DALLAS (SMU) -- An international archaeological project, sponsored by Southern Methodist University, headed by Dr. David Freidel of SMU, and Guatemalan archaeologist Héctor Escobedo of Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala, is attempting to combine scientific research of the ancient Maya past of Guatemala with conservation and development in an effort to save a vital section of tropical rainforest in the Department of Petén.
The Waka' Archaeological Project, which began research at the site (located approximately 60 km west of the famous Maya site of Tikal) in 2002, is part of an alliance of government and non-government agencies trying to halt a cycle of destruction in Guatemala's largest national park, Laguna del Tigre.
The ancient Maya center, known from ancient Maya inscriptions as Waka', and known today as El Perú, was once an important economic and political center of the Maya world and formed one corner of a triangle of major sites that also included Calakmul (Mexico) to the north, and Tikal to the west. The site, composed of 672 monumental structures and untold numbers of small house structures, sits atop an escarpment six kilometers north of the San Pedro Mártir River. Oil prospectors discovered the site in the 1960's.
Harvard researcher Ian Graham recorded the site's monuments in the early 1970's but did not carry out any excavations. The SMU Project is the first research project to undertake scientific excavations at Waka'.
The Laguna del Tigre National Park is Central America's largest nature preserve. Several endangered species have taken refuge in the park, including the Scarlet Macaw, for which the park is one of the last remaining habitat zones. Cattle ranching and other forms of invasion are encroaching on the park, however, and these illegal activities that frequently involve slash and burn agriculture and clearing for pastureland, threaten the park's future. Last year, 100,000 acres of the park burned, threatening both the wildlife and cultural history of the park area.
The Waka' project, together with the Government of Guatemala through the General Direction of the Cultural and Natural Patrimony and the National Council for Protected Areas, the Wildlife Conservation Society (NGO), and ProPetén (NGO), is trying to save 230,000 acres of the park from deforestation. These organizations have formed the K'ante'el Alliance initiative in an effort to protect the natural and cultural resources of this area. K'ante'el (Cahn-tay-elle) means "precious forest" in Maya and refers to the mystical place where the Maya Maize God was reborn and where the Maya believe their civilization began. The goal of the alliance is the preservation of the park and the development of alternative sources of income for local communities that emphasize conservation of the park's rich natural and cultural resources.
"This is an initiative that can position archaeology, not only as scientific research, but as a useful activity for the community and the country in which we work," Escobedo says. "Researching the site and learning its secrets are the first steps toward making a meaningful contribution to Petén, and to Guatemala as a whole."
That first step is the archaeological research of the site that is being conducted by a team of 20 Guatemalan, American and Canadian archaeologists under the direction of Freidel and Escobedo. The site was inhabited as early as 500 BC, but reached its peak between AD 400 and AD 800. At its height, the city may have been an economically and strategically important center, and home to tens of thousands of people. Over a period of 700 years, 22 kings ruled at Waka'.
"We know a great deal about the ancient inhabitants of this site from their monuments." Freidel says, "The more than 40 carved monuments, or stelae, at the site chronicle the activities of the site's rulers, including their rise to power, their conquests in war and their deaths."
The inscriptions are only one piece of the puzzle, however, and excavation-based research serves to both test and supplement the historical record.
The project's excavations have focused on a number of important areas of the site, looking into the past activities at locations of both ritual and residential activity. The large ceremonial complex in the southeast portion of the site center is one such focus, where evidence of extensive termination ritual may provide clues to the events at the end of the site's life. At this location, SMU graduate student Olivia Farr found that dozens of complete ceramic vessels, vessel fragments, and human remains lay scattered on the surface in front of the building.
"This kind of termination is an act of desecration and speaks to a violent event in the site's history," Freidel says.
