Elon professor introduces students to the ‘Heart of the Maya’

Deep within the Petén Forest, which extends from the eastern Chiapas in Mexico through northern Guatemala and into northwestern Belize, are the ruins of the once powerful Maya. And though the pre-Columbian civilization collapsed centuries ago, the site of Dos Hombres, in Belize, still holds many secrets waiting to be unearthed by archaeologists, anthropologists and researchers, including Elon professor Rissa Trachman and her students.

Professor Rissa Trachman has been studying the Maya since she was an undergraduate student at the University of Texas at Austin.

Trachman, assistant professor of sociology and anthropology, has been researching the Maya in Belize since 1997. In June, she and five Elon students spent one month in that country at the university’s first archaeological field school in the central Maya lowlands, a region considered by Trachman to be “the heart of the Maya, the birthplace of Maya civilization.”

Students participating in the program stayed in a research facility located on a 250,000-acre preserve that is used by several universities across the United States. Trachman says the field school is located in a conservation setting, adding that the area where the research is carried out is somewhat remote. Water is conserved and students, researchers and professors live minimally in semi-permanent cabins – or cabañas. Local Belizeans are hired to cook meals and students are expected to complete designated chores.

“One of my students described our living situation as ‘summer camp on steroids,’” says Trachman. “It’s an intensive learning experience. It’s not a hotel.”

“It’s a unique situation,” she explains. “It’s a little different from most study abroad programs because it is an actual field school. Rather than going to different places and seeing different archaeological sites and just looking at them and learning about them, students come to Belize with me to conduct research.”

Trachman became interested in the Maya as an undergraduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, when she visited several ancient sites in Mexico and the Yucatan peninsula and fell in love with the architecture and potential for research about the Maya culture. Though various Maya settlements extended thousands of miles throughout Central America, Trachman focused her research in Belize at the Dos Hombres site in the northwestern part of the country. Trachman completed her dissertation work for the University of Texas in this location and has returned for the past 14 summers.

“I was looking at households and looking at everyday life so it was sort of a bottom up perspective,” says Trachman. “I was looking at how households interacted not only with the community of Dos Hombres, but also with the larger Maya society.”

Students who participate in the program are involved in hands-on research alongside Trachman.

Trachman was also interested in discovering identity, gender, class and age construction of the Maya and how they viewed these particular distinctions. As she continues her research, she is still investigating the households in the hinterlands but has broadened her scope to include the site center, which was the focal point of the community’s architecture and political authority.

Trachman and her students are looking at the economic, social and political organization at Dos Hombres. She says these factors are expressed in material culture and architecture due to the succession of rulers. Rulers, she explains, often built new buildings after taking over a location, which enables archaeologists and researchers to date buildings and look for signs and changes in socio-political organization.

How did Dos Hombres fit into the regional organization? How is identity construction formulated and supported within the higher level of authority? These are some of the questions Trachman hopes to answer as part of her research.

Trachman says one of the unique characteristics of the field school, which is open to students of all majors, is that it provides students with learning opportunities 24/7 because it is in a remote area. “It’s not like they can just take off and go into the village for a while because we’re miles from the nearest village,” she adds.

Despite the primitive environment, Trachman says the students were not disappointed and several hope to return. Says Trachman, “They loved it, because what’s not to love? It’s beautiful.”


By Sarah Beth Costello ’11