Digging The Ancients: Archaeologist Explores Early Maya Culture

Archaeologist Brigitte Kovacevich

Maya culture has fascinated scientists for decades, but many mysteries remain about the ancient people that rose to prominence for their highly developed civilization in what is now Central America and Mexico. Archaeologist Brigitte Kovacevich, assistant professor of anthropology in Dedman College, is part of a growing effort to understand the lesser-known early period of Maya culture, before the rise of its kingdoms and powerful rulers.

“Little is known about how kingship developed, how individuals grabbed political power within the society, how the state-level society evolved and then was followed by a mini-collapse between 100-250 A.D.,” says Kovacevich.

A specialist in Mesoamerica, Kovacevich is exploring early Maya culture at the mid-sized city of Holtun in the central lakes region of Guatemala. Holtun dates from 600 B.C. to 900 A.D. and had no more than 2,000 residents. Situated on a limestone escarpment fed by two nearby springs, Holtun was flush with natural resources, including chert, a sedimentary rock from which tools are made, says Kovacevich, an expert in stone tools. She earned her doctoral degree in anthropology from Vanderbilt University in 2006.

Today, cow pastures and cornfields surround the patch of rainforest where Holtun’s structures – more than 100 – are buried under decomposed foliage and soil. Overgrown with jungle trees, the site has the appearance of large mounds, Kovacevich says. Looters have tunneled into some of the structures. Archaeologists who explored the structures have verified the existence of numerous plazas, an astronomical observatory, a ritual ball court, mounds that served as homes and a signature Maya architectural structure called a triadic pyramid – a 60-foot-tall platform topped with three 10-foot-tall pyramids.

In summer 2010, Kovacevich and U.S. and Guatemalan colleagues installed a weatherproof roof on one structure to prevent further damage to various monumental stucco masks and other art that adorn the facades of the pyramids. Kovacevich and her colleagues also hosted a workshop to teach local guides about the site’s importance as a way to aid ecotourism development and creation of an on-site museum. This summer the scientists will begin excavation, adhering to Guatemala’s rigorous preservation, environmental and conservation requirements.

The Institute for the Study of Earth and Man in Dedman College, the Downey Family Award for Faculty Excellence and University Research Council are funding the research.

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