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Stephen Houston on Maya Warfare


>>John Haskell: Welcome to the
Library of Congress, everybody. I’m John Haskell, director of the Kluge Center,
here at the Library. The Kluge Center brings leading
thinkers in the humanities and the social sciences
to the Library for periods in residence, to do research in the vast collections
that we have here. And the Center’s showcases
the work of those scholars in public events like this one. This afternoon we
bring you the work of the very first
Library of Congress Jay I. Kislack Chair in the Study
of the History and Cultures of the Early Americas,
Stephen Houston. Thanks to the generous
benefaction of the late Jay Kislack, the chair supports in-depth
research projects in archeology, history, cartography, epigraphy,
linguistics, ethnohistory, ethnography, bibliography, and
sociology, with an emphasis on interdisciplinary projects
that combine disciplines in novel and productive ways. By encouraging broad
interdisciplinary enquiry, the Kislak Chair nourishes
a broad conversation ranging from the technical aspects
of archeological discovery to issues of interest in the
current cultural conversation. The annually appointed chair
also helps to convene scholars, invited by the chair for
seminars, consultations, and ongoing study
of the artifacts in the Library’s
Kislak Collection. I also want to alert you to
the fact we will be announcing on May 14th, the second
Kislak Chair who will be in residence beginning
in November. The Library will make an
announcement at that time. Let me introduce Stephen. Steve Houston is the
Dupee Family professor of social science, and
professor in the Department of Anthropology at
Brown University. An anthropologist, archeologist,
and epigrapher, he has worked on the excavations of
several major Maya cities, most recently the ancient city
of Piedras Negras in Guatemala. As an epigrapher, Houston draws
on inscriptions and figural art to reconstruct the
political and social structure of Maya civilization, including
the dynamics of royal court life and the role of religion. His interpretations of
stylized representations of the human body
demonstrate how displays of emotion were depicted
and used by Maya elites to reinforce their status
within a hierarchical society. Today, Doctor Houston will
discuss ancient Maya warfare, and the meanings of
conflict and its aftermath, featuring the LIDAR technology
now revolutionizing the study of pre-Columbian civilizations. Please join me in
welcoming Steve to the stage. [ Applause ]>>Stephen Houston: Thank you. Thank you very much, John. And I also want to
particularly thank John for his gracious
hospitality this year, and that of his capable staff,
and those are some of you, or maybe all of you
are here today. That would be of course Dan
Torello [assumed spelling], Michael Stratman
[assumed spelling], and Travis Hensley
[assumed spelling]. It’s been a pleasure being
here at the Library this year. My office is not quite
as opulent as this. I would prefer more gilding. This is where I think
the endowment should go in the future. Is this also– I
think the only talk in which I’m also
going to require a tan. We’ve got a fair amount of
intense light coming at me. Now this talk tonight,
as John mentioned, is going to be dealing
with a world that is under very direct
onslaught right now. And that is a world
which you can see here and to either side
of the podium. The current reality of the
jungle, the tropical rainforest in much of Latin America. Here is a vivid scene
in which you see half that forest almost
completely cut down. And the other is still standing,
but probably not for long. Eventually that forest will
be incinerated, and it’s going to be reduced to something like
this, which is eventually going to be converted into
pasture for cattle. It’s a complex process. I regret to say it’s
happening as I speak. This is a satellite image
assembled only last week, that delineates for you
some of the intense burning that is now taking place
in northern Guatemala. Those pinpricks are of
course small bursts of fire, as this forest goes
up in flames. Now on that green area to
the side of this diagram, you’ll also see areas
that are not being burned, and those are the ones
that concern us today. And for that, I’m going to
usher you on a ride with me, an imaginative one,
into the deepest jungle of northern Guatemala. And this is what
it does look like. It looks like something
out of a bad Hollywood set from a Johnny Weissmuller
movie, but it is in fact, the reality that I
experience every year, and one that I will
experience in a few weeks when I return to excavate. I also want to give you
some feeling of context. This is a talk that’s
going to be focused, as has been my research
for decades, on lowland Maya civilization. And these are a peoples– they’re really many
different peoples who flourished particularly
in the first 1,000 years after the time of Christ, or
the beginning of the Common Era. My own focus of research
has been in a much more targeted
region, in northern Guatemala, smack dab in the middle
of the Yucatan peninsula. Many of you have probably
even visited these sites, these archeological ruins
of Maya civilization. One that easily comes to mind
is Tikal in northern Guatemala. That is what it looks like from
a drone, or maybe a low-lying– low-flying helicopter. It’s close– very
close to the area where I have been excavating. This is the point I
want to make tonight. That acquiring a
visible knowledge, a kind of direct glimpse of
what might be under that rich, thick forest such as we’re
still fortunate to have in the Maya biosphere, is
one that we have slowly begun to penetrate over the
last century or so. Now there are past practices which I have also been
involved in, now rendered if not completely obsolete,
