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Archaeology's Interactive Dig
February-May 2003Interactive Dig at Waka'
Project directors David Freidel and Héctor Escobedo put their heads together.
Griselda Pérez excavates in her test pit, which exhibits four different plaza floors.
Juan Carlos Mélendez at his ballcourt excavation
Marco Tulio Alvarado carefully records the data of his excavation.
Archaeologists prepare to face the mosquitos at the site of Chaka', the "axed house."
Melissa Knight employs the high-tech equipment used for mapping this ancient city.
By the looks of it, project lab director Evan Keith Eppich seems to have quite a bit of work on his hands.
Elizabeth Baloutine, our project illustrator, explores some of the latest digital imaging technology.
Project osteologist Jennifer Piehl takes a moment from her analysis to pose for a picture.
Skilled local excavators (Santiago, "Pops," and Crisanto) a take a photo break.
Great minds think alike: project staff members display their snake-proof boots.

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

Session Three

The third session presented a number of unique challenges both in terms of archaeology as well as the realities of living and working in the Maya Biosphere Reserve. Archaeological investigations continued, but we were introduced to an unfamiliar scenario: forest fires. We first received news of the threat of fire on April 20. Some of our more seasoned staff members were called upon to put together an evacuation plan, which included packing up our lab facilities over a month early. This was a monumental task requiring the participation and cooperation of everyone who was not already obliged to continue fieldwork. The risk of the fire spreading was so uncertain that continuing to open excavations would have been unwise. In fact, only Juan Carlos Perez, Stanley Guenter, Hugo, and Efrain could proceed with their work, as it did not involve excavation. However challenging at times, Session 3 was not without significant infrastructure improvements--the addition of an on-site latrine and the completion of a bodega for on-site storage--as well as archaeological developments. Also during this session Raul Aldana was brought on as a foreman for the excavation crewmembers. Because of the constant demand on excavation crews for their assistance in the fire-fighting effort, excavators had to be reassigned to different excavation operations almost daily. Raul was instrumental in this constant re-organization of their assigned work locations.

The Site Core

Juan Carlos Perez continued and nearly completed consolidating one of the tunnels in the tall pyramidal structure in plaza 1. His work was a unique blend of specialized labor including archaeological know-how and masonry building techniques. Once he received a small gas-fueled generator (a smaller version of the one the project uses at camp to keep our lab facility running), he was able to continue work at a faster pace with the addition of electric lights and fans. The cooler temperatures at these tunnels made them a favorite spot to visit.

Griselda Pérez excavated more test pits throughout the site core. The main objective for the test-pitting program is to recover dateable ceramic sherds from sealed contexts (i.e. found below plaster floors). Some might think excavating two-meter-square pits into flat plaza floors might not be as exciting as working on a grand pyramid or delving into architecture looming high above the plaza floor. But what the test-pitting program revealed about buried buildings and plaza floors that would have otherwise been completely unknown makes it one of the more crucial programs initiated. It's the best way to a preliminary understanding of when the site was occupied. Griselda did, in fact, find evidence for a long and steady occupation at Waka'.

Raul's work proceeded alongside that of project co-director Hector Escobedo and Mary Jane Acuña. Once their structure's front staircase and easternmost balustrade had been exposed in Session 2, the plan for Session 3 was to excavate a two-meter-square test pit at the building's summit. This excavation, carried out under Raul's experienced guidance, ultimately came to about eight meters in depth and revealed the occupation of this structure spanned from the Late Preclassic to the Early Classic.

Just to the southeast, I continued excavations at the Southeast Acropolis building. Following the complete excavation of the looter's backfill in the second session, we planned to excavate a two-by-six meter area for Hugo and Efrain, a.k.a. the stela guys, to remove stela 9. It was in this area, however, that we encountered an extensive termination deposit. Excavations and recording thus proceeded in a meticulous fashion so as much information as possible could be yielded from this dense deposit consisting of shattered vessels, broken projectile points, personal adornments, and various human remains found atop the preserved terminal floor.

Juan Carlos Mélendez continued work at the ballcourt group. Toward the close of Session 2 Meléndez excavated what was dubbed a "problematic" deposit, which consisted of two lip-to-lip vessels in an excavated pit between the two ballcourt structures. He also found evidence of what appeared to be a drainage feature. Another important discovery in association with the ballcourt was made by project co-director David Freidel, who overturned some construction block fragments and found that they had inscriptions on them! A thorough investigation is necessary before making any assessment regarding the significance of this find.

David Lee's work proceeded on the palace structure just northwest of the ballcourt. During Session 3, David and his crew worked steadily exposing the terminal phase architecture including the front staircase covered in a very well preserved layer of stucco or plaster. He also managed to expose the superstructure, which consisted of a rather expansive room including a large column. David got to work mapping in the front staircase while proceeding with excavations on the superstructure.

When not helping out with the stela guys, Stanley Guenter's work included removing the last of the looter's backfill in order to continue to the architecture of the wite-naah building. Once he uncovered the building's wall, he followed it down until he hit a very well preserved plaster floor, then, continuing to follow the architecture, he found an interesting deposit with human remains.