Excavations have also delved into the activity at residential compounds, and at the main palace complex of the site, where at one time the rulers of Waka' presided over the sprawling ancient city. The palace served as a place of residence, politics, trade and governance, but evidence from this season also indicates that the palace served another function, that of a burial site. In one structure of the palace complex, while conducting excavations to collect stratigraphic ceramic samples, Canadian archaeologist and SMU graduate student David Lee discovered a royal burial chamber. The burial contained remains identified by project bioarchaeologist Jennifer Piehl, as that of a female ruler or queen and over 2,400 artifacts.
"It is an important discovery," Lee says, "An important piece of the much larger puzzle of the lives and deaths of the people we regard as the rulers of this site."
The individual was interred in a vaulted burial chamber that was built inside the shell of an existing building atop the palace acropolis. A preliminary analysis of the 23 complete vessels found in the chamber suggests a Late Classic burial date, estimated between AD 650 and AD 750. The interment, which contained artifacts of greenstone, shell and obsidian, provides significant information about the importance of this person during her life. The individual's royal status was identified by the presence of greenstone plaques that form a war helmet and by the presence of a carved royal jewel, or "huunal," that may have once been a part of this headdress.
"This helmet is consistent with a kind we associate with the title 'Kaloomte', or 'supreme warlord'," Freidel says. "A title generally associated with male rulers and important warriors."
Recent studies have shown that this is not always the case, however, and on one of the site's monuments, a queen is mentioned in hieroglyphic inscriptions as bearing the title of "Kaloomte". The woman buried in the chamber also had stingray spines placed on her body in the pelvic region. Stingray spines are bloodletting implements that are depicted being used to let blood from the genitalia of Maya kings. "That this female ruler had these implements supports the idea that in ancient Maya culture, gender roles were sometimes blended," Lee says.
Once more detailed analysis is complete, researchers hope it will help shed light on the lives of the kings and queens of Waka'. While the individual in the burial chamber is not named in hieroglyphs, chemical and radiocarbon analysis of remains inside the burial will help place this individual with the site's history.
The project's 10 different research operations are focusing not only on the substantive hieroglyphic record at the site, or on new archaeological discoveries. The project also has undertaken an important conservation effort at the site. Looting over the years since the site was discovered has resulted in significant damage to both ancient structures and monuments. Starting in 2003, the Waka' Project has begun stabilizing, restoring and reassembling the buildings and monuments of Waka' disturbed in the centuries since the site's abandonment in the 9th century.
"One of our most ambitious projects has been the stabilization of an 18-meter temple pyramid that was structurally undermined by looting," Freidel says.
Under the consecutive direction of Guatemalan archaeologists Juan Carlos Pérez (2003) and Horacio Martínez (2004), a team of masons has worked to consolidate this ancient structure so that scientific excavations can proceed. Additionally, Guatemalan specialists Hugo Martínez and Efrain Peralta have systematically reassembled the fragments of broken stelae, and then copied them using latex molds to create fiberglass replicas. These efforts are part of a commitment not only to retrieve information from the remains of this once great city, but also to restore and rescue its ancient treasures.
"We see it as our obligation," Escobedo says. "Not only to retrieve the archaeological information that this site has to offer, but to preserve it for future generations."
The research of the Waka' Archaeological Project is attempting to reconstruct the history, and the story, of this ancient city. Once an important center of political, social and economic activity, the site of Waka' is once again at a strategically important crossroads, central to the efforts of the K'ante'el Alliance to save this important site, and the national park it resides in, from destruction. "The future of this area," Freidel says, "will depend on our ability to do what the Maya did here: establish a stable system for managing this area, protect it from threats as they may come and establish an economy that will see it survive into the future."
The future in this case, however, is that of the natural environment, the wildlife and the communities of hardworking people that currently reside in this area. Research, development, conservation and tourism are only some of the areas in which the K'ante'el Alliance is looking to ensure the future of the site of Waka'. The work undertaken by the project to date is an important first step in achieving that goal and of preserving Waka' and Laguna del Tigre for the future.
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