What can be accomplished in the jungle with 2 students, 15 buckets of Maya artifacts, a 3D scanner, portable XRF machine, and a generator? Staying with our host family who provide room and board and lab and office space for us to work, means we can accomplish a lot. I had more incentive since I first had to travel to the Belize government Institute of Archaeology in Belmopan—the capital city—to obtain and pay a fee for a lab permit. Belmopan is not on the way to our field camp, 15 miles by boat only up the coast from the nearest town, Punta Gorda, in the Toledo District of southern Belize.
My Digital Archaeology project is a pilot study for the larger Underwater Maya project. Therefore, we are collecting data for my pilot study as well as for the larger project. We brought buckets of artifacts stores in town in a house that fell down , leaving the once-indoor storage open to the weather. Sharpie labels washed off. Buckets filled with water and seeped into zip-lock bags with artifacts. Artifacts had orange, yellow, and brown slime, mold, and other organic growth, which also was on the bags. The first task was to wash the artifacts and bags, bake the artifacts in the sun to dry them, and place them in relabeled bags.
My grad student Kurt has started 3D scanning selected artifacts. With 20 days of research, at 6-8 artifact scans per day, that’s 120 to 160 scans, so have to be selective in what is 3D imaged. We are doing 2D photos of all artifacts, first with a labeled bag so we can identify each artifact, and then with a scale on black velvet. How do I select what artifacts to 3D image? Briquetage—the pots used to evaporate brine over fires to make salt—includes jars, vertical wall basins, bowls, pot legs, sockets, spacers, and bases. Socket are formed clay with a concave surface where the vessel rested on top of the pot leg. Bases are formed clay where the socket rested on the ground or salt evaporation table. Spacers are disks with 2 concave surfaces that fit the body of adjacent pots to hold them apart over the fire during evaporation. I selected large, reconstructable rim sherds and good examples of sockets and spacers. I also am selecting water jars with distinctive stamped decoration—that are temporally diagnostic and may also inform on origin of manufacture—serving bowls, figurines, and anything unusual. I put chert, jadeite, and other stone apart for later. I am also selecting salt-making pots with holes that may have been used to drain the salt-enriched brine into pots. The 3D scanning works well, with the generator needing refueling about 3:30pm each day. Kurt scans all day and during supper.
The portable XRF machine which provides compositional information of artifacts, is the first time in the jungle. I have successfully visually identified obsidian to its volcanic highland origin, but the portable XRF machine is more scientific. Since obsidian does not naturally occur in the limestone platform of the Yucatan peninsula, identifying its highland source helps reconstruct trade routes and the economy. My grad student Kelsey is assaying obsidian and overlaying data from known outcrops. So far, she has found a lot of Ixtepeque and some El Chayal in Guatemala, as well as some material from a less common outcrop in central Mexico. Yesterday, the portable XRF machine stopped working, likely due to high humidity, which was about 90%. I was able to call our contact who asked if we could put the machine in an air-conditioned room overnight. Readers realize this is not possible in our jungle. We did put the PXRF in its Pelican case with several cases of desiccant, which we re-activated by heating in the wood stove for several hours.
I am organizing artifacts, washing artifacts, and relabeling bags, updating data records, and trying to ensure that we had 3D scans, photos, attribute analyses for sherds, and drawings. Some of the data are from Site 74, my Digital Archaeology project.
Staying remotely in the jungle at our host family’s organic farm allows me to be focused on the task at hand. There are few normal distractions. The nearest people are 15 miles away by boat. There are no roads. There are no walls. We live in peaceful coexistence with nature, including all kinds of biting insects such as sandflies, mosquitoes, and doctor flies. Fortunately I no longer react to their bites. My students are not so lucky, yet. Jungle creatures can and do wander through our living area. I smooth out the dirt on the ground under the thatch in the Guesthouse where I sleep so I can identify the size of animals that pass through at night. I cannot see them through the heavy cotton tent on the wooden platform in the middle of the room. Small footprints are likely from agoutis.
I have a phone that I use to call out, if I get enough bars. Our host family has a satellite dish for internet, but it is so unreliable and slow that I rarely try it, or give up after several hours of trying to send a message. The internet is working now! My phone works and provides a link to the outside world and safety net.
Good bye for now from the jungle!