Posts Tagged ‘Maya’

2012 – End of the Maya Long Count

August 20th, 2012 No comments

Catastrophe theorists have been having a field day – or rather year.  2012 is when the Maya long count ends.

As catastrophe theorists have loved to point out, 2012 marks the end of the old Maya long count, the end-date of a 5,125-year-long cycle;  but before we get too depressed,  Mayanists have been quick to add that just because one count ends, it doesn’t mean the Maya believed another couldn’t begin.

As ever, nothing is ever quite as you think it is with the Maya.

Thirty-five years ago, I visited my first Maya site, at Palenque.  From the top of the Palacio temple, a staircase led down inside it to the burial chamber of a ruler.  The ‘secret staircase’ – it is difficult to use any other less melodramatic term – had only been discovered in 1949.  An archaeologist noticed there were holes which had been filled with stone plugs in one of the floor slabs;  the temple wall also extended below ground level, suggesting some lower chamber.

When they lifted the slab, they found a stairway filled so densely with rubble that it took three years to get to the bottom.

Going down the corbelled staircase on my own felt like something out of John Buchan.  At that time, visitors were asked to bring their own torches, as there were only low-voltage lights running from an intermittent generator.

For the archaeologists who first saw the funeral vault at the bottom, it must have been the revelation of a lifetime:  the room was still preserved as they had found it, with the king’s funeral tomb dominating the chamber.

The size of the crypt was impressive:  it was at least twenty feet high.  After the descent down a narrow staircase, this was like finding a cavern after pot-holing.

In the years since my visit, much has changed in our understanding of the Maya – from new archaeological discoveries, but above all because we can now finally read the glyphs on the temple stelae.  Read more…

Lidar ranging

May 12th, 2010 No comments

There’s nothing as seductive as new technology, particularly in the world of archaeology.   Some years ago I co-led an expedition that expended an inordinate amount of energy using a thermal imaging camera.  We flew over the cloud forest near Machu Picchu to determine the full extent of the nearby site of Llactapata, at a cost of $1000 per hour for the plane, let alone for the camera.  Its infra-red vision was supposed to be able to detect the difference in temperature between stone buildings which retain heat, and vegetation which does not.  By using it, we hoped to  be able to see through the cloud-forest to any ruins below the canopy  – the archaeological equivalent of those X-Ray specs sold in schoolboys’ comics to look through women’s skirts, and in the event about as successful.

We ended up going into the forest on foot and looking in the more traditional manner, with machetes, frustration and a great deal of sweat.  (The full story is told in Cochineal Red for those interested.)

But an even newer technology has come along that sounds rather more effective:  lidar (‘light detection and ranging’).  Gamers have used it to create virtual reality sites for some time.   Now the husband-and-wife team of Arlen and Diane Chase have adapted  it at Caracol in Belize to penetrate the jungle cover and create 3-D images of one of the great cities of the Maya lowlands.

In the process they’ve established that the site was far more extensive than had ever been expected:  the city sprawled over some 70 square miles.

Diane Chase was quoted as being  ‘blown away’ by the new technology:   ‘We believe that lidar will help transform Maya archaeology much in the same way that radiocarbon dating did in the 1950s and interpretations of Maya hieroglyphs did in the 1980s and ’90s.’

Apparently, however,  they also emphasized that ‘it would not obviate the need to follow up with traditional mapping to establish “ground truth.” ’  What a terrific phrase – ‘ground truth’.  Now that’s something I’ve been searching for my whole life…..