Laying the Foundations for Collaboration in Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

Laying the Foundations for Collaboration in Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

Gavin Davies

University of Kentucky

Although the goals of the collaborative archaeology paradigm are clearly something that we should all aspire to, I think it is important to note that for many early career archaeologists, particularly those beginning projects abroad, “true collaboration” , i.e. collaboration from a project’s inception, may simply not be possible. This is because archaeologists at early stages in their research will likely not yet have received the funding required to spend the time building the necessary partnerships. In such cases, should we simply ignore the heartbreaking destruction of cultural heritage in the area we have become so passionate about? My response to this question was “decidedly not”, and I argue here that with the aid of a community-insider, simply being open and honest (see statement 2), and putting community interests first, can go a long way towards allaying indigenous people’s fears and concerns about archaeologists and their practices.
In my research area, the Lake Atitlán Basin of highland Guatemala, I was acutely aware that several previous archaeological projects, had been prematurely terminated for incurring the suspicions and mistrust of the indigenous Tz’utujil Maya. Beginning with the ejection of the Carnegie Institution’s Samuel Lothrop from the site of Chuitinamit in the 1930s and extending up until the recent expulsion of the Samabaj crew by the leaders of Santiago Atitlán , the Tz’utujil have repeatedly declared their refusal to be overlooked in matters pertaining to their cultural heritage. Given this checkered history and the cautionary warnings of regional experts such as Barbara Arroyo, concerns about causing no harm (see statement 1) were at the forefront of my mind as I embarked on my investigations. Fears that I would not be able to identify, let alone appease, all of the relevant stakeholders, or that I would inadvertently anger one or more landowners, however, led me to expend considerable effort, in the months leading up to the project, soliciting public opinion via a project Facebook page and searching for a local advisor who could help me negotiate the complexities of the local politics and permissions processes.

My search for an appropriately qualified advisor eventually led me to contact a mathematics professor named Domingo who had lived in the area all his life and had recently self-funded the construction of a community center dedicated to the promotion of science, culture and the arts. Domingo quickly committed himself to the project, scheduling a meeting with the mayor of San Pedro Atitlan on my second day in town and arranging an opportunity to explain our mission in an interview on a popular local TV station. Domingo played a crucial role, helping us to arrange all of our official meetings and ensuring that we followed established local protocols. This extended to making sure that all of our important meetings were conducted on propitious days in the Mayan calendar and that our first day of fieldwork was preceded by a blessing from a respected local aj kij (daykeeper). And while Domingo’s powers to influence the decisions of individual landowners were more limited, his insider community-knowledge quickly helped us to deduce why some land-owners had refused us access, thereby helping us to refine our permission strategies as we went forward.
As the project progressed, we adopted a simple ethos based on three basic principles: respect, communication and transparency (see statement 2). These principles reminded us to always put the community’s needs before our own or those of the archaeology by: a) restricting our investigations to where we had permission, b) clearly explaining our mission to the public whenever we had the opportunity and, c) inviting landowners and the public to visit our laboratory to see how we processed and analyzed the recovered artifacts. Armed with these guiding principles, Domingo’s insider knowledge, and our workers’ ability to communicate our mission in the local dialect we found that the majority of the landowners we encountered were not only accommodating but openly appreciative of the interest we were taking in the history of their community. And although, we fell short of achieving the desired full-coverage survey, the resultant random sample survey covered portions of all of the major sites in the project area and generated over 30,000 ceramics, covering the entire prehispanic sequence. More importantly, however, the project achieved the far more valuable goal of laying a stable foundation for long-term collaboration and research in the area.
My experiences directing the Proyecto Arqueológico Lago de Atitlán taught me that when collaborative partnerships are not forthcoming at the inception of a project, it may not only be acceptable, but desirable for western archaeologists to take the lead. This is certainly true of highland Guatemala, where the Maya themselves simply do not have the luxury of worrying about their own cultural heritage, being forced by dire economic circumstances to devote themselves entirely to the unending task of providing for their families. Early career archaeologists should be aware, however, that even with a local advisor on board, gaining the trust of a community and acquiring all of the required permissions takes time (two months in our case) and needs to be taken into account at the budgeting stage. Archaeologists should be heartened, however, that while often tedious and frustrating, these slow-moving administrative processes nevertheless force us to engage with the community on their own terms and learn the culturally appropriate ways of doing things. Attempting to circumvent such processes by using clandestine survey strategies, on the other hand not only risks alienating the local community but sealing the fate of the cultural heritage we so desperately seek to preserve. As discussed in statement 2, such practices are simply no longer ethical or acceptable.