Saturday, October 15, 2011

Once upon a time . . .

It’s a blustery fall day in Wisconsin, and folks in the hallways after school are talking about fish fry, football and pumpkin beers. The next big thing on the instructional calendar is state standardized assessment, and the challenge of the moment is how to avoid exposing young adolescents to high stakes testing when their brains are under the influence of Halloween candy.

Mexico seems geographically, chronologically, and emotionally very far away!

"We were there!" This mural in the hallway at school has the wheels of
a Mayan calendar and an image from Pakal's tomb at Palenque.

This school year has brought changes for both Nichole and me; she’s in a new position as a multi-grade, bilingual language arts instructor for ELL students, and I’m a teacher leader (not in the classroom) at a neighboring middle school. We’re both loving the new challenges—although there are certainly many, many moments we miss the fantastic team-teaching roles (and students and team-mate) we had last year.

 A part of our grant project was creating a curricular unit based on our travels, and after many late nights and multi-tasking weekends, we sent the final product off in the mail last month. The unit is called Cabezas Colosales, and it’s a three-week (ish) introduction to ancient civilizations based on our first-hand experiences learning about the Olmec. The big questions of the unit have to do with how we learn about people who lived so long ago, and the lessons themselves focus on critical thinking skills and collaborative inquiry. We designed it as if we were teaching it in a middle school classroom that integrated content areas, so it has strands of science, math and language art woven into what is primarily a social studies framework.

Earlier this week, Nichole had the chance to talk to other teachers who are eligible for the Fund for Teachers grant, and a colleague came back from her presentation with a shiny brochure featuring a picture of us with a giant head. I was feeling mixed emotions about the day—proud of my new school that won School of Promise recognition, frustrated with the NCLB system that seems to miss so much of what is great about our public education system, wistful about the students who were part of our first classroom lessons about the Olmec, excited about colleagues interested in using Cabezas Colosales in their classrooms.

That evening, I decided to listen to the local Spanish-speaking radio station in the car—and for about 10 minutes I listened to an animated call-in show about soccer and realized I understood much of the gist of the discussion. Before the grant, before our trip, I’m sure I would have just changed the channel. I know it’s ridiculously cheesy to say that in that moment, driving down the road, I knew that big pieces of our Mexico trip will always be with me—but sometimes (here in Wisconsin) even the cheesiest things really can be true!


Saturday, July 23, 2011

What’s up with Mayan prophecies about the world ending in 2012?

Quick answer: There are no specific Mayan prophecies about 2012!

So what's this you've heard about the Mayan calendar coming to an end? Two analogies to help you understand the situation: If you drove your car for so many miles that the counters on the odometer ran out, what would happen when the mileage went back to 000,000? Or, if it turns out that the world still exists on December 31st, 9999, what year will it be on the next day? As you can see, the main concern is Y2K-ish, because the counting systems in the Mayan calendar might not be set up to count these kinds of numbers.

A little more background, probably with flaws, because this is what I’ve come to understand by talking to folks on this trip—each with slightly different perspectives and information.

The oldest archaeological evidence of the Mayan civilization is found at Itzapa; we saw it at the beginning of this trip. Carvings there were marked with a Mayan calendar date which corresponds to about 300 B.C. This means that 2300 years ago, the Maya already had enough knowledge from astronomical observations to know that a year was 365 days. In fact, their calendar had 18 months of 20 days, and one “unlucky” month with just 5 days.

Can you see that there's a person on the right, holding what looks like a stalk of corn on the left?
Those people at Itzapa, in fact, believed they were living around the year 4000, because for them the year 0 was when they were created, out of corn. In fact, the humans made from corn were actually the third or fourth attempt by the gods to make people. The first created beings couldn’t talk, so they became the animals. Then the gods made beings out of mud, but they washed away in the rain. Then the gods made creatures out of wood, but they couldn’t think: these are the monkeys. Finally, the gods made a dough out of corn, and from that dough they created humans, making us all, as one Mexican told us, “walking tortillas”!

