Aguacate: pop. 570 1/2 ~ On Practicing Community Archaeology ~ by Claire

by Claire on 7.27.2011

That's what the sign says as you drive into Aguacate village. It always cracks me up a little bit; someone with a sense of humor took a permanent marker to the otherwise weathered and rusty sign. Here's some more information on Aguacate village, and my time there. I just returned this morning from several days of exploring for archaeological sites interaction? community participation? I don't know what to call the relationship that I'm trying to build with Aguacate. Technically it's called "community archaeology", but most people still don't really get what I'm trying to do. Mostly I'm just answering questions and listening - I want people to get used to having me there, to getting to know what my project is about, what exactly I'm planning on doing when I come back in January. Working with different pairs of guys and staying with different families has made it possible for me to talk to new people with each visit.
For example, Alejandro, the guy whose house I was eating at this time (I stay with one family and eat with another), asked about January, how many people I would be hiring, etc. And he asked what was the most important thing that Aguacate could do for me. Seeing a perfect opportunity, I said that the most important thing was to make sure the sites that I'd been visiting didn't get looted. He sort of smiled, because that wasn't what he was expecting, I think. I explained that if I come back and there are new holes in all of the sites, that I have to go somewhere else, leaving people without work. Most of the mounds that I've seen have at least one looter's hole in them, but some holes really aren't very big, and people have disregarded the smaller mounds entirely, most likely because they don't perceive them as important enough to have any jade.
There is an understandable but disproportionate value placed on jade here - everyone has heard a story about someone in the next village over finding jade, selling it to a tourist and getting rich. The reality is that even if they did find a polychrome pot, or a piece of carved jade, they would sell it for a fraction of what the middleman would get, not to mention the art dealer/auction house/ebay seller. The sites I'm interested in, and the kind surrounding Aguacate, are smaller households that most likely will not have anything fancy enough to interest big spenders. Furthermore, looting and the antiquities market are closely tied to narcotics trafficking in Central America and Mexico. In case you haven't heard how that is turning out for local farmers, read this.

Anyways, as much as I tell everyone that I'm not looking for jade, I still worry that I'm going to come back in January to a bunch of looted sites. But, I've been preaching the conservation ethic while I'm there, so we'll see if it works! There are a lot of tricky ethical issues here (such as, archaeologists placing an overwhelming value on jade in the first place!) but I will get off my soapbox for now and tell you about the last few days.

I stayed with the Choc family, whose land I've been trying to get on since March. There is a mound in his cattle pasture that you can see from the road, but he won't let me check it out. Technically, he is on community land, and others that I've talked to are surprised that he can keep me from going there since the whole community agreed to work with me; I'm not going to push it. Anyways, his family was nice and welcoming, though the kids were much more
annoying than my last visit. They're just curious, but when I arrived I was just in no mood to be stared at, poked, and followed around.
On Thursday we explored the low hills behind the village, some of which I'd been up before. There is one badly looted sites up there that I'd seen, and this week I saw one more possibility. I would love to dig test pits along those hills, since I suspect that there are low-lying mounds and middens (ancient trash deposits) there, including under some modern houses. Here's some evidence of that:

This is a metate that Mr. Hun found when he was digging a drain next to his house (those are his kids). It's a beautiful, well-worn metate that may be historic and not ancient, it's hard to tell. Still, it means that people have been living here for awhile! (His wife offered to sell this to us, by the way).

Here's a view of the village from the hilltop:

It poured rain all morning, but my attitude is, once you're wet, you're wet. Around late morningit started to get sunny, which felt amazing. We took a long walk out to an overgrown field and bushwacked to the base of this pretty isolated little hill. There were 2-3 small mounds on top, with looters pits, but also some interesting sherds and paving stones. I got kind of beat up that day - I slipped on a root and slammed the side of my thigh into a tree stump. It hurt while I was hiking but I didn't really think about it until I went to bathe in the river that evening and saw the bright purple bruise. Yikes. And then I stupidly disturbed a wasps' nest on top of one of the hills and got stung 5 times - once in the thigh (the other thigh) and 4 times on my left hand. It seriously hurt, and my middle finger and the back of my hand were grotesquely swollen - I really should have taken a picture of that. It's ok now though, just really itchy. In addition to the injuries, Thursday ended up being a long, hot afternoon; consequently I got the best night of sleep I'd had in over a month. When my hosts turned the lights out at 8:30, I was a goner.

