In Search of the Ancient Maya: How a Chance Meeting Led the ROM to 50 Years of Maya Archaeology, Unearthing Key Sites-And a Jade Carving That Is Now a Cultural Icon in Belize

By Graham, Elizabeth; Pendergast, David | ROM Magazine, Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

In Search of the Ancient Maya: How a Chance Meeting Led the ROM to 50 Years of Maya Archaeology, Unearthing Key Sites-And a Jade Carving That Is Now a Cultural Icon in Belize


Graham, Elizabeth, Pendergast, David, ROM Magazine


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The Royal Ontario Museum's role in the land of the ancient and modern Maya covers more than half a century. The story begins in the late 1950s when the Museum began to look beyond its traditional involvement in the archaeology of the Middle East and the Classical world. As is true of so many long-term projects, the birth of the ROM's engagement with the Maya world came not from a detailed plan but from a chance encounter between Kenneth Kidd, at the time curator of Ethnology at the ROM, and A. H. Anderson, the first Archaeological Commissioner of Belize (then known, until 1973, as British Honduras). The meeting happened neither in Canada nor in Belize but in England, during an International Congress of Americanists. Surely neither of them knew, as Anderson spoke of his country's need for archaeological exploration and Kidd thought of his museum's hope to expand its archaeological role, how far-reaching the effects of their talk would become.

The first flowering of the ROM's new enterprise came when Dr. William Bullard joined the staff for the express purpose of developing a program of research in Belize. The country was almost a blank on the archaeological map of the southern Maya Lowlands, although work under the aegis of England's Royal Anthropological Institute took place in the 1920s, Sir J. Eric S. Thompson carried out excavations for the Carnegie Institution of Washington in the 1930s, and the early 1950s saw Harvard University enter the field for a time. The nature of archaeological funding, coupled with immense logistical difficulties, kept all the work at a relatively small scale; the ROM's hope was for a project that would span several seasons and operate on a moderately large scale. Bullard's first visit to Belize in 1961 was to set the stage for such an expedition, but the ever-present logistical problems and the arrival of Hurricane Hattie forced a change in plans. He carried out two small excavations, keeping his eye on the chance for a larger endeavour, but the main project proved impossible to kick into life. By the end of 1962, with Bullard's departure from the ROM, the Museum's prospects for major involvement seemed destined for the shelf.

Once again, chance intervened. While attending a meeting of the Society for American Archaeology in 1963, Kidd sat in on a session on fieldwork in Latin America and listened to a paper presented by David Pendergast, who had carried out work in one of Belize's caves earlier that year. After the session Kidd approached Pendergast, identified himself quite correctly as the only other person there with a connection to "British Honduras" and began a conversation that ended with a question: would Pendergast be interested in reviving the ROM's project in the country? Focused on his cave work, Pendergast replied rather noncommittally, but later that year, when a specific approach arrived from the Museum, he leapt at the chance.

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In discussions with Kidd, and then with Dr. A. D. Tushingham, the ROM's chief archaeologist, Pendergast promoted the idea of beginning work at a site he had tested during the summer, some 50 kilometres north of the country's capital, Belize City, and hence easier of access than other possible choices. It was agreed that work would begin as 1964 opened, and as the equipment amassed by Bullard had remained in Belize, the start-up was seen as a relatively easy one. Like almost every aspect of the work, appearances were deceptive, but before long the project was well under way. Pendergast christened the site "Altun Ha," which is a rendering in Yucatec Mayan of the name of the nearby local community, Rockstone Pond. Altun Ha was to be the focus of a four-year excavation program, but as the importance of the ancient community emerged, plans were extended, and in the end the work lasted for seven seasons, from 1964 through 1970.

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Altun Ha is small, indeed almost tiny, in comparison with the great ancient Maya centres such as Tikal in Guatemala.

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