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Monday, October 3, 2011

Treasure hunting in the Yucatán

University of Haifa expert joins undersea exploration in search of artifacts from ancient Mayan trade routes.

Photos courtesy of Proyecto Costa Escondida Maritime Maya 2011 Expedition, NOAA-OER
Dr. Beverly Goodman cruising Vista Alegre for signs of ancient traders.
Far from the blue Mediterranean waters she's accustomed to, Dr. Beverly Goodman recently navigated amid mangrove swamps, stingrays and crocodiles in the yellowish lagoons of the ancient port site of Vista Alegre ("happy view" in Spanish). Here, the Caribbean meets the Gulf of Mexico at the northeastern tip of the Yucatán Peninsula.

Goodman, a geoarcheologist at the University of Haifa's Leon H. Charney School of Marine Sciences, was the sole Israeli citizen to partake in a May expedition to a largely unexplored coastline in search of evidence and artifacts of one of the greatest seafaring traditions of the ancient New World.

Mayan traders once paddled massive dugout canoes filled with trade goods from across Mexico and Central America -- cotton and salt, incense, jade, obsidian, cacao, tropical bird feathers and even slaves.

"They're interested in reconstructing ancient harbor features, which is one of my main focuses of work in the Mediterranean," Goodman tells ISRAEL21c.

"Archeologists have already worked there on terrestrial mapping and excavating, so we had some evidence that goods and products were probably moved by water from around 800 BCE to 1500 CE. People have guessed there was active coastal commerce, but nothing is known about the harbor and the boats -- probably dugout canoes we see in depictions, but there are no preserved examples."

The first of several planned expeditions financed by a grant from the US Department of Commerce's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) was focused on assessing the environment and collecting core samples from the water to gain clues as to where to dig for evidence of the ancient harbors.

"What really amazed me was how it was comparable to some sites I've seen in the Mediterranean," says Goodman.

"Now we've got 80 kilograms of swamp sediments here at the University of Haifa, and I will be working with a student on a series of analyses and experiments to reconstruct the environment and climate and look for harbor horizons. My student will go to Mexico in December to collect more material, and hopefully another expedition next year will use this information to start underwater excavation."

Goodman described the peninsula as "a very flat area of coastline, a high point with a pyramid on top. You can see all around the area from that lookout, so obviously it was ideal for trade, commerce and defense."

The pyramid, which was the only spot where they could get reception for phones or computers, reminded Goodman of ancient concrete and cement structures she's seen in Caesarea, her main work site since coming to Israel in 2005 on a Fulbright fellowship. Educated in the United States and Canada, she made her Israeli citizenship official in 2006.

Goodman met one of the project's lead archeologists, Dr. Dominique Rissolo, several years ago at a Washington DC, symposium for National Geographic Emerging Explorers. After telling him about her work in Israel, he asked her to join the team of two archeologists, a hydrogeologist and a marine biologist. The NOAA grant for expedition finally came through in January 2011.

Way off the matrix

The Yucatán project was her first experience with hammocks, Goodman relates with a laugh. "I didn't realize people really sleep in them -- single hammocks, double hammocks, family hammocks that fit five."

Over the course of three weeks, the team spent several days at each of several sites, bringing along their own water and generators.

Dr. Beverly Goodman
Photos courtesy of Proyecto Costa Escondida Maritime Maya 2011 Expedition, NOAA-OER
Dr. Beverly Goodman sorting core samples from the Yucatán.
"By the third day, you're kind of looking forward to resupplying, getting a decent shower and checking emails," she says. "A few times a day, someone would go up to the top of the pyramid to check for messages. It was interesting to be that much off the matrix."

The native Mayans reacted with excitement when she told them she was from Israel. "I imagine they don't meet a lot of Israelis in their villages. They are a folk Catholic group and so Israel and the Bible was of interest to them, and we got a positive and warm reaction."

Though she will not go back to Mexico, she plans to apply for funding from the US-Israel Binational Science Foundation to continue her work on the project at her university lab.

"There are many different questions than can be answered simultaneously by this research," she explains. "Globally, it can answer general questions related to climate and sea level, and how humans respond to changes in environment. This is not particular to a specific coastline. Looking at how people respond to changes in the past helps predict what happens in the future."

In addition, she says, "I think any demonstration of the skills we have in Israel and the ways we give our expertise and knowledge to the world will be a worthwhile aspect of the project."