Archaeology and anthropology major Jackie Croteau and Professor Jessica Munson analyze the ceramic artifacts recovered during excavations at Altar de Sacrificios.
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The expansive fields near the confluence of the Pasión and Salinas Rivers in Guatemala blanket a number of ancient Mayan structures, creating small hills that punctuate the landscape in the area. With the nearest paved road more than 25 miles away, the quiet rural area belies the clatter of hundreds of people going about their day in what was once a major urban center more than two centuries ago.
This past summer, Jessica Munson, Ph.D., assistant professor of Latin American Archaeology, spent several weeks in what is now the department of Petén, Guatemala, to review the plazas, palace complexes and stela that have already been excavated and evaluate the potential for additional discoveries at the pre-Columbian Maya center of Altar de Sacrificios, an area populated from about 900 B.C. to 950 A.D.
As with many ancient civilizations, the rivers provided a ready source of drinking water, fishing resources and transportation, likely prompting the rise of a small community that grew and interacted with others as they passed through to other regions in Mesoamerica. Based on its geography and the artifacts that have been recorded, present day archaeologists like Munson, believe this site was an important center for exchange that contributed to increased wealth and inequality within the local community. To test this hypothesis, she plans to establish a permanent excavation site where Lycoming College students and others interested in Maya archaeology can study the impacts of social inequality on the everyday life of ancient Maya villagers.
“Given what we already know from previous research, and because so much of the site remains undisturbed, we have a wonderful opportunity to compare what was going on in the royal compounds of the elite and wealthy with how the rest of society — the 99 percent — were living,” said Munson. “Our goal is to study a cross-section of society in order to understand how the quality of life within households changed over time. We’re aiming to get a true sense of how material wealth, social capital and health contributed to create more or less prosperous communities in the past.”
Although the site was first discovered in 1895 by Teoberto Maler, little was explored until the late 1950’s and early 1960’s when archaeologists A. Ledyard Smith and Gordon Willey of Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology excavated a number of the large buildings, tombs and monuments in the site center. Most of that collection is housed at the Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología in Guatemala City. As part of the project, Munson and Jackie Croteau, a senior archaeology and anthropology major from Islip, N.Y., spent six weeks in the College’s archaeology laboratory analyzing artifacts and digitizing data gleaned from Harvard University’s project.
“Dr. Munson and I transitioned old data into a more efficient medium for the analysis of site information moving forward, which helped me learn how to combine new and old data to gain a better understanding of the archaeological record,” said Croteau. “Although gathering new artifacts at the excavation site is exciting, the work in the lab is where the real discovery and evaluation takes place.”
Once the site is established, students like Croteau will have the opportunity to participate in excavations, archaeological surveys and study artifacts in the Guatemalan project lab. Near-term goals are to complete a pedestrian and aerial survey of the area, continue excavations in the site core and newly mapped mounds, and document and compile museum collections online to facilitate off-site research. In collaboration with Lycoming College, Munson and her team will work with local and federal Guatemalan authorities to properly preserve and protect the site and its cultural resources.
The majority of the trip and digitization project was funded by a grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation with supplemental funding from Lycoming College’s Professional Development Grant. Continued research by Lycoming faculty and students for the Altar de Sacrificios Archaeological Project will be supported in part by generous donations from alumni and friends of the college.
Professor Jessica Munson photographs a large cache deposit uncovered during excavations at Altar de Sacrificios earlier this summer with the help of project excavators Jose Xe (left) and Marcos Xe.