Michelle Rich initiated excavations on the pyramid complex at the southeastern corner of the site core, and progressed with those this session. She did not start by investigating either of the large pyramids, but by excavating a small, heavily looted structure atop a plateau directly associated with the two pyramids. The structure has an uncarved stela erected in front of it, which also has a looter's pit at its base. Her location was somewhat removed from the site center where most of the others were working, and the climb up to her operation was quite strenuous. Not too many of us hiked up there, but I'm proud to say I did!

Marco Tulio Alvarado began work on a separate elite residence group at the end of the second session, which he continued in Session 3. After opening a two-by-two meter test pit in the plaza of the group, Marco laid out trenches following the base of a small structure in order to more clearly define its architecture, but in the course of his excavations, he found a cist burial. Ana Lucia Arroyave also encountered a burial of a small child directly behind the residential structure she was working on. Interestingly, although the remains of this individual were not below a floor, where one might expect better preservation of skeletal material, they were in excellent condition.

Fabiola also continued investigating a residential group at the distant Chaka' site, where she opened a number of excavation units. Through the course of her work she encountered a late Classic cist burial with two complete vessels. She proceeded to excavate with the assistance of Liz, our illustrator, and Jennifer, our osteological specialist. Unfortunately, because of the close proximity of the Chaka' site to the river it has a generally wetter environment; therefore, the human remains were not well preserved.

The Stela Project

Hugo and Efrain finished putting together the principal stelae monuments in all plazas under excavation in anticipation of initiating the replication process in Session 4. They also assembled other monuments, such as altars, throughout the site. Because they are re-assembling monuments with hieroglyphic and iconographic representations on them, it is important to be absolutely sure they are assembled in the correct way. This can be difficult if many of the pieces are badly eroded and covered with lichens and moss, as they certainly sometimes are. Consequently, Hugo and Efrain are very careful to clean out crevasses in these monument fragments with special small tools, and work with Stanley, who is able to decipher the proper order of the remaining texts on these monument fragments.

Project epigrapher Stanley Gunter took time throughout the season--especially when the threat of spreading fires was greatest--to look carefully over all the monuments, particularly those Hugo and Efrain had reassembled. He took digital photographs and made careful notes of as much information as he could gather from these inscriptions as a precautionary measure.

The Mapping Team

The survey crew also continued their work chopping through the brush to look for corners of structures to map. Melissa Knight mapped the Southeast acropolis structure, the ballcourt, the palace group, and completed the path from camp to the main site core. Meanwhile, Lia Tsesmeli mapped in Marco Tulio, Michelle, and Fabiola's operations and completed the path from Fabiola's operation to the camp. Lia also continued to work tirelessly on the Waka' Project Database system.

Back in the Lab

Keith Eppich, no longer working with Griselda on the test-pitting program, focused his efforts in the lab, concentrating on preliminary analysis of ceramic material. There was, in fact, so much material from my operation that it was quite a challenge for Keith to get a handle on even a preliminary analysis in the field, let alone find enough space in the small lab to store the many bags of sherds!

Liz, responsible for illustrating all the burials and special finds, continued to experiment with photographing the artifacts with the digital camera and downloading them into Adobe to stipple them in traditional archaeological illustration style. She also assisted the survey crew with the manipulation of the software programs that would render their representations as well.

Jennifer analyzed skeletal material in the lab and excavated in the field during this session. It was a busy session for her as project osteologist because of the number of burials and contexts involving the placement of human remains found toward the end. Jen also began excavating a burial discovered behind the kitchen at our camp. Kitchen staff members encountered this burial while busy extending the drainage system from the dishwashing station; they were certainly surprised to find it in our camp area!

Another interesting note about the bone material is the amount of animal bone found over the course of excavations this season. Though she is not a faunal expert, Jen sorted out the faunal from human bone and offered some speculative insights, such as preliminary identification of deer versus feline species. There may be a relationship between the use of animals and ritual behavior at Waka'. Juan Carlos Meléndez, for example, found deer remains in the middle of the ballcourt. I also found animal bone, including turtle bone, in the termination deposit in my operation. The possible association between animal use and ritual behavior at Waka' definitely merits exploring in seasons to come.

Visitors and Press Coverage

Throughout the third session, the Waka' Project campgrounds received a continuous influx of visitors, including CONAP firefighters, CEPRONA forces, Wildlife Conservation Society officials and volunteers, volunteers from the Guacamaya research station, Guatemalan army troops, Waka' Project friend Jerry Glick, and the occasional tourist visiting the site. It was through a combined effort between these groups, including the Waka' Project staff, that the firefighters were able to bring the raging fires under control. Although work conditions were affected by depleted work crews, and excessive smoke and ash in the air, excavations did proceed as normally as possible.

We also had a visit from staff of the national Guatemalan newspaper, Prensa Libre, whose articles regarding Waka' and the Biosphere can be found by following up on these links:

Questions? Visit the bulletin board!

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© 2003 Archaeological Institute of America

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