Fond Farewell to DC; Dispatch from New York

Photo by Antonio Curet.
Photo by Antonio Curet.

Farewell to James Doyle — Dumbarton Oaks.

I was kindly invited by Dumbarton Oaks to contribute to the newsletter to describe my bittersweet move away from DC and beginning a new life in New York at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Now I’ve embarked on new adventures in presenting Mesoamerican and Central American art to a wider audience. Stay tuned for updates on Galleries 357 and 358 in the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas!

Gallery 358, Mesoamerica
Gallery 358, Mesoamerica

Central American and Colombian Art at Dumbarton Oaks

…or, the catalog formerly known as the Intermediate Area Catalog.

Photo by Joe Mills, Dumbarton Oaks.
Workshop Participants.
Front, left to right: Karen O’Day, Colin McEwan, Silvia Salgado, Maria Alicia Uribe, Francisco Corrales, Julia Mayo; Rear, left to right: Antonio Curet, Victoria Lyall, Nawa Sugiyama, Richard Cooke, Ainslie Harrison, Bryan Cockrell, Juan Antonio Murro, John Hoopes, David Mora Marin, James Doyle, Rae Beaubien.

From January 12th to 19th, the Pre-Columbian Studies department held an objects-based workshop to initiate the production of the catalogue of Ancient Central American and Colombian Art at Dumbarton Oaks. Roundtable discussions, presentations, group object viewings, and individual analysis time shaped the descriptions of the collection and the thematic direction of the final publication. Authors completed first drafts of the catalogue entries that placed the Dumbarton Oaks objects in context within other museum collections and archaeologically recovered materials.

Photo by James Doyle, Dumbarton Oaks.

Invited participants included Richard Cooke of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, Francisco Corrales Ulloa of the National Museum of Costa Rica, John Hoopes of the University of Kansas, Julia Mayo of the Fundación El Caño in Panama, David Mora Marin of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Karen O’Day of the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire, Silvia Salgado of the University of Costa Rica, and Maria Alicia Uribe Villegas, director of the Gold Museum of Bogotá. Colleagues from the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian (Antonio Curet, Ann McMullen) and Museum Conservation Institute (Rae Beaubien, Ainslie Harrison, Kim Cullen Cobb), as well as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Victoria Lyall), joined Dumbarton Oaks staff and fellows in a lively and productive discussion.

Photo by James Doyle, Dumbarton Oaks.

The workshop set the stage for further synthetic essays in the catalogue, as well as future avenues for technical analysis of both stone and metal objects. One of the main objectives identified by participants was the need for an iconographic concordance through photographs and drawings, as well as a visual, biological, and technological glossary to guide future research on the art and archaeology of the area.

Bridget Gazzo of the Research Library mounted a beautiful exhibit coinciding with the workshop, titled “All that Glitters: Gold of the Circum-Caribbean,” that will be on view through March 2014.

Why Archaeology Matters Podcast

Why Archaeology Matters, November 13, 2013

The episode of Indiana Jones: Myth, Reality and 21st Century Archaeology, titled “Why Archaeology Matters: A Crisis in Federal Funding of Archaeological Research,” is now available to stream or as a podcast.

Many thanks to Joe Schuldenrein for the invitation to participate, and to my esteemed colleagues Rosemary Joyce and Adam Smith for a great discussion.

Why Archaeology Matters: A Crisis in Federal Funding of Archaeological Research

Further discussions about NSF and Archaeology:

Trowel Points

Tune in at 6PM ET tonight to hear us discuss the recent attacks on National Science Foundation Funding from Capitol Hill.

(UPDATE:  one of our listeners pointed out that the House Subcommittee on Research and Technology is holding a hearing today on the National Science Foundation

Why does NSF choose “to fund research on Mayan architecture over projects that could help our wounded warriors or save lives?”–excerpt from Eric Cantor and Lamar Smith’s USA Today Article

What should the government spend taxpayers’ dollars on?  Although always an important point of debate on Capitol Hill, the economic downturn seen in recent years has garnered increasing attention for an already highly contested issue.  A few weeks ago, the issue reached its zenith when the federal government shut down, unable to resolve the issue.

