Blog 4: Pu'uc means hills

Blog 04 Pu’uc means “hills”                                 9 December 2012

Mexico is a pretty mountainous place. A story is told about Charles V and Cortés. The Emperor asked what manner of land Mexico was, and Cortés replied by crumpling up a sheet of paper, tossing it on the table, and saying: “It looks like that.” He wasn’t thinking about the northern Yucatán, which is about as mountainous as Florida with two types of topography: flat, and slightly less flat. If the oceans rise very much, the Yucatan’s mean altitude will be meaningless, for Mexico will have suffered a thumbectomy.

The slightly less flat part of the Yucatan starts about fifty kilometers southeast of Mérida, the peninsula’s largest city. A few knobby hills, at best a hundred feet high, straggle across the plain. The hills are called pu’uc in the Mayan language, and the Mayan lords who thrived here 1500 to 1000 years ago are collectively known as the Pu’uc cultures. They erected a dozen splendid cities, a couple of them housing 30,000 or more people, developed their own architectural style, dug cisterns, built roads, and successfully subjugated the neighboring flatlanders for half a millennium or so. The dry forest that until recently blanketed this part of the Yucatan and hid the remains of these cities is so thick that it is hard to see more than three or four meters into it. To walk anywhere off trail requires a good sense of direction, a machete, and a sharp eye for aggressive fauna and thorny flora.

When I was younger —which, come to think of it, encompasses all of my time up until I began to write this blog…  Uh, let me start again: when I was in my late twenties and early thirties and harbored dreams of becoming an archaeologist, I approached ancient sites and artifacts with a zeal for mastering their taxonomies. I was fascinated by the minute differences in the shapes of the rims of ceramic bowls, differences that indicated use, status, and very often chronology, since styles inevitably evolve over time. Take a look on the web, if you want to spend an amusing fifteen minutes, looking at Coke bottles from the 50s, 60s, 70s, etc. Find 2 similar ones in the same hole, and you can be pretty sure when the hole was dug. Token type analysis, the study of the minute differences in flint knives, door lintels, hemlines, depictions of deities, basket shapes, hair styles, fascinated me. The way it was possible to pour over a collection of stuff and then, with your detective-like wit and a few authoritatively dated comparison sets of stuff, determine when the collection was made … well, it was better than jigsaw puzzles and crossword puzzles put together. During all those visits to Peru I learned the phases of Nazca, the evolving shapes of Inca arívalos, the idiosyncrasies of late intermediate coastal ceramics north to south, from Piura to Arica. I could look at a shard and make a reasonably solid guess as to where it was made, and when. It made me feel good. I even began an MA program in archaeology as a hobby while I was a professor doing something else for a living, and got halfway through it before my attention was drawn to something else.[witness picture, 1969,Peru]

[Also these pictures, Peru, 1986.  Deborah with finds.  Who says it doesn't run in the family ? ]

Today, though, when I am older and retired from the sequenced phases of my own salaried career, I find that I am still enthusiastic about the taxonomic details of the stuff we are seeing, but I’ve moved on past the need to assimilate them all. The joy is still a combination of aesthetic and intellectual, but I no longer yearn to put the knowledge to professional use.

For the past few days Linda and I have been rambling through the heart of the Pu’uc country, basing ourselves in some very adequate cabins in the village of Santa Elena. There are at least 8 major Pu’uc cities within 40 kilometers of here, and we have no intention of visiting them all. One a day is just fine. We’ve chosen Mayapan, Uxmal, Labna, and Edzna, pretty much because why not? What these cities have in common is that in them the ruling elite, somewhere between 750 and 950, built immense palaces to house themselves and towering pyramids to house their gods. Archaeologists and their funding sources have largely favored excavation of the elite central precincts of these cities. The fomenters of tourism, too, have thrown most of their support to the reconstruction of the showiest parts of the sites. The surrounding residential areas where suppers were cooked and cradles were rocked, and the industrial sectors where flint and obsidian were knapped, wet clay was shaped and fired, and fibers were spun and woven, these areas were surmised by the scholars and sometimes even physically discovered, but never reconstructed and never featured as places that visitors might like to see.

What the cities put on show is the spectacular achievements of the Pu’uc architects. The jungle pretty much takes care of itself. The bonus for the visitor is the interplay between the stone and the green: the arches and columns and mosaic masked façades, with the trees and lianas, ferns and epiphytes, and the minute fraction of fauna that allows itself to be observed: birds, butterflies, insects, iguanas.

We always admire the vast reconstructed palaces and plazas as we walk through them on our way to the edges. But we spend most of our time roaming the tumbledown suburbs, the mounds of stone that blend with jungle, the remnants of houses and sho

ps, markets, nurseries and kitchens, that sprawl out into the forest. The further from the center we walk, the thicker the jungle becomes, until we reach a point where we can go no further, where even though we can still see chunks of cut stone jutting out of the thick foliage, we can no

longer make out the shapes of the structures. We know that the detritus of human intervention in these places must come to an end, but in the jungle we are never able to see quite that far.

David (and Linda)