• Name: Paul McLerran
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Saturday, January 24, 2009

Understanding Maya Land Use at El Pilar

This is not your typical Maya archaeological site. It doesn't wow you with its imposing monumental temples, plazas, ball courts and residential palaces like Palenque or Tikal. Yet it boasts 100 acres of plazas, pyramids and other structures, ranking it among the major ancient centers of the lowland Maya region. Straddling the border of Belize and Guatemala, the site of El Pilar, as this settlement has come to be known, doesn't flaunt its monumental prowess with cleanly exposed stone structures. Many of its ancient structures still lie protected by vegetation because it is the subject of a whole new paradigm of archaeological investigation -- a paradigm that may prove to be a model for many projects to come, and which may lead to solutions about how humanity can sustain itself and flourish by cooperating with nature instead of altering, subduing and destroying it. The research at El Pilar is based upon the premise that the ancient Maya worked WITH their tropical environment, as opposed to exploiting and transfiguring it, to create a flourishing civilization sustained by its natural environment or ecosystem. Exploring this concept could answer some age-old questions about what contributed to ancient Maya prosperity and, conversely, what may have contributed to its mysterious decline. By extension (and even more exciting), in this age of increasing global environmental awareness, El Pilar serves as a living museum and laboratory, drawing from what can be learned about ancient cultural practices to create a conservation model for the future of our own civilization.

The 2009 Field Season

How did the ancient Maya manage their landscape? Under the direction of Dr. Anabel Ford of the Mesoamerican Research Center at the University of California at Santa Barbara and the nonprofit organization, Exploring Solutions Past: The Maya Forest Alliance, the 2009 El Pilar field season will focus on testing a predictive model of ancient Maya land use through the lens of contemporary Maya forest gardeners. Understanding how these farmers use their land will help piece together the mosaic of land use in the past. Moreover, animals that survived the rise and fall of the Maya and are only threatened today by modern hunting practices must have formed a critical part of the Maya landscape, past and present. This season's work will integrate these diverse elements into one exciting field exploration. The core of the fieldwork will take place from May 1 to June 2009. Following is an outline of the many elements that will be studied during the season:


- Floristic complexity of today: canopy levels

o In the fields and orchards: polyculture, agroforestry, forest regeneration

o Traditional land management: soil maintenance, land cover, pest management

- Food chain of the forest garden: faunal distribution

o Corn is the canopy: browsers, small mammals, reptiles, birds, insects

o Orchard/forest as canopy: all the above, arboreal fauna, top predators

- Mapping Maya house sites and soil at El Pilar

o Urban El Pilar: high density and complex distribution of structures

o Rural El Pilar: low density and simple distribution of structures

o Traditional farmer input: understanding the rural component

If you are interested in being a part of this ground-breaking research, you canfind more information at www.marc.ucsb.edu/elpilar/Join.php, or contact Anabel Ford at Ford@marc.ucsb.edu. In addition, general information about the ongoing research at El Pilar can be found at http://marc.ucsb.edu, and http://mayaforestgardeners.org .

Photo credits: top photo, Macduff Everton; others, BRASS Archives

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Friday, January 23, 2009

Blue Creek: Excavating an Upscale Community

When we think of the ancient Maya civilization, the monumental centers of Tikal, Palenque, Chichen Itza, and Copan usually come to mind. These, however, are only a few of the countless ancient sites, many of which, though known to exist, still lie unexcavated and unexplored. Still others are yet undiscovered, and their number is still a mystery. The jungle shrouds their secrets. The archaeologists who uncover and investigate these sites have many years of work ahead them before a complete picture of the Maya civilization, and how it mysteriously and suddenly declined, emerges.

Blue Creek

A comparatively small site in northwestern Belize promises to add an important chapter to the story. It will help answer questions about how a medium-sized community of approximately 20,000 people managed to support an unusually wealthy class of residents and a large public precinct surrounded by numerous, well-defined residential structures and agricultural components. Known as Blue Creek, scientists at this site have uncovered a large number of exotic goods, unusual for a community of this size. It is thought that its strategic location, in combination with the techniques the ancient inhabitants employed in agricultural production, defined the foundation for its wealth.

