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February-May 2003Interactive Dig at Waka'
David Lee consults with Jerónimo Asig while excavating at the base of the palace structure.
Ancient ceramic owl whistle (still works!)
Marco Tulio Alvarado busily excavates a trench associated with one of the structures he is investigating.
Héctor Escobedo and Mary Jane Acuña define the architectural features of their structure.
Michelle Rich and her crew (Moises, Ermelindo Che, and Alfaro Obando) complete a profile map.
Ana Lucía Arroyave excavates the grave of a small child buried within an earlier construction phase of this elite residential structure.
Juan Carlos Perez Calderón explains the carvings on a conch shell artifact to some interested crew members.
Hugo and Efrain (also popularly known as the "stela guys") lift stela 40 from the excavation pit.
Griselda Pérez takes a moment to examine the ceramic sherds that have been excavated.

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

Session Two

Operation 1 - Plaza 2, Fronting the Southwest Palace

As soon as they started digging, David Lee and Marco Tulio Alvarado found interesting artifacts. They are excavating in front of a massive and complicated, three-story palace building: the Southwest Palace. Seven stelae once stood in front of this building, though most are now highly eroded and lying on the ground in pieces. If you stand in Plaza 2 facing the building, you can see where the main staircase ascended. Just to the left of the stair are two stelae, Stela 9 and Stela 10. The latter is still in place and you can just make out the faint image of a royal peron carved into it.

Looters had dug all around the two stelae to see if there was anything valuable buried there. David and Marco decided to excavate the big pile of dirt the looters had left in front of the building. They soon turned up numerous small artifacts: a whistle in the form of a small owl, flint and chert lance points, beautiful small figurine heads. They came down upon the first of three plaster floors of the plaza. On top of the uppermost (or last) floor they discovered a human burial. Excavated by Jennifer Piehl, the burial contained the long bones and some fingers, but was missing the skull. The bones were eroded and crumbly, and Jennifer will have to do a lengthy examination to tell more about it.

Immediately, David and Marco began to find astounding amounts of ceramic pot sherds in the debris pile. They discovered hundreds of pieces for several days running, then one day unearthed 1,800 sherds. (See also panorama of Operation 1.)

Operation 2 - Plaza 2, to the rear of the Royal Couple Temple

Héctor Escovedo and Mary Jane Acuña have been working on the pyramidal temple building they've dubbed "The Royal Couple," so-called because five stone stelae--three in the front and two in the back--show the marriage of the Waka' king (Kinich Balam or K'inich B'alam) to a princess of Calakmul. Héctor and Mary Jane began by putting deep test pits at the two stelae (11 and 12) and then digging a shallow trench toward the building.

They expected to uncover a staircase ascending the rear of the building, but found a low platform wall instead. They tried to follow this low wall to the right to find a stair, but the wall began to curve slowly, suggesting that the building was oval, not rectilinear, and therefore of unusual design. (See also panorama of Operation 2.)

Operation 3 - Plaza 3, East Building and Stela 15

In Plaza 3, Michelle Rich and Stanley Guenter began to excavate the looters' debris pile that surrounded Stela 15. This stela is to the left of a low staircase that ascends the building just behind it. The building will be very difficult to excavate because two huge trees have grown atop the structure, their massive roots imprison the building's stones. Hieroglyphs cover the sides and front of Stela 15, which had been broken into four big pieces in ancient times. Stanley, who is the project epigrapher, is busy reading all the hieroglyphs, not only on this stela but on all the stelae around the site. During the 1970s and 1980s, Ian Graham of Harvard University's Peabody Museum visited Waka' several times and made a preliminary site map and also photographed all the visible monuments. The initial hieroglyphic readings depend on his images. Stanley is now going to each stela and monument and verifying, corroborating, or making new interpretations of those hieroglyphs.

At this operation Michelle is also finding flint and chert points, parts of figurines including fine portraits of gods and people, small ceramic whistles and flutes, and many, many sherds.

