Ceibal (Guatemala) Part- 4 - Maya Axes, and Moles Under the Pyramid



Ceibal Part- 4 - Maya Axes, and Moles Under the Pyramid

Takeshi Inomata

Source -  http://scientistatwork.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/03/01/maya-axes-and-moles-under-the-pyramid/?partner=rss&emc=rss 



Takeshi Inomata  - The greenstone axes found in the Central Plaza of Ceibal hint at relations with the Olmec civilization.

In archaeology, we examine changes in society and culture systematically through large amounts of data rather than relying on single unique finds. But in the course of our careers, unforgettable discoveries can happen.

One of these magical moments came to me in 2009 when we were excavating Ceibal’s Central Plaza. At a depth of 2.5 meters, we found a cache of 12 axes placed in a pit dug into the natural soil. This was a ritual deposit that marked the beginning of major settlement at Ceibal. These brilliantly polished greenstones shone in the sunlight for the first time since they were buried 3,000 years ago. The beliefs of those who placed them had been lost to us, but we could sense the importance and value that the ancients attached to those stones. We felt incredibly privileged.

It was not serendipity. The cache was exactly what we were looking for in this spot.

A major question in the study of the origins of lowland Maya civilization is its relations with neighboring groups. Some scholars think that lowland Maya developed their remarkable society and culture in relative isolation. Others argue that the Maya received crucial influence from other groups, particularly, the Olmec of the southern gulf coast known for colossal head sculptures.

Did the Maya learn the idea of rulership, the ceremonial center, and esoteric ritual from them?

Before we started our research at Ceibal, I looked at the map of Ceibal and noticed striking similarities between the contemporaneous sites in the Mexican state of Chiapas and the Olmec capital of La Venta in Tabasco. These sites shared north-south alignments centered on a ceremonial complex consisting of a square pyramid on the west and an elongated mound on the east. In Chiapas sites, these complexes are associated with a series of axe caches. At Ceibal a complex of this type is found in the southern part of the Central Plaza. These observations led me to an idea: If Ceibal indeed had a close connection with the western neighbors, there must be similar ritual deposits waiting to be found in specific locations of Ceibal’s Central Plaza.



Takeshi Inomata  - Excavation of the western pyramid.

Our 2009 discovery confirmed this idea. And it led to our current excavations around the Central Plaza. We now want to see if a formal architectural complex existed from the beginning of settlement at Ceibal. Two Guatemalan students, María Belén Méndez, a.k.a. Mabe, and Raúl Ortiz, are excavating its western pyramid. Mabe is a cheerful girl with her high spirits always lighting up the whole group. As soon as she joined our team last season, she quickly gained the trust and friendship of local workers, as well as those of her colleagues. Along with her archaeological work, she volunteers to visit the Q’eqchi’ Maya community of Las Pozas every Sunday to help villagers organize micro-saving groups.



Takeshi Inomata  - María Belén Méndez working in her reinforced pit.

Mabe’s excavation is a 2 x 2 meter shaft dug into the upper part of the pyramid along its center line. Through this excavation, we are hoping to go through all the construction sequence of this building down to its earliest version. Luckily — yes, luckily — we did not find any Classic-period tombs. For the Maya, the center line of a pyramid was their favorite location for burying the bodies of royal family members. Tombs with rich offerings would demand a lot of time and a big effort during their excavation and subsequent lab analysis. We would have to divert substantial resources from our primary goal of exploring early constructions. Now Mabe is safely in the fill of a Preclassic building.

Unlike other Guatemalan students of our project who are from the University of San Carlos, Guatemala’s national university, Raúl is completing his undergraduate degree at a private school, Del Valle University. Those are the only Guatemalan institutions that offer archaeology degrees. Raúl came to our project in 2008 as a shy, quiet student to fulfill his university’s field work requirements. Since then, he has grown to be one of our most trusted investigators. He is now supervising one of our key operations — a tunnel under the pyramid.



Takeshi Inomata -  Archaeological moles advancing under the pyramid.

Tunneling is unlike any other excavation techniques in archaeology, but the method is well established in the Maya area. By digging like moles, archaeologists can see early, buried structures without removing later buildings. Our plan was to start a tunnel in the Central Plaza in front the pyramid and advance toward its core. As soon as he started the tunnel, Raúl found an axe cache. As his tunnel advanced 12 meters, Raúl found two more axe caches. Now his female colleagues call Raúl chico sensación — sensation boy!

Raúl’s tunnel is now 14 meters long, deep under the pyramid. Yet we have not found the early building we are looking for. With the weight of 14 meters in thick stone layers hanging over our heads, anxiety grows. Does the pyramid really contain its earliest version dating to 1,000 B.C. in its core? The only way to find out is to keep digging.