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February-May 2003Interactive Dig at Waka'
The first order of business was to set up camp.
Home sweet home
Our water comes from a nearby aguada, a boggy lake which is also home to crocodiles (note sign on right).
Students inspect a stela fragment in the plaza.
Some of Waka's buildings have holes like this one left by looters.
The first days on site were spent exploring the ancient structures and deciding where to dig.

All photos courtesy of the Proyecto Arqueológico Waka'. Click on images for larger versions.
by Olivia Farr

Session One: Preparing to Dig

Archaeology is a passion. Why else would we venture into the depths of the Guatemalan jungle for four months? As members of the Proyecto Arqueológico Waka', a group of students and professors from extraordinarily diverse backgrounds, we'll carry out research in the face of every manner of adversity, learning firsthand the level of diplomacy and organization it takes to launch an archaeological project in the middle of one of the largest biosphere reserves in Central America, while complying with guidelines of Guatemala's National Institute of Anthropology and History (IDAEH), the CONAP (National Council for Protected Areas), and the ProPetén (a nongovernmental organization designed to protect natural areas of the Petén region). We'll also need to maintain friendly relations with the surrounding communities from which a significant portion of the labor force will be hired.

Our first full day at Waka' was devoted to camp preparation. Some of us worked on the laboratory, while others broke up rocks or hauled rocks and dirt to various construction sites in camp. We also needed to set up a way to draw water from our local aguada--a boggy lake covered in vegetation with some fish and crocodiles--and run it through a Katadyn water filtration system, the type used by the U.S. Army. Then there were other important features of the camp to be set up ASAP, like the showers and latrines! After all our hard work, the evening was a relaxing one complete with guitar music courtesy of project co-director David Freidel.

The next day we huffed and puffed our way to the site. The uphill trek to the center of the site was a bit of a killer for those of us who spend the rest of the year with our noses in books, even though we did it without equipment this first time. Once we made it, David Freidel told us about the site's history. Co-director Héctor Escobedo translated for the Guatemalan students, as we took in this place that would be our focus for the next four months and the subject of our research for the next few years.

Harvard archaeologist Ian Graham recorded Waka's monuments in the 1970s, and we are using his plan of the site as a general guide. Most of our work this first year will be concentrated in a central plaza.

  • Keith Eppich and Griselda Pérez will try to get a handle on the site's chronology, digging test pits in the plaza floor for a ceramic sample.
  • Michelle Rich and Stanley Guenter will excavate the wite-naah structure, a building Stan believes to be a Teotihuacan fire house, which is presently covered with thick vegetation including two huge trees.
  • Mary Jane Acuña will excavate around the base of the broken stelae surrounding an adjacent structure--possibly enclosing a royal tomb--where stelae now in the Ft. Worth and Cleveland museums stood before they were removed by looters.
  • David Lee will be working with Marco Tulio Alvarado on a large structure, possibly a palace. Ian Graham's depiction of this structure is incomplete, the outline and orientation are quite complicated and will surely be a challenge for the excavators.
  • Juan Carlos Perez and Horacio Martínez will use their tunneling experience to explore a massive looter's trench in a large Tikal-style structure in the plaza just north of where the others will be stationed.
  • Fabiola Quiroa and I will excavate a small patio group located about 250 meters or so from the main plaza.
  • Melissa Knight, Lia Tsesmelli, Juan Carlos Meléndez, and Ana Lucia Arroyave will make up our mapping crew. Their first order of business is to learn how to use the complicated surveying equipment and various accompanying software packages. Melissa heads this effort, as it will provide the material for her master's thesis.

The next day our project directors were off to Paso Caballos to discuss hiring field assistants, as well as additional cooks and people to do laundry, while David Lee and Mary Jane went to buy a new generator. Meanwhile we inventoried our boxes and passed out sets of notebooks, measuring tapes, compasses, pencils, lead, erasers, sharpies, and flagging tape. Our laboratory facility is still incomplete, so we're currently housing these materials (along with the tent boxes and water filtration devices) in the same room where several of the camp workers are sleeping. We then gathered around Michelle and Juan Carlos for a snake extractor and anti-venom administration discussion. Once we ironed out all these details, including how to make it to the Guacamaya research station in case of an emergency, we headed out to the site.

Everyone spent half the day (until about 2:30) on site. After Michelle and Stanley used a 50-meter tape to help us find our patio group, Fabiola and I spent a few hours taking notes and using tape and compass to get an idea of the layout and dimensions. We also measured a looter's hole on the eastern face of one long structure adjacent to the path from the central plaza. The peculiar thing about this group is that it doesn't appear to match up with Ian Graham's map. At first we thought we were mistaken about where the site was located, but the tape and compass indicate that this is indeed it. Fabiola and I agree it looks a bit more like a small ball court than a patio group. The sides of the two long structures have very steeply sloping slides and leave very little floor space. Furthermore, the small structure at the south end of the plaza is much lower to the ground than the map indicates; it may be nothing more than a small platform or a low base where a perishable structure once stood.

We decided to trek up a bit higher, following the map, and investigate the surrounding architectural groups a little bit more. We encountered a rather pristine group a bit higher up and thought we might ask Héctor Escobedo and David Freidel if they could check it out in comparison with the other one we documented and see if this group was more the kind we wanted to investigate.

Questions? Visit the bulletin board!

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