The Project

Dr. Thomas Guderjan of the Maya Research Program is leading a team of archaeologists and other professional staff to find answers to the questions surrounding the site. In 2010, the team will be returning to continue excavations in an elite residential area of Blue Creek, and in the agricultural field systems surrounding the site, including other nearby centers.
They are calling for students and volunteers to join them for their 2010 season, which begins May 24 and runs through July 25.

The Field School

Participants will receive training in field and laboratory techniques as well as receive a "crash course" on the Maya and archaeological methodology. Accommodation is at the Blue Creek research station, which has 35 small residential cabanas, a 1500 square foot laboratory building, a main building with a dining hall, and men's and women's restrooms and showers. All meals, equipment and supplies are provided. There will be four two-week sessions. Participants are welcome to join any or all of them.
A particularly noteworthy aspect of this opportunity involves the offering of 10 Welker Scholarships, funded by income from the Welker Endowment and a generous donation by Mr. Jack Thompson. The intent of the Scholarships is to encourage talented young undergraduate and graduate students to participate in the project and to pursue archaeology or related fields. Moreover, these students will be afforded greater responsibilities than other participants during the fieldwork.

Join the Team

For the student or enthusiast of Maya archaeology, the Blue Creek experience represents one of the best field school opportunities available for this region of the world. If you are interested in becoming a part of it, you can find out more by going to
www.mayaresearchprogram.org or by emailing Dr. Guderjan at guderjan@gmail.com. The project staff has prepared an excellent, detailed Participant Guide that will tell you just about everything you would want to know as a Project student or volunteer. The Guide can be accessed at the website.

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Friday, January 16, 2009

Gezer: Reexamining a Renowned Archaeological Site

..........For Pharaoh King of Egypt had gone up, and taken Gezer, and burnt it with fire, and slain the Canaanites that dwelt in the city, and given it for a present unto his daughter, Solomon's wife. And Solomon built Gezer, and Bethhoron the nether............ 1 Kings 9:16-17

Among the major archaeological sites of Israel, the Tel that marks the site of ancient Gezer has already revealed much of itself to scholars. A series of excavations have shown that the 33-acre site was continuously occupied from the Bronze Age to the Hellenistic Period. During the Iron Age, according to the Biblical account, it was one of three major cities fortified under King Solomon. This makes it a key site for research concerning questions within the context of the current archaeological and scholarly debates about the nature and chronology of the rise of the ancient Israelite State and Iron Age ceramic chronology. Dr. Steven Ortiz of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Sam Wolff of the Israel Antiguities Authority, along with a consortium of universities, are investigating important questions related to these issues through renewed excavations, focusing now on the Iron Age stratigraphy of the eastern slope of the western hill where previous excavations have revealed several occupational phases of the Iron Age city. They are inviting students and volunteers to join them in this undertaking during the summer of 2009. The dig season will run from June 15 to July 17. For those interested in acquiring academic credit, this project offers a Field School that is clearly among the best that can be offered for students of archaeology of the Levant.


The Tel Gezer Excavation Project’s program contains three components:

  1. Evening classroom lectures
  2. Field School: practicum and lab; and
  3. Weekend study-travel


There are two courses (3 hours each).
History, Archaeology, and Geography of Ancient Israel (BBHST 3423 Grad; BIB1203-A Undergrad)
Archaeological Field Methods (ARCHE 4203 Grad; BIB3503-A Undergrad)
(undergraduate credit will be offered through the College at Southwestern and graduate credit will be offered through Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary).

Each week there will be four evening lectures. The lectures will cover three areas of study: History and Archaeology of Ancient Israel, Geography of the Southern Levant, and Archaeological Method and Theory.

The archaeology practicum is the core of the academic program. Five days a week students will participate in field archaeology. They will learn field excavation methods and techniques, the field recording system, daily excavation strategy, removal and conservation of material culture, section drawing and survey techniques. Four days a week students will participate in an archaeological lab where they will process material culture: ceramics, osteological data, and botanical remains.

The study travel program involves four weekends of touring the country. The regions that will be covered are Jerusalem, Coastal Plain, Shephelah, Galilee, Sea of Galilee, Golan Heights, Jezreel Valley, Dead Sea, Judean Wilderness, and the Negev. Key sites that will be visited are Caesarea, Megiddo, Sepphoris, Nazareth, Mt. of Beatitudes, Capernaum, Katzrin, Arad, Beersheva, Masada, Qumran, En Gedi, etc.

Accommodations and Meals

Volunteers sleep in air-conditioned suites, four to a suite. Each suite is self-contained with its own bathroom, television, telephone. Clean linens and towels will be provided daily. Two breakfasts will be provided on the Tel and at base camp. Lunch and dinner meals will be prepared by the hotel and served in the hotel dining room. There is free wireless internet available in the hotel lobby.

Length of Stay/Room and Board/Costs

Volunteers are encouraged to join the project for the full five weeks of the excavation season. There are a limited number of spots available, and these will be reserved for those students who can participate for the full season. However, it is possible to arrange for a minimum two week stay upon approval by the project directors. The cost for the full five weeks is $1825. Additional costs include round trip airfare to Israel, tuition, and a $600 field trip fee.


Learn, make new friends, and be a part of the adventure of discovery! Few archaeological digs in the Near Eastern region can offer this much to its participants. If you are interested, you can find detailed information about the project, including down-loadable educational/instructional documents, by going to www.gezerproject.org.

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Saturday, January 10, 2009

Exploring the Magnificent Ecclesiastical Palaces of Scotland

Almost any traveler to Europe can tell you about the incredible medieval architecture that dots its landscape. Scotland ranks among those countries with the finest examples of this period of history. Did you know that the Medieval bishops of Scotland were among the great nobles who spearheaded the construction of some of its finest cathedrals, churches, halls and castles? Their residential palaces were at the very least as impressive as the finest castles and manors of the Land. Through the Scottish Episcopal Palaces Project (SEPP) the University of Wales at Lampeter is investigating the development of bishops' palaces in Scotland up to the end of the episcopacy in the closing of the 17th century. The investigation of their residences will provide the basis for answering questions about the relationship between ecclesiastical and castellar architecture, and the physical and allegorical aspects of bishop's palaces in their landscape setting. In exploring the multi-functional roles of medieval bishops' palaces, SEPP investigates how the bishops conducted their pastoral and temporal work in a manner suited to their lordly status, taking into account their need for defense on spiritual as well as on physical levels.

Initially, SEPP has focused on the medieval dioceses of Aberdeen and Moray, where the project's research has identified fifteen possible episcopal sites. Detailed work has been conducted on two in particular: Kinneddar (diocese of Moray) and Fetternear (diocese of Aberdeen). In 2009, a team of students and volunteers, under the direction of Dr. Penny Dransart, will continue excavating the site of Fetternear. The site is important because it was the summer palace of the bishops of Aberdeen. It was associated with Bishop Cheyne at a time when Scotland was subjected to the invasion of English forces under Edward I. The palace was rebuilt in the 1330s by Alexander de Kininmund, a cleric associated with the Declaration of Arbroath (1320), which is Scotland's Declaration of Independence from England. The structure and surrounding area continued to undergo changes through time, making it a complex subject of study.

The Fetternear project team is inviting students and volunteers to join them this summer as they continue to uncover the architectural features and associated remains and artifacts of this informative site. It will provide the opportunity to not only excavate buried remains, but also to record and study the standing architecture. One of the project goals is to uncover more of the palace's surounding moat, which has some unusual features. This excavation opportunity offers another rather unique element -- the dig fee is............FREE. If you are interested in participating, find out more about it at www.lamp.ac.uk/archanth/staff/dransart/fetternear.htm and contact Dr. Penny Dransart at p.dransart@lamp.ac.uk.