at least not ones we want to train our students in. This antiquity you see before
you is called a plane table and alidade in a slide taken in
the late ’50s at Tikal itself. The brother of my mentor
is a graduate student, and this is someone
named William Coe, who directed the
excavations at Tikal, is in the business of mapping. It’s a hard-won effort that involves a great
deal of cutting. Now sometimes the mapping
doesn’t necessarily involve that thick overburden
of vegetation. When excavations take place, as
in the mother of all trenches, which Bill Coe happened to cut
through the Acropolis at Tikal, you can see that
virally every piece of masonry can be mapped,
and eventually drawn. Now that project,
which over a period of about approximately
10 years– a bit longer depending
on how you reckon it, eventually accumulated enough
information to create the maps that you see to either
side of me. The little lines of course
represent contour intervals. This is of a level of precision which is really quite
astonishing. However, even this map, which
was the platinum standard, or I should say the jade
standard of the time, is one that’s now been
replaced by new technologies. Now I mentioned before
that I have blundered in my own special inept
fashion through my archeology over a couple of decades. These are almost historical
photographs which date to about 1986, which
show me, and my camp, in another very remote
part of Guatemala. Now one piece of advice
for any grad students that might be here. Don’t go to do your doctoral
research in guerilla-held zones, in the conflicts– areas of the
world, which I elected to do in my– there must
have been many, many guardian angels
fluttering around my shoulders. Now the logistics of working in these places can be quite
difficult, and even in mapping, you have to understand that the
only way in which you can bring out this cumbersome equipment is by cutting sight
lines with machete. And I have all sorts of cuts
all over my arms that testify to the fact that the
most dangerous thing in the jungle is a
gringo with a machete. And I have lost a lot of
blood over my own stupidity. Now the mapping also involves
working in the rainy season, which regrettably we often have
to do, because we have day jobs as professors and the like. And so, often when I was
mapping, and we would take– in this case, termite nests. You mash them into punctured,
dried milk containers, and you waft them around like
incense burners in the vain hope of keeping off the mosquitoes. There’s limited clearance that
takes place, and in addition to those sight lines, we’ll have to do a little bit
of thorougher work. And here is where some of the details become
fascinating indeed. As part of my doctoral research
at Yale, now over 30 years ago, we found for instance, in these
areas of limited clearance, walls that were hitherto
unsuspected, that indicated that these sites
were somehow involved in militaristic expeditions
and campaigns of over 12 to 1300 years ago. Now eventually after
all of that mapping, we used to do another
quaint activity, which was to hand-calculate on
a very crude devices from Casio. Does that company
still exist any more? And eventually you would draw
with rapidographs, and pens, and pencils in the field,
that plot the drawing that would lead to
this kind of map. Which is what I produced for
my doctoral dissertation. And here you could perhaps
see in sinuous outline around the center of this
site, some of the maps which eventually
proved so fascinating. I’m going to describe
this afternoon, a world reordered, however. One in which there
are novel perceptions that were simply inconceivable
as recently as 2 to 3 years ago. And in terms of– with
respect to more recent captures that are going to be taking
place, are going to be occurring within the next couple
of months. Now I also find it useful,
though, to establish analogies to get you an idea of
what it’s like to go from a smudged lens
to clarity of vision. And one analogy that
I often thing about, since I’m also quite concerned
with and fascinated by art, is to consider let’s
say, the contrast between the pre-cleaning
of the Sistine Chapel, which all of you
know about, I’m sure. It’s been controversial. However, there’s also reliable
evidence, at least according to one school of
interpretation, that it’s led to an entirely different view
of the coloristic potentials of Michelangelo’s brush. It has changed our
view of Michelangelo. It has changed our view
of Renaissance painting. Now to take yet another
more extreme example, how we go from the
smudged lens to one that allows an utmost
degree of clarity of vision, let’s look at this. Now this is where the Getty
Conservation Institute worked its magic. And a Flemish painting, which
happened to be actually done as a fresco in Rome,
the artist is Paul Bril. This is what the Getty’s
been able to produce. Now we have an entirely new
set of data, which helped to inform our understanding
of Western art history. And then the final analogy, which I find most
gripping because, in some ways it applies
most aptly I think to archeology, and is astronomy. Now you’re looking here
literally as an occupant of the New Horizon spaceship,
as you’re coming close in the summer of 2015, to Pluto. And you saw in that image, an
extraordinary precision of view that would not have
been possible even as that spacecraft drew
close to the planet. The new technology I’ll be
describing tonight is LIDAR. And as with many archeological
technologies, I can’t begin to tell you how this
is put together. We are simply users of the information
that results from it. Now LIDAR was originally defined as what was called
Light and Radar. That’s the correct
etymology of the term. And because we like
to mess things up, LIDAR has now been re-processed
etymologically to come from Light-Detection
and Ranging. That’s all wrong. That’s not how it
