Beyond the Trenches

On Site at Cahal Pech

By Samantha Volpe—Groton School ’15

By definition, I guess digging at the site was work. Six hour days, 5 days a week, for 3 weeks: from an outsider’s perspective, this might seem tedious; however, “digging” doesn’t even begin to describe the magnitude of the “work” we were doing.  I feel like I’m doing the site an injustice by saying that we were working. The time spent on site didn’t really feel like work at all, and being occupied all day also helped keep my mind off the fact that I would be away from home for 2 weeks longer than I was used to, and maybe even comfortable with.  I thought I would get desperately homesick, but I was wrong.  I had so little time to think about anything besides archaeology, eating and sleeping that I never even had time to think about home.

The unit began as a large, rather unnaturally-shaped mound of dirt.  The first few days consisted of a lot of shoveling, wheel barrow-pushing, and a general theme of dirt-moving.  Having never gone on the trip before, or on any trip out of the country at all, the reality of what I was doing hadn’t really set in yet. I knew everything would seem less surreal once we reached the structure, and the anticipation alone was enough motivation to keep myself, and everyone else, moving at a fairly rapid pace. Once my sub-unit hit the structure, I finally began to fathom that I was helping to uncover a Maya building constructed over three thousand years ago.

Since we had reached the structure, the meticulous work began–brushing dirt off stones, uncovering the floor, and trying to find the wall. I loved this part of the job so much that I probably neglected my duties as a bucket-carrier and a wheel barrow-filler. Defining the outline of the ruin was one of the things I liked best on the trip. Each time I brushed away another clump of dirt, there was the potential for an unexpected discovery. There could be a staircase, an artifact, or even a tarantula crawling around.  Spiders were the one thing I was very cautious about (other than destroying the structure) when I was digging.  If anything, I was slightly liberated from my fear of spiders during the trip.

The task of uncovering architecture did not come without complications, though.  My description here may be a bit too simplistic. The floor, dirt, and clay all looked very similar, and we easily confused them.  A few units might have chipped completely through parts of the floor, but it was never confirmed or clear that it was actually floor. There are no certainties with archaeology. There’s a good deal of inferring and hypotheses, which are seldom definitively true or untrue. It’s all about putting together pieces of the puzzle, and finding connections between the different pieces. Our unit was a small piece of that puzzle, and Cahal Pech itself is an even bigger piece of the Maya puzzle.

Being on site during the day was so much fun because of the people around me. Working with people who are passionate about what they’re doing is so contagious, and it made long hours of excavating feel effortless.  Seeing how excited Cat and Doug got when they were showing off the Peccary Pot, or describing some of their recent discoveries, was so inspiring. Even if I don’t choose to pursue archaeology as a career, I am so glad that I went on the trip and had the opportunity to contribute to the excavation of Cahal Pech. I learned so much about Maya culture, and the impact that BVAR and AFAR are making on unearthing the Maya puzzle.  I would do it again in a heartbeat.

Interactive Digs: