Anthropology professors is digging for answers
For almost 20 years, Elon archaeologist Rissa Trachman has been investigating a Maya site in Belize, debunking Hollywood stereotypes about the profession along the way.
Rissa Trachman’s head was down as she meticulously removed samples of the ceramic vessels and the soil surrounding them. Careful not to disturb more than necessary of the structure in the ancient Maya site of Dos Hombres in northwestern Belize, the associate professor of anthropology was focused on the evidence in front of her.
The ceiling had collapsed and the vessels that appeared to have once sat on a wooden shelf looked as if they had just broken in place. There also was a strange layer of ash running through the rock and soil. It was situated on an angle as if it had spilled out of the vessels. That’s when Trachman’s mind clicked. She had stumbled upon possible cremation urns, a rare find—the kind of discovery an archaeologist patiently waits, sometimes years, to uncover.
“I’m fascinated with the deposits we are finding right now, absolutely fascinated,” says Trachman, who has been excavating the ancient Central America site and its hinterlands since 1999. That most recent find—what she thinks may be cremation urns once displayed on shelves in a room viewable from both sides of a building—happened last summer. Chemical analysis of the soil, ash and vessels will help confirm her hypothesis, but she is still far from fully understanding this one piece of the archaeological puzzle and its relationship to her research.
For a decade, she had been investigating Maya households in the periphery of Dos Hombres. Since 2009 she and the Elon students she takes to Belize every summer have been excavating in the civic-ceremonial center in an area so vast and untouched that it is ripe with surprises.
As a child, Trachman thought she would one day pursue geology as a career. But as she got older, an interest in people and how they think gained importance. It was after a course in cultural anthropology that she was able to hone in on a path that combined all of her interests. “At the core of me, I am an anthropologist,” she says. “The way I express myself anthropologically is through archaeology, and in that sense and in terms of the archaeology itself, I am absolutely a field archaeologist. It’s in me. It’s what I live and breathe.”
But it wasn’t until her first visit to an ancient Maya site—a little-known place in Cozumel called San Gervasio—that her fate was sealed. “It was standing on that site that I actually was able to make all of the leaps in my mind,” she says. She was an undergraduate student at the University of Texas at the time with one field experience under her belt, and she was hooked. “I never looked back.”
She’s returned to northwestern Belize nearly every year since, never tiring of its lure. For six to eight weeks every summer, she and a team of Elon students make the trek to a place most only dare learn about via a National Geographic documentary. It’s a remote 250,000-acre conservation and management area that is mostly primary rainforest. There are no roads in sight. Every day she and her team have to hike two miles in and two miles out of a plush rainforest that shades their digging ground and is equally as awe-inspiring as it is dangerous.
“The rainforest is sometimes absolutely gorgeous and sometimes inhospitable,” she says. It’s why yearly trips are made during the dry season. “There is this sort of dichotomy; there is this sense of adventure and beauty all around us and a little bit of danger at the same time. There are trees growing all around us that have thorns coming out of their trunks. We have to take care of ourselves at all times and think about safety.”
Conditions are harsh, even at the semi-permanent camp where temperatures and humidity levels soar into the high 90s. Although well developed and in place since 1993, there is only electricity for a couple of hours in the morning and evening for food preparation. Showers are quick. There isn’t any hot water. The latrine is 50 yards from the campsite, and tents are set up under zinc-roofed sheds because of the rain and debris that fall from the trees.
Trachman’s profession is not for the weary. The tedious field work, the meticulous excavation methods, which usually happen using tools that resemble spoons rather than shovels, as well as the number of years it often takes to find enough definitive evidence to support a hypothesis, often separate the serious archaeologists from the Indiana Jones wannabes. As a result, Trachman usually spends her introductory archaeology class debunking the stereotypes created by Hollywood in the series of movies made in the 1980s about Jones, a fictional archaeologist who travels the world recovering ancient evidence.
“When we get to the archaeology site, the structure is so tall and so steep, it looks like a mound in the forest,” she says. “It doesn’t look like a temple you can walk in. It’s definitely not like something you’d see in a movie. The romance gets removed once students realize how difficult and painstaking the work is.”
Trachman expects to spend the bulk of her career finding the answers to her overarching research questions about the everyday life of the inhabitants of Dos Hombres, including the political, economic and social organization of the ancient city as well as the ritual, religion and ideology of the Classic Period Maya. Like most archaeologists, she is publishing reports in peer-reviewed journals as she goes, and expects in the future to write a book detailing the culmination of her research. She enjoys that the answers don’t come easy and that she must dig for them bit by bit like a detective uncovering clues at a crime scene. In fact, it is archaeologists who often teach law enforcement how to document a crime that’s taken place in the woods.
The idea that she might have some of the first documented cremation urns of the Maya is appealing. It sustains her as she waits for what’s to come. “The fun of getting to think about this individually as I am building this bigger picture is incredible to me,” she says. “I get to think about a lot of different things, which I think is perfect for me. ... It’s indescribable fulfillment.”
As different as life living in a rainforest is, Trachman gets a sense of peace while there. “I’m at home,” she says. “It’s a second home to me.” And even though the comforts of her first home—hot water, cell phone reception, Internet connection, just to name a few—are missing, she quickly adjusts to living without. “I realize how simple life could really be and yet how complicated at the same time, because it is intellectually nurturing.” She and the many students who have accompanied her to Belize always leave a little different. “It is a life-changing experience.”
When she is not in the field conducting research, Trachman takes the field to her Elon classroom and the community, where she engages in public archaeology with her students. “I love, love, love teaching. I also love being in the field,” she says. “I get to combine the two.”
She and students have worked on statefunded archaeology projects, including one at the Alamance Battleground in Burlington, N.C. “People could participate in a systematic archaeological project,” she says. “It was wonderful way to communicate with the public about the value of archaeological remains.”
Even when excavating, Trachman is careful to only remove samples, typically only 25 percent. She does it out of respect for the ancestors connected to the remains and for future researchers. For her, cultural resources are finite, in the ground resources, and should be conserved the same way we conserve natural resources.
Learning about the past and uncovering details about another way of life buried deep in the earth won’t necessarily prevent future generations from repeating the same mistakes, she says, but it can change how we view the world. “I think it’s critical for us as human beings, in knowing where we are going, to know from where we came,” she says. “I think it’s absolutely critical to know, and, in that sense, we can learn from the past and it is through that lens we can avoid repeating mistakes and have a more enriched eye toward the future.”
By Roselee Papandrea