came into existence. But the practice itself is one that I can describe
fairly easily. Rather than cutting sight
lines through the forest and endangering life and limb– there are a lot of snakes
out there too, by the way– we take that device, which is
emitting thousands of beams, and sometimes billions of beams
of laser shoots, up in a plane, or sometimes in helicopter. One of these shots below is from
work I’ll be describing later. Now there also needs to be
someone on the ground, though, with a fixed reference point. So you have a constant, if you
will, triangulation taking place between what is being shot,
what is being hit on the ground, and eventually what returns. What is received in different
3-dimensional locations. Now the device we’re using with our team is
called the Optech Titan. It’s unusual because
it shoots off at three different directions. It’s able to assess all sorts
of different information, including information
about the vegetation above. But what is this
process you might ask? What it involves is a
little bit like a plow. Imagine if you’ve ever seen one
of these, a plow in a field. It goes. The oxen are not
terribly agile physically. They’re not going to mince
around easily, and so you have to turn it around and move
in the opposite direction. It is that fly line that
precisely delineates what sort of flight path would be taken
on one of these aircraft, whether it’s chopper or a plane. Now most of these
can be understood in terms of linear segments. Now, think of it this way. You’ve got all of those
beams of light being shot out by the Optech Titan. Most will hit vegetation, but
a precious few, valuable few, points are going to hit
that surface underneath, beyond which nothing can go. Those will then be received
by sensors up in the plane, and with all of this algorithmic
magic, you can figure out exactly where
that point hit. And by a great deal
of processing, you will eventually be able
to come up with that kind of view of the surface. Now one way of understanding
what LIDAR is coming up for us, and I think all of you can make out that there are
artificial features there– there’s a Maya house mount
group in fact– are linear. These colored dots that you see up above are registering
the vegetation. And then down below, in
that vivid dark blue, almost a purple color, what
you’re getting is the surface. Against which the
LIDAR can no longer go. Now imagine if you will,
a processing system that allows you to remove
all that vegetation, which doesn’t immediately
interest you at the time, and what’s left behind
is that surface. It is as if every last piece of vegetation has been
stripped off, and there are no– I can now announce, provided
we can continue this research– lost cities among the Maya. Eventually every last mount
group will be visible. And I can say almost with
regret, almost with tears in my eyes that this
is truly a game-changer in new order archeology. Now this is a shout-out
to my Irish cousins here, Erin go Bragh, some of
this work has been done in places like Ireland. And other places have been done, and I think this is particularly
impressive work by my colleague and friend Damian Evans, who’s working the great
Khmer sites of Cambodia. And for those of you who are not
aware of this kind of process, what Damian has been able
to do with his colleagues, is to actually buy a LIDAR
device, and they keep flying and flying and flying, and
particularly they’ll focus on a site that many of you know, which is called Angkor
Wat, right? If you haven’t been,
you really should go. Here is a LIDAR image
under the thick jungle of what Damian Evans and his
colleagues have been able to discover. Suddenly we see Angkor as no
one has possibly glimpsed it for over 12 to 1300 years. And which features which are
barely perceptible as you walk over that surface are
now as clarion, as lucid, as interpretable as anything
that had been possible before. And leading to yet
further questions, because that is what is
truly extraordinary here. It instigates further research. For instance, if we look at
the bottom of the sector, the southeastern part
of the Angkor complex, you’ll see these odd
kind of features, which also are a little
bit like ox plows. We don’t know what
these are for. Are they gardens? Who knows? But I can now take you back
from these more distant areas into the Maya region itself. And here I’ve got to
extol the work of one of the first people I
excavated with, Arlen Chase, now at the University
of Nevada in Las Vegas. He has LIDAR-ized the Maya. He was the first person
to decide this technology, which had been of experimental
application in the ’90s, and then had become more popular
later, particularly in Europe and other parts of the world, could be successfully
applied to Maya sites. And this is the result
of a ruin that I again, lost a lot of pounds, and actually cut my arm
mapping part of this. But what we see now are all
of the agricultural fields. We can see the full, expansive
urban landscape of Caracol, which happens to be in Belize. So this work has been
tried, it’s been shown to be spectacularly successful. I was very fortunate
to be involved in an initiative
which is ongoing. This work is still
in processing. We’ve published an article
in Science magazine about it. And it’s the largest LIDAR
capture that’s ever been done of, to my knowledge, a
New World civilization. It goes all the way across
Guatemala, and you can see that we’re focusing
on particular segments that have been selected
because they are pre-existing archeological projects
working there. And because, also, they
are areas of interest. We want to get a variety
across the heartland of the Maya civilization. Now I always like to give
credit where it’s do. The person who helped raise
the money was Maria Hernandez [assumed spelling]. This is a Guatemalan
charity covering our expense. It’s not the U.S. Government, and it’s not U.S.
philanthropists. We have colleagues like
Marcello Canuto at Tulane. Francisco Estrada-Belli, who’s
also at Tulane, and above all, my good buddy Tom
Garrison at Ithaca College, who had been a post-doc with me, and he’s the one I’m still
working with very closely. This is a collaborative
enterprise, and this is the important thing
to emphasize sociologically. That some archeologists
operate as loners. You cannot do so when you
involve yourself in LIDAR. You have to get large consortium
together, and almost a kind of hive intelligence
begins to accrete, and operate, and
buzz with energy. You get to talk about
things simultaneously. I see this as an important side
benefit of doing the LIDAR. That’s me by the way. Just to show you again, I’m
just humble one of many. Now I’m going to contrast now
an image which shows Tikal, the site I mentioned before
as seen today by Google Earth. And that’s what the
LIDAR shows us. And so every little bump
there is now accessible to us, and can be studied very closely. I’m now going to run through– I hope I’ve communicated to
you something of the thrill, the excitement that’s
involved in doing this work, and of what it is harvesting
that before had involved so much pain, so much effort, is
to look at what this new project with all these people,
happens to be giving us. Well. The first thing it gives
us is a whole new set of arresting vistas. That is new glimpses
of Maya cities that we’ve studied
for 150 years. But now can see in an
entirely different way that is simply impossible
without this technology. And Heaven forfend
we ever become able to see this city stripped
of vegetation, because many of its treasures are ecological. We want that forest to stay put. It also allows us to
obtain alternative views of single Maya ruin. Now this is a small
Maya residential group. And I’m illustrating for
you here some images taken from LIDAR, this is
somewhat ways from Tikal, but by a former student
of mine, Takeshi Inomata, easily probably the best
living field archeologist. Now look carefully
at these images. Look carefully at how different
sorts of processing tend to result in different
glimpses of what is there. Now this is one set of filters. This is another. And suddenly, different
attributes, different traits begin to
percolate to the surface. And then this one, which
I find particularly lurid. This is a shout-out
to the 1960s. You can see really
vivid Day-Glo colors. But each one of them is
providing a slightly different set of visual information. And a different set of
visual relationships. And above all, a clue as
to how we should proceed in future field work. Now the second thing
this project has done, this mega-project with all these
people, is that we’ve been able to assess the density of
human populations in a way that was simply not
possible before. Now let’s look at one
area in particular. Across the Maya lowlands, each
one of these little blips, each one of these little dots
is a Maya mound, or pyramid. And you can see here,
it’s almost like looking at the nighttime view
over the Eastern coast of the United States. Not over Pyongyang, or
North Korea, I might add. And here are about
50,000 structures that are now completely
open to the gaze. What the LIDAR tells us is that there isn’t a
uniform distribution of ancient people living in
this area, but rather it tends to concentrate and become utter,
really profoundly more dense, as we move towards Tikal. That would simply not
have been possible before at this level of resolution. Now that’s a pan-Maya view. It’s across a broad
expanse of territory. What about locally? Well, let’s focus again
on the area around Tikal, and this is an area of LIDAR
capture, of those points that have been processed. Every single mound
group is now visible. Every single ancient
settlement that happens to be visible on the surface. And you can see again,
there are concentrations. There are areas where people
are not living, evidently. Each one of those
points to a plethora of doctoral dissertations. Now Tikal itself, I’m
going to contrast for you, an image of LIDAR that
shows no buildings. And this is one in which
all the buildings are found. The overwhelming sense is that the Maya had indeed a
highly successful civilization that did accumulate
large numbers of people, which then raises questions
about how they were fed? How were they governed? And all of these
ripple outwards in ways that will lead to
further discovery. There are also enigmas that
can only be asked, I think, explored by getting out
there in the jungle. Far north of Tikal for
instance, are all sorts of strange features
that popped up. We had no idea that existed. Long, linear features. Some of which might be roads,
including as you can make out perhaps to either side
here, a large rectangle, which I’ve highlighted
for you in yellow. Some [inaudible]
colleagues suggest these are for animal pens, which
to me is a crazy idea. But they might have been
used for agriculture. We simply don’t know. Now the other dirty little
secret you might say about much of Maya archeology is
that regrettably a lot of objects are looted. They’re taken illegally out
of their countries of origin. What LIDAR does is it also
specifies for us the location of every last looter’s
pit in the Maya’s world. We know where to explore. Now the looter’s pits
are useful in another way because often they provide– regrettably, but
providentially– a view directly into a
deeply buried Maya building, which might have, as in
the case of San Bartolo in northern Guatemala,
spectacular murals. So these will help too, in
guiding further research. These small rectangles which
you see, which I’ve highlighted for you in red are indicating where those looter’s
trenches might be. Now this is where my talk
really is focused on, which is matters of defense. And this year at the Kluge,
and on my Kislack chair, I’ve been working on a
variety of different projects, but this is one that
really does– excuse me– truly thrill me. Now this is from
the same article that I did with colleagues. And you see these
little color codes. Notice that the concentration of defensive features
is where the people are. It’s much closer to Tikal,
as we’ve seen before. And before I discuss in
detail what we found there, and what we hope to find as a
