexStage Theatre in Ketchum at 7 p.m. Monday, March 28. Among the tales from the field, Estrada-Belli will share his experiences with the first task of securing artifacts from looters, a responsibility that continues in exchange for the opportunity to study in the area.

"When we arrived the fires in the huts of the looters were still going. They probably knew we were preparing the expedition," he said. "It is important when doing this research to publicize these places to protect them. For the privilege of working there, we help with conservation of the forest and the sites."

Estrada-Belli will give a Power Point presentation Monday. His first talk on the subject, which made worldwide headlines last May, was at the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C. He has also presented his findings to the American Anthropological Association. After his visit to Sun Valley, Monday, he will be speaking Thursday in Salt Lake City at a meeting of the Society of American Archeology, and, April 10, he will be at the Denver Art Museum.

And, following speaking engagements, Estrada-Belli and Neivens will go back in to the field to race the monsoon season gathering information during the region's truncated weeks of dryness.

"I hope to do this when it's easier," Estrada-Belli said. "That depends on my teaching schedule."

Sites that had already been discovered remained unprotected since 1911, and conservation of the ruins and the rain forest ecology is part of the motivation and obligation for Estrada-Belli and the graduate students who work with him.

"The key is that these archeological sites are going to be a target for investment and the investments will help to protect the forest around them," he said. "The main point of giving this presentation is to inform people about conservation of the rainforest and the archeological site. Unlike other countries where it is often one or the other, here we can save both together in the same place. We are also trying not to change (the ruins) dramatically. There is no point in cutting the trees around them. There are exotic birds, monkeys and orchids in the forest. We are trying to preserve this. We have these incredible (archeological) remains within this fantastic ecological setting."

The couple is typically at the dig in May and early June when they can break away from university obligations in the U.S., just before the monsoon season, that begins in June. For July and August they move out of the jungle to Flores or Melchor, Guatemala taking artifacts for study.

Admission for the event is $15, or $25 per couple. For more information, contact the ERC at 726-4333.

Who are the Maya?

The word Maya evokes images of mystery with ancient pyramids soaring above trackless jungle, giant carved stones covered with hieroglyphs and a sudden, mysterious demise. The great Maya civilization spanned more than two millennia and then faded, for reasons still not completely understood.

Archaeologists divide the Maya civilization into three main time periods:

·Preclassic: Approximately 2000 B.C. to A.D. 250. Borrowing ideas from its neighbors and adding its own ingredients, a population in the Yucatán Peninsula rain forest creates one of the most brilliant civilizations of antiquity.

·Classic: A.D. 250 to A.D. 900. The great city states of the Maya thrive under rulers who trace their lineage to the gods. Wars between cities rage over political power and control of trade, and with them comes ritual procuring of captives for sacrifice. Dynasties collapse; population's decline precipitously.

·Postclassic: A.D. 900 to A.D. 1521. While other regions are decaying or all but abandoned, centers of power like Chichén Itzá rule in the north, and trade expands. Nonetheless, Maya cities began to decline as Spaniards arrive on Yucatán's shores.

Yet the Maya live on today. Millions of Maya descendants in Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador still speak the Mayan language and observe its rituals.

Archaeologists are uncovering a sophisticated Maya culture including Guatemala's once-lost city of El Mirador and the Preclassic site of San Bartolo.

A network of cities thrived in the Preclassic era, including the Maya lowlands city of Cival in today's Guatemala.

Cival dates to around 150 B.C. Archaeologist Francisco Estrada-Belli has used satellite technology to locate and to determine that Cival is twice as big as initially believed.

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