Fall 2012  

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Washington University in
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Graduate Student Work at the Site of El Perú Waka', Guatemala
by Diana Fridberg, Mary Jane Acuña, Clarissa Cagnato

Acuna
Mary Jane Acuña works inside one of the El Achiotal tunnels that exposed the outer wall of one building in the sequence of the mound.
Cagnato
Clarissa Cagnato performs flotation at El Perú Waka', aided by workmen (from the left) Andres Maquin Chun, Domingo Cac Mo, and Edwin Antonio Paez.
Fridberg
Diana Fridberg compares modern animals to remains and images found in the archaeological record.

Ancient Maya civilization may be of particular interest to many this year, but Washington University Professor David Freidel and his graduate students have a long-standing relationship with the ancient Maya world. Freidel has directed research at El Perú since 2003, with graduate student Mary Jane Acuña co-directing from 2008 to 2011. Working at the northwestern Guatemalan site of El Perú, known anciently as Waka', Freidel and his colleagues have labored to explore ancient life in this rainforest city. Excavations at the site have produced a wealth of knowledge about life during the Maya Classic Period (250-900/1000 CE). In the modern context, this research is involved in promoting conservation of the tropical forest and supporting the local economy.

Investigations in the city center have revealed the role Waka' played in regional politics. Carved monuments and texts recovered from the city recount a history of warfare and alliance with other Maya cities, trade in ideas and goods from as far away as central Mexico, and celebrations of the passing of calendrical time. Key figures in Maya history are named, including El Perú's own "warrior queen," Lady K'abel, and central Mexican warlord Siyaj K'ahk ("Fire Born"). Through these and other named individuals, the city is linked to the larger Maya sites of Tikal and Calakmul. Ancient royalty comes alive in objects from palaces and tombs, including a set of highly detailed figurines of the royal court that formed a centerpiece of the recent nationally traveling exhibit "The Fiery Pool," featured last year at the Saint Louis Art Museum.

In addition to clarifying the lives of ancient Maya elite, the El Perú-Waka' Archaeological Project has shed light on the lives of the city's commoners. Previous research at the site demonstrated the ways ordinary people used Waka's monumental temples as places of remembrance, offering, and religious ritual. Ongoing reconnaissance of the site's hinterland is revealing the nature of commoner homes and settlements. Since 2009, Acuña has been expanding knowledge of the transition to sociopolitical complexity and the adoption of kingship during the Late Preclassic period (250 BCE–250 CE) by directing research at the nearby site of El Achiotal, about 50km from Waka'. She uses tunnel excavations in a mound housing an architectural sequence spanning five to six centuries. Tunnels enable Acuña to expose sections of each architectural phase and the corresponding embellishments that display the ideological symbolism of the time.

Graduate students Diana Fridberg and Clarissa Cagnato are conducting their dissertation research at the El Perú Waka' site. The National Science Foundation supports their work, which investigates the relationship between people and the environment at ancient Waka'.

Fridberg specializes in the relationships between humans and animals. She studies the faunal remains and artistic representations uncovered from excavations to determine ancient diet and ritual animal use.

The ancient use of plants is Cagnato's focus. Using microscopic and macroscopic analysis of preserved seeds and starch residues, she aims to determine what people really ate. To this end, Cagnato also conducts targeted excavations of storage pits and refuse areas to gather ancient food remains.

Fridberg and Cagnato's methods of investigation, though widely used in other regions, are infrequently performed in the Maya area and represent a valuable contribution to knowledge of daily life in the ancient world.

Nine years after the first field season, El Perú Waka' still has much to tell us about ancient Maya life.