result of future investigations, let’s do a little bit of an– A little bit of a digression
about Maya warfare in general. And eventually this will be
wrapped up back into the LIDAR. This is a project I was
involved in with Mary Miller and colleagues, which
is a rendering of the great Bonampak
murals in Chiapas, Mexico. They are the most grandiose,
complex, richly rewarding scenes of warfare in the
ancient New World. Perhaps even in the entire
world as far as we’re concerned. They’re like a virtual reality. Walk into these rooms, and you’re surrounded almost
synesthetically by all of the cacophony of battle
and of fear and of anguish. And of conquest and of victory. Maya warfare [inaudible]
understand I think fundamentally in two different ways. The first is to understand
that the Maya were warriors. That they had a warrior ethos, which meant that you acquired
value or merit in your society by taking a captive, directly. Now it’s almost like the
Plains Indians, who might say that Lakota, or other
groups in the 19th century, in which taking a captive
would burnish your prestige, which would make you in fact, a more esteemed member
of your society. There’s a lot of
evidence that that kind of warrior ethos suffuses
the art of the Maya. This is a chocolate pot, and
you can see here a series of captives being taken along. And those captives themselves
must have been successful in an earlier stage
of their lives, for they have small
stuffed heads, I’ve highlighted
for you in yellow. These are head hunters. They’re people that
are directly invested in physical contact
with the enemy. This is not pushing a button and releasing the
missiles and so forth. Now a few feet from
where I stand, a certain gentleman
mentioned the American carnage of the last couple of years,
this is really American carnage, which is a warrior
mentality in which you visit on your enemies a high
degree of humiliation. You almost dehumanize
them to some extent. And there’s a bit of ambiguity. Sometimes captives were
kept around for a long time. And even entered into
quasi-kin relationships with their captors. But on this pot, which is at the
Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, you can see people who are
being bloodied and humiliated. These were, I regret to say, not
exactly Quakerly in mentality. And sometimes butchering
is taking place as well. It is a highly, highly a
sanguinarily violent society, at least at this elite level. Now that direct contact,
that physical intimacy with your captive is
something that is also revealed in the hieroglyphic evidence
that I’ve been involved, along with many colleagues,
in deciphering over the last couple of decades. And these are a variety of Maya
glyphs that read, for instance, [foreign language spoken], over
to the upper left-hand side. Or [foreign language spoken]
in a glyph which is just to the lower side of that. Each one can be translated
for you into English today. “Is grabbed.” “It is his captor.” “It is he of the
seven captives.” They’re enumerating how many
people they have directly acquired in the field of battle. And they also refer to their
armament, to their flints, to their shields, which
were used for protection. This kind of direct contact is,
I would say, expressed overtly in some of the glyphs
that I’ve highlighted for you here in a
rectangular box. But this brings me
to my second point. It isn’t only about this Plains
Indians you might say style of raiding. It isn’t only like the head
hunters of Borneo, or like– there were broader conflicts
that elevated, for better or worse, these conflicts into
a far more intense status. And these would be
wars indicated by this glyph to the side. [inaudible] controversy about
how this glyph would be read. I have thought for some time
that it’s a war expression that none the less is likening
these conflicts to great storms of the sort that many
of us have experienced when we work in the tropics. All that intense electrical
energy that ascends into the sky, and
eventually is let loose with great bursts
of wind and water. Now that kind of storm,
that kind of war event, is one that we also know
had many much more immediate consequences than simply
getting someone’s body and doing what you want with it. We know that it compelled whole
cities or dynasties to leave. To go into exile. The metaphor they use
is to go up, to rise. And eventually, hopefully,
at the end of that process, they will arrive back once again in their comfortable
home of origin. Because the Maya will sometimes
refer to upsets and reversals in their historical accounts. But it always has
a happy ending. They alway come back to
what was there before. This is of course the
title of my talk today. It relates to the
submission of these dynasties of their flints and
of their shields. These impacts as I said, were
exceedingly strong, we think. And again, hieroglyphic
evidence, and imagery which I have been
a specialist in for some years, tells us that this warrior to
the side is holding a spear. I hope many of you can see that. Also has glyphs to
the side which read, [foreign language spoken] which
means something gets burned. And then right afterwards is
a reference to a location. So you can see it’s
become depersonalized. Not only about acquiring of
a fixed number of captives, which you add ever year as
you tally more and more. It’s about far more dire things
happening to far more people. Now sometimes, we even see
fortresses that are rather in a stylized fashion
depicted in Maya art. This is a rollout
of a Maya pot made by my dear friend Justin Kerr. Maya pots are of
course cylindrical. They wouldn’t have glass. They would have been
fascinated by this material. But none the less, the
rollout cam allows you to peel out an image in a way that the
Maya would not have ordinarily accessed, this kind of view. But what I’ll draw
your attention to– or I hope you can see
all of the warriors that might be present here. Some are holding shields. Some are holding flints. And they’re also, here in
this image to the side, someone perched up by a
stylized icon for a Maya hill. And he’s pelting figures
down below with stones. And if I go back, you’ll see that there are women
involved as well. Captives have been taken. This is one in which the
guiltless, the women, the children too, are going to have a violent outcome