Operation 4 - Plaza 3, South Building

Also located in Plaza 3, the investigation at Operation 4 focuses on a long building that defines the southern border of this plaza. Directly in front of the building, just a few centimeters below the present jungle dirt floor, Horacio Martínez and Ana Lucia came down upon the uppermost of the ancient plaster floors. Here they found important evidence in the ceramic sherds lying atop this floor. Those first sherds were carried to the laboratory in the field camp where Keith Eppich, the project ceramic specialist, identified them immediately as Terminal Classic period (A.D. 800-1000) pottery. In the next few days, as more sherds came in from the other operations it was clear that Terminal Classic ceramics were widespread throughout these plaza areas and that Waka' had survived the war in 743 with Tikal, the Maya superpower city, and had lived on for another 100 to 150 years.

Operation 5 - Plaza 1, Central Pyramid

One of the most exciting discoveries occurred at Operation 5 located at the side of the steep pyramid temple at the edge of Plaza 1. This central plaza contains a dozen or so hieroglyphic stelae near the pyramid. The excavations here are led by Juan Carlos Perez Calderón, who specializes in tunnels and underground excavations. He was working here because looters had bored two tunnels into the pyramid, one at ground level and another up high on the backside, trying to find tombs, though they were unsuccessful. Juan Carlos is surveying the tunnels and will begin backfilling them with stones and mortar to stabilize and secure this important building.

When he began his survey, though, he dug a small test pit in the debris pile in front of the lower tunnel, and to everyone's excitement, unearthed a large new stela fragment. This had been buried and was not seen by Ian Graham in the previous surveys, so we had the honor of giving this monument a new number: Stela 40. The stela appears to depict a large caiman (crocodile) monster head within whose open mouth sits an owl face, the symbol, in Early Classic times, of the great central Mexican city of Teotihuacan.

Test Pit Program

While major pits and trenches were put in at the various operations sites, Griselda Pérez undertook a program to sink several pits at various locations around the main plazas and some outside those central areas. Usually 2x2 meters, these pits revealed the floor histories of the plazas and confirmed ceramic sequences that were discovered at other operations.

Chaká Site

During the first 10-day session in early February, the project archaeologists realized that a small ancient site existed between the river and the field camp. They discovered this site, named Chaká, when some of the laborers were finding ancient building stones and bringing them to camp for our own construction purposes. Immediately, David and Héctor asked Olivia Farr and Fabiola Quiroa to investigate this small site as a contrast and comparison to the main city. Waka' and Chaká are situated about four and a half miles apart. Chaká is closer to the river and study of it may reveal how a small outlier site could have served the commercial interests of the main city. During this second session Olivia and Fabiola have exposed several building outlines and discovered numerous ceramic and stone artifacts.


While the excavations are going forward in the different operations, a team of archaeologists--Melissa Knight, Juan Carlos Meléndez, Lia Tsesmeli, and Liz Baloutine--are mapping and surveying the ancient city. Using the most modern equipment--laser transits, computers, and CAD surveying software--they are making the most accurate map of the ruins possible. They will end up with building plans located on a precise topological map. They are also doing some experiments with the technology. They're seeing if they can generate a satisfactory 3D computer model of the building by shooting numerous points on a pyramid temple.

Last Notes

Although the archaeological excavations were foremost, many other events occurred at the site and in camp during this second 20-day session. For example, we wanted to be able to communicate between the excavations at the ruins and the field camp, four miles away. So Victor, our neighboring (macaw) ranger and an expert tree climber, climbed 100 feet into trees at the field camp and at the ruins to strap two radio antennae up high. Immediately our radio reception came through and we became more sure that we could talk between camp and ruins, particularly in case of emergency. This was very important to us, especially since, in the uninhabited wilderness, help can be hours away.

My favorite sensations in the jungle are the calls and cries of the birds and animals, especially the howler monkeys that roar day and night. Sometimes we hear them calling in the distance; other times they are right overhead, which is especially exciting when, in the middle of the night, they wake you from a deep dream. They are the background soundtrack to everything we do. They are at their best in the early evening, when groups of them gather all around the huge swampy lake. In their tall jungle trees, the monkeys call and challenge each other, as evening light darkens to night.

Questions? Visit the bulletin board!

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