This post continues the retelling of my recent trip to Belize: participating in an archaeology field school and learning about jaguar conservation. The rest of this series is located in the Travel category of this blog.
June 8, 2017 was a remarkable day. Once again, I worked at Structure 130. This turned out to be my favorite day at that site.
Much of my field work during the previous two days involved painstakingly excavating around large rocks. We wanted to leave these stones in place, to figure out what sort of structure they might have composed. Today, I was finally given permission to remove them.
Most of the rocks came out with little effort. However, one of them was wedged between a large tree root and several other stones. This meant I had to pound its side with a rock hammer in order to dislodge it. The 5-year-old in me rejoiced at being able to hit something.
After removing many of the rocks from this unit (Unit D, described here), we found a layer of plaster. The plaster was mixed in with numerous pebbles, and our team leader speculated that it might have been Maya cement.
Maya cement is fascinating technology. The Classic Maya used to construct circular kilns full of carefully-stacked wood. According to author and Maya researcher Leonide Martin (2016) The kilns were approximately 2 meters (6.6 ft) tall and about 6 meters (19.7 ft) across, with an open shaft in the middle. This shaft encouraged cool, oxygen-rich air to flow into the kiln after it had been lit, heating limestone that had been placed inside the kiln to temperatures of 1450-1600 degrees Celsius (2642-2912 Fahrenheit) (Martin, 2016).
At those temperatures, the limestone underwent a chemical reaction that created “hydraulic cement” (O’Kon, 2012). The Classic Maya would then combine this substance with water, pebbles, and other materials to form Maya cement. This ancient Mayan technology was every bit as strong and advanced as the Portland cement in use today, even though it was developed at least 1500 years earlier (Martin, 2016; O’Kon, 2012).
But for me, finding Maya cement was not the most exciting occurrence of June 8.
While working at Structure 130, two spider monkeys (Ateles geoffroyi) payed us a visit. Spider monkeys are often aggressive towards humans in the Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area: throwing sticks and occasionally peeing on them. But these monkeys were peaceful. They sat in a nearby tree for much of the afternoon, calmly watching us work. It was a magical encounter.
As with most days, June 8 was not perfect. In the evening, one of my fellow Humboldt State students asked me what I did before joining the archaeology field school. Her innocent question stirred a number of insecurities I had been struggling with.
For those who are unaware, before embarking on my current path I was enrolled in a mental health counseling program at Cleveland State University. I sometimes wonder if I should have stayed there. If I had, I would be done with school and in the early stages of a career as a counselor. I would be earning money, instead of continuously going further into debt. My classmate’s inquiries woke those doubts from hibernation, and they attacked me with renewed vigor.
Another troubling event on June 8 involved a spider. Morgan, a student from the University of Texas at Austin, showed me a remarkable spider in Texas Camp’s latrines. It was the largest spider I had ever seen, and it had hundreds of babies on its back.
Later that evening, I returned to the latrines in time to see somebody smashing the spider and its babies with a sandal. When he had finished, he said, “I don’t know what kind of spider that was, but it deserved to die.”
This struck me as a senseless act. If he did not know what type of spider it was, how could he know if it posed a threat? Furthermore, the jungle was the spider’s home – not ours. So why kill it simply for being there? I admit that I was creeped out by the spider, but I hardly agree that it “deserved to die.”
Fortunately, June 9 would prove to be one of the most exciting days I spent with the Program for Belize Archaeological Project.
Martin, L. (2016). Maya cement: The glue of great cities. Retrieved December 12, 2017 from https://leonidemartinblog.wordpress.com/2016/04/24/maya-cement-the-glue-of-great-cities/.
O’Kon, J. A. (2012). Cement. Retrieved December 12, 2017 from http://www.theoldexplorer.com/index.php/maya-technology/cement.