A central question in this debate is the role of science research in the federal budget and the…

View original post 504 more words

Notes from the Cenote

While at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University, we saw some very special materials made of metal related to our catalog efforts: the offerings in the Cenote of Sacrifice from Chichen Itza, recovered in the early 20th century (Lothrop 1952; see Coggins 1992).

We spent quality time with gold disks, especially the meticulous drawing of Disk G, done by Tatiana Proskouriakoff (see Finamore and Houston 2010:196-197). This scene depicts a naval battle in which one group of people in a canoe apparently attack another group on three rafts. One interesting detail is that the lone rafter on the viewer’s left wears a circular disk pendant, perhaps one of gold similar to the object on which it was depicted. Lothrop (1952:107) noted that the gold originated in Panama but, in the case of the embossed disks, had been reworked in Mayaland.

Many other pieces from the cenote gold were manufactured in Costa Rica, Panama, or Colombia. Some examples include:

  • Several frog pendants, such as this one (10-71-20/C7710).
  • Turtle pendants, such as this one (10-71-20/C7711A).
  • Anthropomorphic figures, like this one (10-71-20/C7702).
  • This is a “Darien Style” pendant, probably from Colombia (10-73-20/C7725).
  • Last, but certainly not least, several monkey friends! This one (10-71-20/C7713) and this one (10-73-20/C7734) are  similar to Dumbarton Oaks pieces PC.B.331, PC.B.332, and PC.B.333:
Monkey pendants, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.

Although, as Lothrop (1952:103) noted, all but one of the cenote monkeys were bells, whereas the Dumbarton Oaks specimens are solid, open-backed casts.

The implication of these gold objects in the northern Yucatan is obviously that trade for metal objects manufactured very far south was very active and meaningful for the Maya residents of Chichen Itza.

Coggins, Clemency C. (ed.). 1992. Artifacts from the Cenote of Sacrifice, Chichen Itza, Yucatan. Cambridge, Peabody Museum.

Finamore, Daniel, and Stephen Houston (eds.). 2010. Fiery Pool: The Maya and the Mythic Sea. New Haven, Yale University Press.

Lothrop, Samuel K. (ed.). 1952. Metals from the Cenote of Sacrifice at Chichen Itza, Yucatan. Memoirs of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Vol. X. No. 2. Cambridge, Peabody Museum.

Peabody Museum Connections – Costa Rica and Panama

This past week, some members of the Dumbarton Oaks catalog team (Colin, Juan Antonio, and myself) joined leading scholars in the field of Costa Rican archaeology for an objects-based workshop at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University. Special thanks go to everyone at Harvard for the gracious invitation, especially Jeffrey Quilter, Director, Steven LeBlanc, Director of Collections, David Schafer and all the collections staff, and Susan Haskell, curatorial associate.

In addition to seeing excellent presentations by John Hoopes, Jeff Frost, and Francisco Corrales about Costa Rican Archaeology, we viewed many of the highlights from the Peabody’s superior collections of Central American materials. Our visit accomplished two main goals related to the catalog project: first explore comparative materials and iconography across multiple media; and second, find clues about the original contexts of many of the Dumbarton Oaks pieces.

A couple of nice preliminary connections made:

PC.B.319 – Double-Figure Pendant. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.
  • Several Peabody “Axe Gods” (e.g., 47-2-20/17481) have common iconographic elements and forms to the DO examples.
  • A Costa Rican musician figure at the Peabody (31-42-20/C13726) is of similar scale and posture as some DO figures, such as PC.B.336 and PC.B.345 in the Veraguas style. It also shares characteristics with the “Quimbaya style” figure, PC.B.374, which comes originally from the former Felix Wiss collection of San Jose, Costa Rica.
PC.B.336, PC.B.345, and PC.B.374. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.
  • Many items from the Sitio Conte excavations at the Peabody have comparative pieces in the Dumbarton Oaks collection. Notably, a Spondylus shell turtle from the Dumbarton Oaks Collection acquired by Robert Bliss in 1951 (PC.B.391) that comes originally from the Peabody Museum, has a counterpart in gold from Sitio Conte, Peabody 30-49-20/C11082.
PC.B.391 - Turtle Pendant. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.
PC.B.391 – Turtle Pendant. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.