On Friday Juan and Salvador took me down a farmer's road past one site that I'd already visited. We climbed a really steep hill that hadn't been cleared recently so it was covered in what they call "high bush" - large tropical trees and palms with not as much undergrowth. Just when I was getting frustrated and expecting nothing but a rocky outcrop for the effort, we arrived at the summit to find a good-sized mound, I'd say about 5 meters in height. It had a looter's pit in the back corner, but was relatively intact. There were two more small mounds on the summit of the hill that hadn't been touched. Here's a picture of the looter's pit:
I know it's really hard to see, which is why I'm not posting a lot of pictures this time! Mybackpack is sitting on a ledge where they dug a second pit. You're looking straight at the pit, where they've dismantled one corner of the building, which continues to the right of the photo. The hill drops off dramatically to the left, and from where I was precariously standing.

After taking pictures and drawing some sherds I found in the looter's pit, we hiked down the hill, where my guide, Juan, said there were two more small mounds. The first one was built against the steep hillside, with a small flat corridor separating it from the second mound. A huge retaining wall was built to support the second mound. It seems that there is also a modified terrace at the base of the retaining wall, that may have a small mound. This was the most exciting place I'd been - a minimally looted, multi-component site down the road from two other smaller, but unlooted, sites.
Finally, we stopped by this hill (the one in the middle distance with palms on it) that had two structures, one on the top and one on the side of the hill. Can you see Salvador chopping his way through the bush? Gives you an idea of what it's like to hike during the rainy season.

All in all, I had a very successful two days. I have now seen pretty much all there is to see right around the village (besides that damn cattle pasture!) plus two that are farther away. Of course, now that I'm leaving everyone has another site to show me, but mostly they are about an hour's walk away so I think I'll save those for the dry season. My goal this summer was to find sites that fulfill my research goals (households in this corridor that can tell me about daily life and sociopolitical identity in the past) and are convenient for the field school (ideally close to a road, not across the river with no bridge, etc.). After this trip, I feel satisfied with what I've seen, so now I'm back in PG for the next few days. I have some other logistical tasks in and around PG to take care of before I leave - such as getting back to Tumul K'in to talk to a carpenter about building shelves for the lab.

I have other thoughts and stories about my time in Aguacate, so I think I'll keep posting this week. During the first week of August Anna is coming down to PG (she's doing dissertation research in San Ignacio, 3 hours north of here) and we are going on a week-long Birthday Extravaganza to Guatemala! We have a loose itinerary, but the trip will undoubtedly include chicken buses, markets, volcanic lakes, colonial towns, and beer other than Belikin. Doug will be traveling with us, as is our friend Mark, a fellow archaeologist who shares the awesome birthday that is August 8th. Stay tuned for pictures from the Birthday Extravaganza!!!!!!

Recycled Minds guest columnist, Claire, is an Anthropology PhD student studying Maya archaeology. She is currently putting together a dissertation project in the Toledo district of southern Belize. You can read more about her research at her blog: Ma'alob K'iin! Incidents of Travel in Mexico and Belize
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  1. Anonymous10:21 AM

    This sounds really neat - a really cool project combined with a great story. Keep sharing!

  2. John J.8:51 PM

    Working with the village people to do your archaeology is an excellent way to include local people in your work. I would be really interested to hear more about how this all works out.

  3. Anonymous1:25 AM

    well the community is willing to work and to support the development of the archaeology site once they got a clear vision of the project...

  4. Claire has written further on her experiences in southern Belize at:

    In short, she developed a working relationship with the community of Aguacate, and with the help of a number of volunteers and a rotating crew of men from the community, was able to carry out excavations at a very interesting and informative site.


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