Posted by: Mayan Musings | March 29, 2012

Ethics and Unearthing the Ancient Mayan World

The academic world tends to forget that there are still indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica with Mayan ancestry, and in forgetting or ignoring they often make decisions that seems to put themselves at odds with local populations. Watkins (2005) draws attention to the plight of an indigenous Mayan group at Palenque, Mexico (436). Archaeologists working for the National Institute of Archaeology and History had discovered a “throne-altar-platform” and failed to report their findings to the government or indigenous groups for several months. Not only were the findings not disclosed, but portions of the site had actually been removed without any native approval (436). As Pearson (2000) mentions, archaeologists have often been found to dig at sites without any reference to the indigenous groups in the vicinity of the site (173).

The scholarly pursuit of Indigenous Archaeology has been seen as a decolonizing practice instituted by native peoples in an effort to take back some autonomy over their heritage (Atalay 2006: 283). At the 2002 conference in Vancouver, British Columbia, entitled “Toward a More Ethical Mayanist Archaeology” Lix Lopez, a Mayan Archaeologist, brought to light many of the issues he had with the terminology of modern archaeology in describing the history of his people. Words like “ruins”, “disappeared”, “vanished”, and “Mayan collapse” all make it seem as though his people no longer exist, as though there are no remaining descendants of the ancient Mayan peoples (Zimmerman 2007: 147). If archaeologists remove the link between indigenous populations and their ancestry, then indigenous groups lose rights over controversial issues (mortuary analysis, for example).


Archeologists have to be mindful of ethical concerns during excavation and while presenting their findings. There are policies in place to protect the cultures being studied.

Archaeology ethics- Archaeologists have always had to face many challenges in their field of study.  But more recently, archaeologists have faced a new challenge; dealing with the ethics of studying human remains in general.  As Watkins states, when Americans think about history, they think about the study of their people, but when they think about archaeology they are studying ‘simpler people’ (2004).  This can show why there are often issues with they study of human remains, because some of the remains that are being studied are ancestors of people still alive today.  Thus, due to ethics, there is controversy rooted in the very occupation of archaeology.  There have been occasions where credit has not been given to the people who deserve it because like the ‘moundbuilders’, some people do not think that the ‘simpler’ people were capable of creating something so complex (Watkins, 2004).  So when studying the advanced Maya civilization, it is easy for archaeologists to not only overlook the abilities of the people living there, but they might also forget that there is a deeper connection to the people that still inhabit this land.  Furthermore, they have to consider that the research they are sharing with the public might affect the opinions and beliefs of the people still living. Thus we “highlight the need for scholars to think more carefully about the implications of their research and writings for living Maya peoples and the remarkable land they inhabit” (Fash, 1994).

It seems that every type of organization – economic, health, labor, archeological, and so on – have working definitions of what qualifies as an indigenous people, and how to effectively protect their rights.  Organizations feel the need to put these protective policies into place because these groups are seen as weak politically, having limited economic resources, and stigmatized culturally by the societies that have taken over their lands (Watkins, 2005).  Many archeologists are painfully aware of this, and take into account a strong sense of ethicswhile adhering to policies put in place to protect the peoples that they study.  Some scholars refuse to work with artifacts that were not acquired in a legal manner (Green, 2000).  Not only would this practice be unethical, stolen grave goods have been removed completely from the other features of the site, proving no context to examine.  In addition to the moral compass of archeologists, the UNESCO convention oncultural property is respected within the United States and throughout the United Nations.  This legislation, however, was relatively loose.  If a museum purchased a piece in good faith or possessed itfor a decade, it was exempt from the restrictions imposed by the convention (Green, 2000).  In recent years, those working to protect Mayan culture have had to make radical moves to help protect their heritage.  In the late 90’s, Guatemala’s Minister of Culture and Sports resorted to moving artifacts from tourist sites in order to protect them (Dobrzynski, 1998).  They had resorted to literally stationing guards at some sites, but there was no possible way to cover all 2,200 known sites.  The looting of sites is causing a huge problem in Mayan archeological sites, and there is little that can be done about it.