And how do we know these creation stories? Again, a few things to think about. The Maya civilization had thriving city states from about 300 B.C. to 1100 A.D. These cities, many of which Nichole and I visited, were often ruled by kings. They had elaborate religious ceremonies overseen by priests, honoring a pantheon of gods linked to nature and to astronomy. They had trade networks which stretched into northern Mexico, east into the Carribean, and south to the Amazon. They had systems for collecting water and growing corn and other crops, they had tools for construction and ceremony and war, and they had artists who carved and painted records of their history.  Most of the knowledge of reading and writing and astronomy was confined to a relatively small class of the wealthy people.

The Maya city-states had all basically collapsed by the time the first Europeans came to Mexico, probably because of internal political problems as the ruling class went crazy from too many generations of in-breeding or as a drought or some other problem incited the people to revolution. In any case, the Maya people the Europeans met were living in small agricultural communities, speaking their indigenous language, and still celebrating the Mayan religion—but the vast majority of them could not read or write or explain the astronomical underpinnings of their once-flourishing society.

This sign, at Yaxchilan, is written in Spanish, English, and a local Mayan language,
here written with the alphabet that is familiar to us.
There were, however, books on bark written in Mayan glyphs, and there was a vast oral knowledge of the history and culture, which Europeans listened to and recorded in books using the Latin alphabet (this one I am typing in). The most famous of the latter is the Popol Vuh; among other stories, it contains an account of the creation of the corn people.

At some point in the Spanish conquest of Mexico, Catholic priests determined that the bark books of the Maya were evil and ordered them burned; today, only four of these books, called the Maya codices, remain. There are abundant carvings and paintings with original Mayan glyphs, but, like the hieroglyphics of the Egyptians, these have taken a lot of time and effort to “decode,” as archaeologists try to match the recorded symbols with the spoken language which was recorded in the Popol Vuh and other books. Variations of this language are still spoken by Mayan descendents today.

Weren’t we talking about the calendar? Ok, back to the calendar! For the Maya, the modern calendar started with the creation of the corn people and progressed through a series of months and years fairly similar to the one we use today. Running concurrently with this 365 day calendar, they also had a religious calendar based on 260 day cycles. If you think of these two calendars as wheels with cogs, you can imagine that while they both started out at day one, having the beginnings of each cycle occurring simultaneously would be fairly rare. It’s a least common multiple problem—and the answer turns out to be that the cycles start over together every 52 years.

This means that these calendars were sufficient for keeping track of things that happened in 52 year spans of time—probably long enough for most people that any given combination of dates happened only once in their lifetime. But clearly, if the oldest records we have are dated in the year 4000, the Maya had something more than this calendar; it is called the “long count.”

This carving, from Yaxchilan, has glyphs (lower right)
which could indicate, among other things, the date of the events described.
The 365- and 260-day calendars are cyclical; they come back to the beginning and start again, much like the cycles of human lives, or of celestial bodies. The long count calendar starts at 0 and moves forward, or at least it kept moving forward during all of the time the Maya were actually using it. Was it truly a linear calendar with the capacity to keep counting infinitely forward (by essentially moving to larger place values)?  Or, was it also conceived as cyclical, with an exceptionally long cycle?

Well, we’ll probably never know, but on Dec. 21st, 2012, the Mayan long count will reach the end of its current formation. Perhaps it was designed to recycle, like your odometer; perhaps it was designed to move to a new place value, like New Year’s Day, 10,000.

Sense the mystery?

We’ve asked everyone about it, and the impression we get is that most people see it as hype designed to boost the tourism industry! While there are a few Mayan communities in Guatemala and the highlands of Chiapas who still use the 365- and 260-day calendars in daily life, those people have adapted our “Roman” calendar for the “long count”—so even they don’t know or care what happens to the Mayan long count.  My personal theory is that if there is a new creation at that time, it will be people made of computer chips--which won't actually be an advancement after us walking tortillas!


Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Pot Holes, and Pyramids, and Aleuxes? Oh My!

¡Buenas tardes from Valladolid, Yucatán!  I am sitting in the open-air restaurant of our hotel, not far from the kitchen where some of the most fantastic smells are pouring out.  Unfortunately, I am too stuffed from a delicious breakfast and lunch, so I will not be able to eat anything tonight, but I’m living vicariously through the people around me.

View from the table where I'm writing this
Today we went to Chichén Itzá.  You know we’ve been to just about every archaeology site from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of México when my reaction to walking into Chichén Itzá was, “Yep, here it is.  Can I get a few pics and go?  This place is HOT and overcrowded with tourists.”  Ha, ha!

