Reflections on the First Season
by David Freidel
Archaeologists like to be surprised by what they find in the field, and we were pleasantly surprised at Waka'. We thought the shattered stelae all over the site were evidence of a violent attack against the city center by Tikal in A.D. 743. Instead, we found evidence that Waka' survived the 743 war and that its rulers continued to raise huge, ornately carved stelae for generations. Someone did sack the site, but the attack came later, probably after A.D. 801 (the last recorded date Stanley Guenter has discerned). Olivia Farr is grappling with tens of thousands of sherds from deliberately smashed vessels surrounding shattered fragments of Stela 9. These pots were part of a termination ritual carried out by the sackers, a ritual that included tossing the severed leg of an adolescent into the pile!
So who sacked Waka'? We'll have a better idea next season. For the moment, I speculate that people who hated the royal family were involved, possibly old allies of Calakmul angry that Waka's royal family sided with Tikal. This flip-flopping of alliances seems to have been a regular feature of Classic Maya politics. Even more surprising--and satisfying scientifically--is that a large number of people moved back into the city center after the sacking event and lived there for a number of years during the ninth century. This Terminal Classic occupation is important, because many communities were completely abandoned at this time.
We've found that Waka' was a big Terminal Classic town with access to prestigious trade goods from Mexico and northern Yucatán. The commerce on the San Pedro River continued in the ninth century, and Waka' retained its traditional role as a strategic command center over that traffic. These Terminal Classic people were messy, leaving marvelous trash for us archaeologists to study. There's no Post Classic occupation at Waka', so the canoe traffic must have started to run out of other towns sometime after the Terminal Classic. We know from Spanish accounts that the San Pedro remained an important route across the Petén even in the sixteenth century.
We have a lot more questions than answers now, but that's just what we need to prepare for a second season at Waka'!
What aspect of your archaeological research this season did you find particularly noteworthy?
Liz Baloutine: My work entails determining the quickest way to use new technology and illustrate figurines, burials, structures, and maps at the highest quality possible. The new equipment we're using--digital cameras, computers, and total stations--guided my methods. We try to work with the best equipment possible to keep pace with new technology, receive the highest results, and hopefully stay ahead in our profession.
Lia Tsesmeli: The establishment of rules, guidelines, and procedures that will allow mapping to connect directly with our artifact database was important for me this season. This will facilitate the visualization of where and in which period we find certain classes of artifacts. It will also aid the formulation of hypotheses about the nature and significance of artifact distribution within certain buildings, within the whole site, or in comparison to other Maya sites.
Mary Jane Acuña:
One of our goals was to determine if Stelae 11 and 12 were in their original locations and to identify their relation to the "Royal Couple" building. We found it's highly possible that these monuments were relocated. The stelae are associated with the latest occupational plaza floor, which dates to the Terminal Late Classic/Terminal Classic. The last phase of the building is associated with the same floor, but the dates on the monuments are earlier. This construction appears to have been intentionally destroyed or dismantled, as the only architectural feature left was an intermittent wall running along the southern base. The ceramics found in the fill were Terminal Late Classic/Terminal Classic. We'll continue work on this building in future seasons to clarify the sequence and the role it played.
What most impressed you about living and working in the Maya biosphere?
Liz Baloutine: Living in the Maya biosphere taught me how a small group of people can impact their surroundings immensely. We not only affected the natural environment of the rain forest--by spitting out watermelon seeds and creating trails, for example--but also affected the cultures near us. Though we were in the rain forest with almost no amenities, we kept up a standard of living that many local people never experienced before. People from the adjacent communities were able to experience a different lifestyle just by being around us.
Lia Tsesmeli: Besides the incredible feeling living in this pristine, mostly untouched environment, I was most impressed by the kindness, strength, and beauty of our Guatemalan workers and how they made even the most tiresome tasks look easy to handle. They live in a harsh environment with minimal means and comfort, yet they keep their heads high and admit no defeat. The most negative aspect of working here--besides the mosquitos, the tabanos and cogas, the chiggers and ticks, the barba amarillas, the wild boars, and all the other creatures that saw us as an appetizer--was the land clearing that led to the dangerous fires we faced in April. This season has finished with our site intact, but the land clearers and the preservationists will continue to fight because the land where Waka' lies is the last border of biosphere and deep vegetation in the Laguna del Tigre.
Mary Jane Acuña:
Working in the Maya biosphere is a privilege and a fascinating experience, as is living in harmony with nature and wildlife I think what impressed me most was the destruction that the reserve suffers every year and that we witnessed this past season. Living there and watching it happen is not the same as just knowing about it.