Another major ethical concern for contemporary Mayans is that their ancestral sites and artifacts have been misconstrued as a part of an overarching Guatemalan identity instead of purely Mayan. This generalization has created some commotion regarding the repatriation of archaeological remains. Instead of artifacts being returned through protective policies to their true indigenous people, archaeological remains are now returned to the ladino state rather than to the Mayan communities (Cojti, 1995). As a result, many Mayans feel as though they have been alienated from their past, as state governments will not grant them access to these cultural relics (Ren, 2006). This brings forth the essential question—who actually should own the past?

While many ethical tensions still abide in theMayan region however,  the questioning of unethical archaeological practices has brought forth a new era of archaeological practices that avoid native alienation and instead, attempt to support native people. At the Guatemalan excavation of Chocola, archaeologist Jonathan Kaplan is utilizing a new form of inclusive preservation called “community archaeology.” By working with natives, clean trash and water systems, eco-tourism opportunities, and a archaeological land swap program have been established to ensure the stability of the community during and after the research (Bawaya, 2005). This in turn, promotes preservation from locals who become more involvedand invested in the project.

Another example, The Cancuén Regional Development Project at Cancuén, has gathered more than $6 million in international support, which has enabled “30 Q’eqchi’ Maya villages to participate in their own excavations and develop community-designed guide, boat and inn services.” (Salisbury, 2004). These practices have been heralded by local leaders as a hopeful “modelo Cancuén”—a new standard for ethical archaeology in Guatemala. By involving indigenous communities in the archaeological process, an open dialogue between researchers and locals can enhance research, preservation, and progress ethical understandings in the field of archaeology.

Interested in reading more about the implication of looting and acquiring grave goods by means of unethical practices?  Check out this blog.  The author has done some great research and has insightful ideas!

Atalay, Sonya. “Indigenous Archaeology as Decolonizing Practice”.  American Indian Quarterly. Vol. 30, No. 3/4. pg 280- 310.  2006

Bawaya, M. “ARCHAEOLOGY: Maya Archaeologists Turn to the Living to Help Save the Dead.” Science 309.5739 (2005): 1317-318. Print.

Cojti Cuxil. 1995: Waqi’ Q’anil: Configuracion del Pensamiento Politico del Pueblo Maya: (2da. Parte). Guatemala: Iximulew.

Dobrzynski, Judith. To Save Mayan Artifacts From Looters, a Form of Protective Custody. March 31, 1998.  The New York Times.

Fash, William L. “Changing Perspectives on Maya Civilization.” Annual Review of Anthropology 23.1 (1994): 181-208.

Green, Laura.  Guatemala and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston: Law, Ethics and Cultural Patrimony. 2000.

Parker, Pearson Michael. The Archaeology of Death and Burial. College Station: Texas A & M UP, 2000. Print.

Ren, Avexnim Cojti. “Maya Archaeology and the Political and Cultural Identity of Contemporary Maya in Guatemala.” Archaeologies 2.1 (2006): 8-19. Print.

Salisbury, David. “Archaeologists Unearth Ancient Maya Masterpieces While Excavating a Sacred Ball Court in Guatemala.” News from Vanderbilt University. Vanderbilt University, 23 Apr. 2004. Web. 29 Mar. 2012.  <>.

Watkins, Joe. “Becoming American or Becoming Indian?: NAGPRA, Kennewick and Cultural Affiliation.” Journal of Social Archaeology 4.1 (2004): 60-80.

Watkins, Joe. “Through Wary Eyes: Indigenous Perspectives on Archaeology”. Annual Review of Anthropology. Vol. 34. pg 429-449. 2205

Zimmerman, L.J. “Plains Indians and the Resistance to “Public” Heritage Commemoration of Their Pasts”. Cultural Heritage and Human Rights. 2007.


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