No, seriously, Chichén Itzá is one of the Seven Wonders of the World, and it is easy to see why.  Unlike every single site we visited so far, where there was only one ruler, and s/he was considered divine, the evidence at this site points to shared leadership amongst several people.  What a concept!

The first place we visited was the observatory.  The tribe of Maya living in this site were avid astronomers, and they built this observatory to carry out their work. There is no physical evidence of even rudimentary tools, but the Maya placed windows in the four cardinal and four intermediate directions of this tower to keep themselves oriented.  We are told that the staircase inside the observatory winds around like a snail shell up to the top of the lookout, so it is known as “el Caracól,” (the snail).  

El Caracol - Observatory -- I'm sporting the ankle brace!
The main pyramid at Chichén Itzá is also based on astronomy.  Our guide gave us the complete breakdown of its significance.  Basically, the staircases are comprised of 91 steps each, times four staircases, that makes 364.  The platform at the top is considered one extra step, which makes 365—the days in the year.  There are also several connections to different calendars, religious and lunar, as well as special events that happen during the spring and fall equinoxes.  From there, it is very complicated, and I should let the video speak for itself.  Suffice to say, this is one amazing pyramid!

I am so thankful that I was even able to visit Chichén Itzá today because two nights ago I managed to sprain my ankle.  Scaling ruins, you ask?  Walking along uneven paths?  Climbing over rocks or fallen trees?  Nope, not Nichole.  I sprained my ankle on a pot hole while walking to a restaurant along a dimly lit path with Kris, on our way to do some unit planning.  After all the stories you’ve heard from us about our bumpy roads, I guess it’s pretty apropos!

Our guide and driver were kind enough to take me to a pharmacy on our way to Mérida the next day to get me a brace, which helped immensely!  As we were leaving the hotel, Juan, our guide, asked us if we had had any troubles during the two nights we spent at the hotel right on the site of Uxmal.  Aside from my fall, we told him, our stay had been pleasant.  Intrigued, we asked why he was wondering.

He then proceeded to tell us all about a different tour he had done with a couple of journalists from Argentina, who stayed at the hotel next to ours.  Here’s the story:

“I got a call late at night from the hotel front desk.  They said that the man from my tour was refusing to stay in his room because he was convinced that someone kept opening and closing his door.  The staff went to investigate, and found everything in working order.  They sent a hotel guard to watch his room.  Finding nothing amiss, the guard left.  Shortly thereafter, the man was back at the desk demanding that the guard stay the entire night outside his room because, once again, his door had opened and shut.  With the guard planted firmly outside his door, the man returned to his room, only to reappear not long after that.  This time, he said, someone had sat on his belly while he was trying to sleep!”

It was at that point, that Juan agreed to trade rooms with him (the hotel had been completely full), where he slept just fine…but knowing such things normally happen in that area.

The Yucatecos (or people living in Yucatán) are very superstitious.  They believe in goblin, or trickster-like, characters called Aluxes.  Apparently, these little guys like to play tricks on people.  I told Juan maybe one of them tripped me and made me fall in the pot hole!  He said that they are not malicious, so I can chalk my fall up to clumsiness.  Ha, ha!  He also said that they tend to leave you alone if you acknowledge them as soon as they make their presence known.  He illustrated by telling us a story about a time he was visited by one of these guys.  Evidently, it kept turning his hotel tv on and off.  It finally left him alone when he acknowledged it.  [Insert Twilight Zone music here]

So, in case you’re ever in the Uxmal area and something goes bump in the night, just make sure to tell the goblin that you’re not in the mood for trickery (or perhaps you are?), and he’ll usually leave you alone.

I hope this guy will do my work for me.
My ankle, by the way, is getting better—thanks to ibuprofen, pillows, and ice.  We’re off to the last set of ruins tomorrow—Cobá and Tulúm!  I can’t believe our adventure is coming to a close!  I’ve tried my best to write lesson plans along the way, but the heat wears me out and by night time, I’m pretty well spent organizing my photos, uploading pictures, and connecting with my family back home.  I’ll have my work cut out for me when I get back!

