June 29, 2006

SIUC researchers explore Mayan settlement

by Tim Crosby

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Hundreds of years ago, a Spanish-led army camped on the edge of a lake deep in Central America, its soldiers assembling a boat for an assault on an island capital.

Now, an expert in Mayan civilization from Southern Illinois University Carbondale once again will venture into the area to decipher the archaeological site she helped discover 10 years ago, which she believes includes the site of that Spanish encampment.

Prudence M. "Pru" Rice, anthropologist, associate vice chancellor for research and director of the Office of Research Development and Administration at SIUC, this week is traveling to the Peten region in northern Guatemala to study an ancient settlement once inhabited by Maya known as the Itza. Rice, along with husband, Donald S. Rice, anthropologist and associate provost at SIUC, discovered the site in 1996 during one of their many research trips to the area. Covered for centuries by heavy brush, the area came to light when the local owner cleared the land for cattle ranching.

The researchers' efforts will center on a settlement near a large lake called Lake Peten Itza. The area was the site of repeated attempts by the Spanish to conquer and convert the Itza people to Christianity. Researchers believe the area may hold many clues to the ancient way of life and that period of time.

The Itza people settled on a Lake Peten Itza island starting about 1200 A.D., eventually making this island city, called Tayasal, their capital. It finally fell to the Spanish in March of 1697, making it the last indigenous kingdom to go under the control of Europeans in the Western Hemisphere, Rice said.

A group of seven researchers, including the Rices, several graduate students and post-doctorates, left this week to begin studying a small portion of a site located at the western edge of the lake, where they believe remnants of the Spanish encampment are located. Rice said she believes they have discovered the site where soldiers rebuilt a disassembled warship that they hauled through the jungle by mule to use during their island conquest.

The couple has been studying the chain of lakes in the area since the early 1970's and Rice said their recent discoveries could unlock many secrets related to Mayan civilization and its relationships with the outside world several centuries ago.

"This city was in the heartland of Maya development and civilization," said Rice, who recently garnered a grant worth at least $100,000 from the National Endowment of the Humanities, facilitated by U.S. Rep. Jerry Costello's office, "This research is sort of the culmination of a long series of projects looking at Mayan settlements in the area."

The grant covers three seasons of fieldwork, analysis and interpretation and future trips will concentrate on the surrounding Itza settlement. Researchers also will try to find indications of a mission church built by the Spanish after they conquered the area. Some preliminary work there uncovered a few clues, such as a gunflint used to fire a musket.

The group also will study the layout of the settlement, which is unusual because of its grid layout. Rice said this system might reveal the influence of a powerful culture based in Mexico known as the Teotihuacan, who populated the present-day area of Mexico City.

"We think it may have been the Teotihuacan base of operations or outpost in the area," Rice said. "We're going to look at the characteristics of the architecture and the layout. It's exciting because of the possibility of it answering so many questions."

Rice said the settlement of about 450 structures is surprisingly well preserved. The building remnants basically are mounds, rectangular structures and some pyramid-shaped enclosures.

"There is very little evidence of looting," Rice said.

The group will leave all recovered artifacts with Guatemalan authorities, though they may bring a few items back to the United States temporarily for specialized analysis. Rice said she also is working with the owner of the land to create a museum on the island to showcase artifacts found there.

Becoming a top 75 public research university is among the goals of Southern at 150: Building Excellence Through Commitment, the blueprint the University is following as it approaches its 150th anniversary in 2019.

Prudence Rice

Prudence Rice
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