PACOY 2012 – The Search for Colonial Maya Households

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PACOY (Proyecto Arqueologico Colaborativo del Oriente de Yucatan) is a joint project between the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and the Universidad del Oriente, Valladolid. Funding for the preliminary stage of the project comes from a National Science Foundation “Catalyzing New International Collaborations” grant.

For much of the month of June InHerit was in Mexico’s Yucatan visiting colonial-era towns around Valladolid. Our team was led by Dr. Patricia McAnany (UNC-Chapel Hill and InHerit) and Dr. Ivan Batún (UNO-Universidad del Oriente). The goal of the project is to involve local communities in the investigation of the daily lives and economic activities of the Maya whose labor supported the Colonial enterprise in Mexico. Two of Dr. McAnany’s graduate students from UNC, Maia Dedrick and Maggie Morgan-Smith, were integral in identifying villages as potential sites of research. Three of Dr. Batun’s undergraduate students joined us to provide important local perspective and feedback on the collaborative aspects of the project: Ricardo Cabañas Haas, Itzel Batún Meza, and Ricardo “Pepe” Poot Chuc.

The UNO contingent at Che Balam (left to right: Dr. Ivan Batun, “Pepe” Poot Chuc, Ricardo Cabañas Haas, Itzel Batún Meza)

In 21 days our team of 8 visited more than 30 towns, villages, haciendas and ranchos in search of a site of future research. We focused our efforts on towns with old colonial churches and indications of a prehispanic population. The team climbed over prehispanic mounds, visited cenotes that had been used for centuries, toured churches that had been burned out in the Caste War, and searched for evidence of the Maya people who were resettled around the colonial churches.

I arrived in Mexico a little over a week into the project. Many of the locations on our list had already been visited, but there were three locations that truly stood out to me. The first of these was the village of Tahcabo. The ruins of the Colonial-era church were built right up against a prehispanic pyramid mound. From what we could tell, most of the church had been torn down during the Caste War and all that remained was the front façade of the church (onto which the current church had been built), and the rear sanctuary, which had defensive ports cut through the rear wall. The truly amazing part of Tahcabo, however, was the warm reception we received from some of its younger residents, who showed us the location of a cave system and cenote and serenaded us with bird sounds.

The standing sanctuary of Tahcabo

Another fantastic town that we visited was Tixhualactun. Located quite close to Vallodolid, this town had ample evidence of the late-Postclasic-through-Colonial occupation that we were working for. It also has abundant oral histories about the place, many of which have been recorded by Didier Chan and Adriana Sanchez for their studies at UNO. The church itself is said to be built on a platform that once housed a temple to the Maya god of rain and thunder, Chaac, and has been struck by lightning four times. There is also a rejollada (a dry sinkhole used for cultivation) with caves that served as sites of refuge during the Caste War, the Colonial period, and possibly even earlier.

The church of Tixhualactun, being threatened by Chaac again.

One of the previously occupied caves of Tixhualactun

Of these oral histories, however, comes a much more recent and troubling story. Apparently, not long ago, a man came through town and dove into the cenotes, bringing out numerous artifacts. He then told residents that INAH (Mexico’s National Institute of Archaeology and History) would be coming to their village and jailing anyone who possessed ancient Maya objects in their household. He oh so very graciously offered to buy these items from people and then hauled away everything, robbing the community not only of their heirlooms and the chance to learn more about the past from the cenote objects, but also seriously damaging the potential for a productive relationship between Tixhualactun and INAH.

The last magical site for me was the village of Che Balam, built on the remnants of a colonial hacienda. The standing noria (well) and walls with water channels pointed to the productive aspects of this hacienda, and the low mounds on the grassy plaza suggest that finding the households of the colonial Maya population may be easier here than in some of the other places we had looked.

The noria and wall at Hacienda Che Balam

The uncertainty leading up to the July 1 national election meant that we weren’t able to progress as far with the collaborative aspect of the project as we had hoped. With the potential for personnel and policy changes at all levels of government after the election, it was recommended that we wait to directly liaise with the communities until after the new government appointments had been made.

While we were not able to settle on one site in the end, and seem to be leaning to a multi-sited, comparative project, the trip was definitely a rewarding one. We saw some amazing colonial architecture, heard fantastic stories, met additional collaborators, and have set the stage for future work. I can’t wait to return and really engage with the community involvement portion of our project!

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