Maybe I can convince some Aluxes to do it for me???

¡Hasta luego!  

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Uncovering, Rebuilding and Maintaining

Any of you who have driven by my house in the last few weeks may notice that the yard’s getting kind of shaggy, the flowers haven’t been deadheaded, and any branches downed by a summer thunderstorm are still scattered around. Take that image, then imagine what would happen if I left the place unoccupied for 1000 years—and if I lived in a jungle where the things that grow “like weeds” literally can grow a foot or more in just a few days.
Sometimes, when I pictured the Spanish explorers, or the 20th century archaeologists who followed in their footsteps, coming upon a magnificent Mayan city in the wilderness, I kind of thought it would be like coming upon a resort up north that has been closed up for the winter. Clearly, no one lives there, but you can easily imagine what it might be like on a hot summer day.

Is there something here?
But, I’m quickly realizing that finding these cities must have been much more like recognizing a Native American ceremonial mound when you are plowing your cornfield—unless someone had told you it was there, you could drive right over it a thousand times without noticing.

At Uxmal, for example, we saw the side of this building :
  . . . looking like this:

The Maya moved out of these cities sometime around 800 A.D. Over hundreds of years, as the buildings were covered with soil and the seedlings grew into trees, the roots and the rain damaged the buildings, washing away some of the calcium in the limestone and separating the decorative facades from their more work-a-day underpinnings.

So what happens when the archaeologists figure out that they’ve found something? Well, they have to start to piece it all back together. 

Restoring the buildings is a painstaking process, which is often slowed by uncertainty about what exactly they are rebuilding. The Maya themselves often remodeled and rebuilt, so many of the pyramids and other buildings we see actually contain remnants of others inside, or were originally constructed with mismatched materials and architectural styles.

Even when the archaeologists can agree, they are disrupted by inconsistent funding from the government for these projects. Here at Kabah, you can see that they took the rubble and tried to organize it, but they have not yet reattached these pieces to the building.

As they set about restoring these sites, they clean up the original stones and carefully mark their position, often taking the walls down and rebuilding them with new mortar.

In many places, the structures are still open for tourists and others to climb on, but some sections have not yet been reinforced. Earlier this week, workers at Uxmal were chopping away old plaster, getting ready to put on a new coat to protect the stones.

Where original carvings and statues have been left in place (not carted off to museums) they are often shielded from the elements by roofs—which also make nice patches of shade for grateful visitors.

Visitors also appreciate that the native tall grasses have been replanted with grasses more suitable for short lawns, and less suitable for snakes, although even this tourist-friendly turf needs to be mowed--in this case, usually with machetes! --Kris

Familiar scenes in unfamiliar places

We're in Merida today, which is the capital of the state of Yucatan. Check out these public school teachers, standing across the street from the state captiol, holding protest signs about their governor! We told them "Si, se puede!"--Kris

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Recuerdo de San Lorenzo Tenochtítlan

Thursday morning we began our day with a trip to the La Venta Archaeology Site just outside of Villahermosa.  We were surprised to see that in addition to carving the colossal stone heads, the Olmec were also very skilled in carving tiny sculptures of people and children.  One of the most interesting, to me, was the leg of what archaeologists assume to be a child with Down Syndrome.  The docent said that the Olmec revered people with this syndrome because they believed they had a unique intellect that was a gift from the gods.  

Out in the actual site we found replicas of several heads and other noteworthy sculptures.  The figures were discovered in the 1930’s, but oil was discovered shortly thereafter.  The rigs apparently took priority over the cultural significance of the site, and archaeologists managed to salvage a few pieces before the blasting began.  The site has since been restored as much as possible, but the original pieces have been transplanted to other museums around the country in order to keep them safe.  As the oil underneath La Venta dries up and rigs move to off-shore drilling, perhaps the site can be properly excavated and rehabilitated so that we can someday see the extent of this very ancient civilization.

 My favorite head--the only one that's smiling!
From there, we drove several hours to the site of the cradle of the Olmec civilization—San Lorenzo.  We came to a road that said “No hay paso,” (no thru traffic) and I thought we were out of luck.  Apparently, in Mexico, the word “no” does not always mean “no,” and our driver asked a very kind man with an assault rifle (who must’ve been guarding the road, although he had no uniform) if we could go through.  The answer was yes, and we began our trek down a very long stretch of road that was under construction.  The road was one-lane and we drove for what seemed like hours, speeding up, slowing down, running into pot holes and over topes (bumps), past men working and riding horses, until we finally came to a town.

