Professor Uses High Tech to Uncover Mayan Ruins
June 16, 2010
Categories: Inside UNM
A new field season in Uxbenká is in progress for Keith Prufer, assistant professor, Department of Anthropology. Every summer he takes students to the lowlands of Belize to study what was a small but flourishing Mayan city in the 10th century. This year, thanks to a grant from the Alphawood Foundation, they will have electronic equipment to analyze the composition of artifacts they find in the Mayan ruin.
"It should tell us where materials like the obsidian we are finding came from, because it was traded a long way. Some came from Mexico, some from Guatemala," Prufer said. "We can work out trade routes and sources of materials with it."
Uxbenká is a puzzle. It thrived in a very rural part of the Mayan empire for nearly 900 years, about 100 B.C.-900 A.D. Then the Mayans abruptly left and didn't return in significant numbers for another 500 years. Prufer and his students are excavating parts of the community to figure out how the inhabitants lived and what happened to them. During past field seasons they found extended households, a small downtown section and a mountain shrine complex.
This summer Prufer is taking seven graduate students and one student preparing for graduate school. Most are from UNM, but this year he is also taking students from Stanford and the University of Oregon. They will examine ways common people lived and worked in households and document population distribution across the landscape, where people lived and their relationship with the urban center.
The grant from Alphawood will be used to hire an airplane from the University of Houston equipped with LIDAR, or Light Detection and Ranging, an optical system that allows remote sensing. Prufer is excited because he should be able to map partially buried ruins and save days of searching through the undergrowth to find the remains of structures he and students might excavate in the future.
Funding for students' travel expenses comes from the National Science Foundation as part of its Research Experience for Undergraduates program.
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