The visit was a very productive beginning to the cross-institution cooperation and conversation that will continue as the momentum builds for investigations into Central American and Colombian materials.

Why Research on Mayan Architecture Saves Lives

“With limited funding, we must prioritize. Congress is right to ask why NSF chooses to fund research on Mayan architecture over projects that could help our wounded warriors or save lives.”

-Rep. Eric Cantor and Rep. Lamar Smith, USA Today, 9/30/13

In response to their editorial “Rethinking science funding,” I won’t even begin to address the problems when lawmakers begin labeling certain fields of research “questionable” or deciding that certain research should be axed to make room for “higher priorities.” Nor will I address the problematic assertions that social science research grants are “chosen over thousands of others” that these two representatives find more appropriate. These are not new or interesting arguments against research in the social, behavioral, and economic sciences. In other words: we’ve heard this all before. Rosemary Joyce has posted an eloquent piece addressing some of these points. (Update: Adam Smith has also posted his reaction to the op-ed, here).

Nor do I think that these two are wrong for asking the NSF to justify its research agenda or to provide the public with details about every single project funded. Although I don’t think that our two representatives are “anti-science” (it seems they are reacting to those who do), I do not think they should be involved in the proposal stage of U.S. science research. Trying to build an argument that their position is short-sighted and detracts from the role of scholars from the United States as the thought leaders in the social, behavioral, and economic sciences is fruitless. Because it is clear that, from their perspective, only science, technology, engineering, and medical research is not “questionable.” Although the first pillar of National Science Foundation funding is Intellectual Merit, it is clear that the representatives do not accept the widely held argument that peer-reviewed research funds projects of high intellectual merit, that is, having withstood much questioning.

I only mean to address the quotation above that sets up a false negative comparison, implying that research on Mayan architecture does not help our wounded warriors or save lives. Such research does save lives, and it is in the American people’s interest to continue to devote support to such “questionable” projects, because they do, in fact, improve Americans’ quality of life. Although they were not specifically criticizing any projects that I have been involved with in the past, they might as well have. (Presented without comment, I will note that anthropology and archaeology played a large role in defense recently, helping our armed forces through the HTS project.)

When I first began to contemplate archaeology as a career, it was probably because of that National Geographic factor – the dense, misty jungles covering giant pyramids filled with ancient wonders. Anthropologists and archaeologists study the human condition, learning how peoples in the past conceived of their environment, expressed their own values, and navigated social turmoil in order to build our own knowledge base to use in the present.

My own work examines the basic question of why people in the past cooperated to build big things, and whether the act of building played a role in the social trajectory of the community. In other words, did monumental building outstrip resources and eventually lead to migration and abandonment, a.k.a. “collapse”? I’m happy to sit and discuss with U.S. taxpayers about the intellectual merit of this project in relation to contemporary social problems in our country.

But way back when, as an undergraduate, I quickly realized that the impact of archaeology was much broader. I deliberately use the phrase “broader impact,” because Broader Impacts are the driving measures of the National Science Foundation (the web site of which has been, ironically, shut down because of the choices made by the very same representatives). I received a National Science Foundation grant in 2011-2012 for $20,000 to conduct fieldwork at the site of El Palmar, Guatemala. I should add that my first round proposal was rejected, and one reviewer called into question my broader impacts, which is exactly what the representatives should know. Even a small (by NSF standards) dissertation grant for a graduate student in anthropology is heavily peer-reviewed, and only a broad consensus leads to a successful proposal. There are many gatekeepers to avoid funding “questionable” research.

My final report to the NSF includes the answer to the following question:

What research and teaching skills and experience has the project helped provide to those who worked on the project?