to these conflicts. It’s not just warrior
on warrior. We have recently discovered in
the last year or so that all of these round stones
that we’ve been worried about at Maya sites,
well it’s now obvious that they’re used
for pelting enemies. And not least for slingshots. The technology that is very
self-evidently involved in Maya conflict. So to summarize those two
points about direct contact versus very general,
what can we say that these conflicts
were personally moments. I would have 8 to 9 captives. I’d be very proud of that. I would take that to my
grave with great pride. But they are politically
consequential as well. Things happen beyond taking
that captive by the hair and eventually maybe
sacrificing them. That is, conflicts were
materially devastating. And this is the kind of conflict
that many of us would see today. And what do those sorts
of conflicts imply? They imply armies. They imply infrastructure,
provisioning, all of the things that the Pentagon
worries about today. Let me return here as I come to
the end of this presentation, about conflict in a hot zone. Let’s go back to the
outskirts of Tikal. And we’re going to look
at an area where, again, I’ll be digging in
about a month or so. In the area between
Tikal and a region to the side called El
Zotz, which is connected by a long valley– this sounds
like some housing development– the Buena Vista valley. It’s so banal. But it’s none the
less, like true. You can get up on
these escarpments and see a great deal. And one of the first
things we noticed about LIDAR was oh my gosh, we can actually determine
partly what the date of these ruins are,
because some have an almost melted appearance. They have been under the
onslaught of the elements for some more centuries. And these date to the beginnings of Maya civilization,
the pre-classic. And then to the side, do
you see the crisp outlines? The very, the strongly
determined, delineated forms. The ones with very clear
building structure. Those are from the time
that interest me the most, when the Maya script, and
inscriptions are being evolved. Now what we have been able to
determine as a result of a lot of arduous field work and also
studying these sites over time, is that we can divide these
whole sectors according to probably their date. And we can say that
something happened. Something terrible happened in
this zone between the beginnings of Maya civilization,
where people were living down in a much less
protected zone, and then they’re moving up. Something has happened that
they’re threat environment. It is an embattled land. That’s one that involves
fortifications of extraordinary
complexity, of length, of apparently a systematic
nature that have just been detected
over the last year or two. And these were now going to
be excavated with support from the National
endowment for the Humanities and from the National
Science Foundation. Now if you look at
this, you’ll see, I hope that there’s a series
of walls around this Group B. Let’s get up close to them and you’ll see these long
walls with deep trenches. This is not casual stuff. This is not about a few
warriors sallying forth to grab or ambush someone
on a jungle trail. This is about an entirely
new kind of warfare. There are reservoirs up there. Why would you have a reservoir? You want to store water. Why would you want
to store water? It’s because sieges could
potentially take place. And remember, it’s not just
Group B. It’s not just Group C, which has moats and
ramparts and bridges and additional causeways
allowing you to move quickly up an down the escarpment,
and down below. It’s about a system of citadels
extending over, at this point about 10 to 15 kilometers. And I have checked around. I know something about the
archeology of the New World, this is pretty unusual. Something very, very
new is happening. And occasionally it seems as though they didn’t
even finish the work. They gave up. Perhaps things went
really badly. We’ve also discovered
watch towers. There are special facilities
across this landscape which allowed them to
communicate with each other on a high, distant land,
presumably through– they could have fires, there
could be all sorts of even calls that could be mutually
intelligible across this space. Those watch towers are indicated
for you here in orange. So ultimately, as I
wrap up this talk, and I hope I’ve communicated
something of the excitement of being in Maya archeology
at this time is of course to pose the necessary question,
what were these citadels? What were these places that we’re calling
collectively La Cuernavilla. By the way– and I’m a little
embarrassed to confess this, there term comes from
Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. That’s the Spanish
word for the Hornburg. It– this is what comes of being
besotted with Tolkien at 12 or 13 years of age, as every– many people were
in this audience. Well how to explain this. Well, the first is
when we began to do– and getting into those looter’s
pits or trenches up in the top of that escarpment in
Cuernavilla itself. We began noticing the
strangest architecture. The architecture had a
distinctive kind of look, which told us that this
was not a local style. In fact, it is the style
associated with a marauding, aggressive empire, as
many of us think it to be, located at the great
city of Teotihuacan, just on the outskirts
of Mexico City today. Now again, many of you
have probably been to, or some of you have
been to Teotihuacan. Very different feel from a
Maya site, but we now know, thanks to hieroglyphic
research, particularly by my friend David Stuart, that
there is a bruising relationship that existed between the city, about 1,000 kilometers
away and the Maya. Now where does that relationship
become clearest to us in hieroglyphic terms? In statements left by
the Maya themselves, it becomes clear at Tikal. Tikal is where these
are often explained. Tikal is where a specific
historical figure is mentioned, and he is mentioned on
a precise date, A.D. 378 and a little bit later. And his name was [inaudible]
which means born from fire, in itself that incendiary word
or label, gives you a sense of some of the violence
that would be here. Now much later, the Maya
would continue to talk about this person, and