Asking for directions in the Mexican countryside is a rather interesting affair.  Many people, who know the area like the backs of their hands--and don’t understand why you don’t--will generally tell you, with a wave of their hand, “Go here, go there, when you cross the bump, go straight, past the white building [of course, there are several white buildings], and you’ll see it over there.”  We zig-zagged our way through town and eventually ended up on another stretch of dirt road filled again with pot holes and construction equipment, one lane bridges, and farmers on horseback.

Finally, we pulled into the town of San Lorenzo Tenochtítlan and walked up to the museum.  The museum was simple, but contained several incredibly exciting pieces.  This was the site of the 10th head found—a head with so much detail it is uncanny!  Also at this site were figures of animals such as jaguars and birds, which showed the obvious influence on Maya culture (since Olmec culture predates the Maya).  My favorite artistic piece, however, is called “Cabeza mutiliada,” which means, “The mutilated head.”  This piece shows how the Olmec re-used artwork to create new pieces.  To me, it is almost a surrealist piece, but I guess we’ll never truly know the artist’s intention. 

Cabeza Mutilada
In talking with the docent, we discovered that there was still a piece at the original site—an altar that had been left in a farmer’s field that was likely close to 3000 years old.  Being the aspiring archaeologists we are, we decided we would venture out and take a look.

Down another long dirt road, we parked the car when it appeared to be muddy enough to get stuck, found some farmers coming back from the field, and asked for directions.  They kept their composure, but inside I can guarantee they were wondering what in the world two gringas from the United States would be doing all the way out in the middle of nowhere looking for a 3000 year old rock that they see every day. 

“Up over the hill, about 200 meters, you’ll come to an opening in the fence.  You take a right and go down a little more, and it’s over there.”

Ah, there go the directions again!  Ha, ha!

We went about 200 meters, and crawled through a barbed-wire fence, thinking we had found the area.  Tromping up and down hills, jumping over small creeks, and keeping our eyes always on the random cows, we searched high and low for the altar.  When we couldn’t find it where we were, we returned to the dirt road and began walking further.  We were debating about taking our chances climbing into a field with cows and bulls (with very large horns), when some more farmers came by on horseback and we asked them for directions.  They were kind enough to actually take us to the now infamous altar, deep in a field still at least a hundred meters from where we had considered entering.

We paid the men “una coca” (which means “10 pesos,” because a Coke costs that much) and stared in awe.  There it lay, down in the ground.  A large, flat stone slab.  Most people would think we were absolutely crazy for searching high and low  through mud and barbed-wire fencing to find this piece, but to us it was worth it.  This altar was close to 3000 years old, and we were part of an exclusive group of people who have gone the length to see it.  What happened on that altar?  Did they sacrifice humans or animals, or both?  What was the purpose?  And what else lies deep under these fields, now so lush and fertile?  What could we learn about Mesoamerica’s first civilization from studying this area?

The plot thickened as we set off back down the beaten path toward our next stop, Santiago Tuxtla, and the last of three sites, Tres Zapotes.

 I bought this from a local woman in San Lorenzo, who made it by hand.
The perfect souvenir from this location!

Gallery of Olmec Heads

An unfinished head, just to give you an idea of how they got started.

Nichole is writing you the more entertaining version of this story, but basically we are super proud and excited about that fact that in the last couple of days, we visited all three of the known Olmec archaeological sites . . . so of course that means we've seen a lot of heads. If you take the time to look, you'll see each one has its own personality!
 On the grounds at the La Venta site

Inside the musuem at Santiago Tuxtla

In the zocalo, town square, at Santiago Tuxtla

 In the La Venta Park in Villahermosa
In the museum at San Lorenzo Tenochtitla

In the museum at Tres Zapotes
In the La Venta park in Villahermosa

Also, while we were trekking through the pasture at San Lorenzo, our video camera captured this snapshot of a hitherto undiscovered head : )

This is supposed to be a photo, not a video clip, but you get the idea!