The co-principal investigator received doctoral field training on survey and excavation techniques, as well as training on laboratory analysis of archaeological materials. The project data will serve as the major empirical basis for the doctoral dissertation of the co-principal investigator, expected to be completed in May, 2012 [Editor’s note: it took me an extra year!].

Additionally, Guatemalan archaeological students received field and laboratory field training as part of the project. These students will eventually contribute to strengthening the national archaeology program for future projects.

The broader impacts of the project are found in the promotion of community development in the area near El Palmar, most notably in Cruce Dos Aguadas, Petén. Because of the harsh reality of the economy in this rural part of Central America, archaeological fieldwork is often the only source of income for many of the excavation and camp assistants. The El Palmar dissertation work collaborated with local project assistants, contributing not only to short-term economic development, but also long-term career prospects as qualified excavators. This, in turn, will strengthen connections with the local community and promote the responsible stewardship of archaeological and cultural heritage.

I will not dwell on the effects of the National Science Foundation funding on my own life. I received my Ph.D. in May of this year and am employed teaching and doing research. Suffice it to say my quality of life as an American has improved.

Where the representatives are, respectfully, wrong, is in their judgment of the ability of research on Mayan architecture (or rangeland management in Mongolia, or metallurgy in prehistoric Russia, or the Bronze Age in Cyprus, or early New Zealand, etc.) to actually save lives and improve quality of others’ lives here at home. As an anthropologist, I know that defining what is strictly “American” in our globalized world is more complex than simply asking for a birth certificate (as do others, see

While I can only speak about my experience, I call upon others to report theirs.

Guatemala is a country that has been deeply troubled since colonization and the subsequent break from Spain. However, socioeconomic problems greatly accelerated after an American CIA-backed coup in the 1950s led to three decades of civil war, displacing populations and leading to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. The country is still trying to come to terms with its modern history.

One way that my small project helped is to contribute to a growing movement in Guatemala to protect its cultural and natural patrimony through constructive means: archaeology, ethnography, biology, ecology, and so on. As more Guatemalan-born archaeologists take charge of their past, they strengthen a sense of national identity. And as American researchers representing our country and supporting professionals and students through NSF funds, we send a message that the U.S. wants strong and healthy democratic traditions projected through helping the growth of in-country projects of science and conservation.

But finally, I want to address how research into Mayan Architecture (or, Insert Questionable Social Science Topic Here) saves lives. Put very bluntly, many of the people we work with in the northern department of Guatemala choose to work with archaeological projects over what very often is the other attractive alternative: narcotrafficking. Without comment on the perceived failing of the US or Mexico’s policy on drug cartel activity, the sad reality of this part of the world is that the US demand for illegal drugs is fueling destruction of property and community in Central America.

These people may not be deemed “American” by our representatives because they live beyond the U.S. borders, but their blood, sweat, and tears enter our country through the vast transnational flows of people and ideas in the Americas. By intervening in these communities, displaced by civil war and with little economic recourse, archaeologists have planted the seeds of long-term prosperity and archaeological and natural sustainability. Tourism is growing in the area, resulting both from Guatemalan-backed funding and U.S.-based funders recognizing the leading role that the U.S. must play in the region.

In short, yes, we save the lives of individuals and their families at our research sites. They, or their sons and daughters might end up migrating to the representatives’ home states of Texas one year, Virginia the next, but back on a plane to Guatemala to pick broccoli that ends up in our U.S. supermarkets the year after that. Their grandchildren may be running for the House of Representatives one day.

The American people should prioritize research spending “in favor of improving Americans’ quality of life,” as the representatives note. But not at the expense of SBE research that creates useful knowledge, contributes to local and U.S. economic and defense interests, and trains American researchers to understand other cultures and histories.

We should never cease to raise a magnifying glass to our neighbors, a mirror to ourselves, or an ear to the past. That, representatives, is common sense.

“If ever the humanities were necessary…it is in this epoch of disintegration and dislocation.”

Mildred Bliss to Professor Paul Sachs, Director of the Fogg Museum, May 9th, 1942.