he’s even depicted here on a rollout of a Maya pot. And I’ve highlighted his
name over to the side. He introduces new title, some
suggested he introduces new war. I believe that to be the case. And I believe La
Cuernavilla citadels are all about this particular moment in
time, in which something happens to the threat environment
of the Maya, and there is a calculated
response to it. Now it isn’t just
Tikal, but just a few– very short distance from Cuernavilla itself is an
inscription which I was studying with colleagues a
couple years ago. Notice it takes to literally
3 years after the event in which he seems to come
from Teotihuacan to Tikal. And here in this monument, which comes from a small
site called Bejucal, again not far from
La Cuernavilla. It’s a text which refers
to the ruler of this area. We have a little bit
of a dynastic sequence. It is a little bit of a
patchy historical record. But the text could
not be clearer. It says that the local king
who existed at the time of that A.D. 378 event
has become the underling of [inaudible]. And so whatever is going on
here is obviously involving a troubled period. And it’s one in which we have
to ask, and we hope to be able to answer in a few short weeks,
what might be going on here? And these are the analogies
I’ve roughly thought of. Again, thinking of framing this
for the public more generally, is it like a crusader
castle in Syria? In which you have intrusive,
foreign peoples, warriors, who set themselves up in a
foreboding kind of citadel, in order to oppress
a local population? And there might be some hint
of that in this new style of architecture, which we’re
finding up the escarpment. Or is it mostly a local
response if you will, a kind of Maginot Line
of the sort that existed between Nazi Germany
and Republican France. And as I said in my blurb, that
story did not end very well. And that may have been
the case here was well. So our concern is figuring above
all, who is doing the fighting? Who is building these
structures? And what we hope, with the
LIDAR, these galvanic changes in the nature of violence
the ancient world, in the ancient New World in
particular, are going to come to us with a greater clarity
than was possible before. And so in the thinking
about their own idioms of describing conflict,
this flints, and shields, and fiery lords from
far distant places, it’s not only a re-imaging
of ancient conflict, it is its very re-imagining
that we seek. Thank you. [ Applause ] And I would be delighted
to take any questions. And we have gentlemen here
with microphones no less. They’re holding them up, and I– this is a great chance to
get some Q and A. Yes ma’am? Yes, yes. [ Inaudible ]>>– archeologist,
just a layperson. But I was curious, is
ultrasonic mapping used in conjunction with LIDAR? Has LIDAR eclipsed that, or
do they work better together?>>Stephen Houston: Well
it’s a very good question. We’ve got different ways
of trying to access things that are ordinarily not visible. One approach has been used over
the years are magnetometers and sledges, and there’s radar. Generally speaking, when I’ve
participated in those kind of explorations, they’re
not very successful. Because a lot of the
architecture in the fill under a Maya city consists
of pebbles and stones. And you just get a lot
of bouncing cavities that are very hard to make out. And also just to be
able to operate those, you’ve got to cut
a lot of forest. And so there’s a kind of,
almost ecological virtue in using LIDAR, because you
don’t have to cut so much. You can leave it
alone, and then come in with much more
focused questions. But it’s something we do hope
to develop in the future. It’s a good question, indeed. Yes, this gentleman.>>Is LIDAR expensive? Is it difficult to get
that kind of results?>>Stephen Houston: Oh yes. [ Laughter ] And there will be
a collection plate. Oh no, no. We’re not allowed to
solicit money here. Yes. It’s shockingly expensive. Our colleagues in Cambodia
who are doing dynamite work, Damian Evans and his crew,
they bought their own LIDAR. It cost about $3 million. And I have to say it was worth
every penny and then some, as far as I’m concerned. Whatever the unit of
currency might be in Cambodia. There is an agency that all of
us, or most of us work with, which is called NCALM. It’s been at the
University of Houston. It’s a national center for
the deployment of LIDAR. And they have a superb team. They do however have to eat, and so often the work
has to be subsidized. To get an effective
LIDAR capture, the sort we’re looking
at, and I wasn’t involved in the budgeting, but
it’s close to 6- $700,000. And archaeologists
are really frugal. We eat badly in the field. We don’t care about it. We live badly. And so these sorts of budgets
are just jaw-dropping for us. But it’s obvious that if we
get together and collaborate, some of the costs, the points
will drop a little bit. But as I said, there
are some philanthropies that have donated, and there’s
going to be, very shortly, another massive capture
that will probably double or treble what I’m
showing you today. And that’s going to
happen very soon we hope. Oh, maybe someone in back? Just to– [inaudible]. And– yes sir?>>Hi. Thank you very
much for your time. That was really insightful. I was just wondering how do
you reconcile the picture that you paint of
the relationship between the Teotihuacan and the
Mayas with some of the stuff that like, the [inaudible]
have been doing? Like they have found a lot of
Maya murals in Teotihuacan. So kind of complicates
the notion, because I feel like a lot of the
time, it’s always think of Teotihuacan going
into the Maya area, butt his project forces
us to think the other way. [inaudible]>>Stephen Houston:
Well of course, it’s a long-standing idea. What the gentleman is
alluding to is the fact that there are many sectors
within Teotihuacan itself which are multiethnic,
which have populations that have appeared, or have
been not of local origin. And this is something that’s
been emphasized probably from the ’20s or ’30s on. I think the very nature
of an empire is one in which you’re going to incorporate potentially
subjugated populations. And they’re going to be
fascinated I think in particular by the literate skills
of the Maya. There are legible Maya texts
that have been recovered, and known about for
20, 30 years, if not longer in Teotihuacan. So I find it actually
completely reconcilable. The way to think about it
analogically is to understand that there were Tibetan
quarters within Beijing. There were, in ancient Rome, there might be a Jewish
establishment, which is one of the oldest surviving Jewish
communities in the world. And so the nature of
empire is to be absorptive. Is to bring people in, and I could see the Maya
being easily involved in the same process. Yes? There was a gentleman here
who had a question I think. Didn’t you have a question. Or–>>I wanted to ask you if you’d
be kind enough to advise us if the LIDAR technology is
similar or quite different from the technology
that’s been used recently for oil and gas exploration.>>Stephen Houston: This
comes in part from people that have a lot more
money than we have. And so, yes, the
expertise is coming out of those kind of industries. I was speaking to a gentleman a
few weeks ago, maybe it was you, sir, who was saying
that there are yet more exciting developments. Now LIDAR is not at the end
stage of its refinement. I am told through privileged
sources that LIDAR is now being so rapidly deployed in some
areas, that you can do a map, let’s say of Boston, in
which every last smidgen of its surface is visible
within a– maybe an hour or so. And so, what I see
is greater rapidity, according to what the
gentleman was indicating before. We want the cost to come down,
so that all of the Amazon, let’s say, will be
accessed in this way. Because ultimately,
it’s not just a kind of intellectual greed, and
finding out more about the Maya, although I’m happy to indulge
in that particular tendency. What is also involved is
the proper management, is the clever, smart,
intelligent management of these fast-vanishing forests,
and how to go about doing it. How to go about doing
so with a plan, in which we actually
have information about what’s under the forest. What I’m not telling
you so much tonight, because we are mostly here
to discuss archeology, is that information that
I have so glibly thrown out about the vegetation
is of crucial importance. Because it tells us
every last species. Every last species, tree,
potentially that we’re getting. Multi-spectral signatures
coming off of them. They’re telling us
about local hydrology, and so the archeology
ideally is just going to be a very small
aspect of this. But what I do see in the
future is a smarter kind of policy planning. And that’s ultimately
where we want to be. Yes sir? Yes?>>Thank you very much for
that fascinating presentation. Could you comment on how
this new, the new revelations with LIDAR are informing
the way, there’s a trickle down information-gathering
from the researchers, the archaeologists, to the
guides informing visitors to these archeological sites?>>Stephen Houston: Yes. There is a well-established
mechanism of schools like– depending on the local
Guatemalan authorities, or Mexican authorities,
or Belizean or [inaudible] authorities, in which hopefully
we disseminate the right information. Now ethically the way we proceed with this information is we
always announce the results first in Spanish in the country where we are harvesting
information. It should not appear in a
foreign press release first. That’s offensive. In addition to that, the
first access would be to, in this case, Guatemalan
journalists. And we also hope to
make training available to local Guatemalans. And many are involved
in our projects. There’s undeniably though,
a technological challenge, almost in super-bowl, of having
the right equipment down there for people to do this
high-level processing. And so ultimately, the
injunction, morally for someone like me is to bring up
students to, let’s says Brown, or other universities, so
they can see that training, and eventually, hopefully
it’ll become possible. But another ethical issue that’s
become pressing is why are you letting all the looters
know where the sites are, and let me tell you something. Are we all listening? Looters know where
every site is already. That’s why we have a
gazillion pits out here. And in fact, if you
want to go to a ruin, you hire your local chopper,
or harvester of [inaudible] who happens also to be a looter,
because they are multi-tasking. And so to me, it’s
sort of quasi-ludicrous to think of in those terms. But I have heard that argument. Perhaps just one or
two more questions? What do you think, John? Yes. Someone back here please. Get some geographical diversity.>>I was in Tikal in the 1970s and I’m wondering whether there
are findings or assumptions since then that have changed
our image of the Maya?>>Stephen Houston: Wow. Yes. Enormously. I would segregate that, my response into
basically three parts. The first would be that we know
a lot more about the history. We actually can people
that world with individuals who have intent, who have
discernible stratagems, who have families, who are part
of larger political networks, and that’s really
quite extraordinary. The other thing we have
learned about Tikal, is that these cities
such as they had, were just as carefully
planned and in some ways as what you might
see here in DC. They’re very concerned
with hydrology. This is something my colleague
Vern Scarborough has been working on very well
it seems to me. But then, beyond that,
also we’re getting a sense for the larger populations. We’re getting as
sense of what sort of agriculture would
support the people of Tikal. It isn’t just about slash
and burn agriculture. We now know, also thanks to
LIDAR, and this was a component of my talk that I could not
visit in any great length that these are cities
that had intensive fields. They were very concerned
with generating as much agricultural
productivity as possible to allow that population
to be sustained. These were not unsuccessful
people. The cities lasted for
about 1200 to 1500 years. And I think by our clock,
we should be so lucky. Thank you very much. [ Applause ]>>John Haskell: I think
you can see why the Library of Congress is so
proud to have had Steve as the first Kislack Chair in
the Study of the Early Americas. And I hope you will stay around. There is a reception,
and you can mingle. Thank you again, Steve.

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