CHAPEL HILL — Archaeologist Patricia McAnany was knee-deep in an excavation trench in Belize in 1995 when she uncovered a disturbing truth: Anthropologists, government officials, artifact collectors and the tourism industry all had profited from more than a century of exploring ancient Maya settlements, while indigenous Maya people had been almost completely left out.
We were working in a Yucatec community, in southeastern Mexico, recalled McAnany, the Kenan Eminent Professor of Anthropology at UNC-Chapel Hill. And these 4th- and 5th-graders from the local schools came to visit. I was standing at the edge of the pit, and a little girl asked me, Why did all the Maya have to die?
McAnany didnt know where to start. The Maya empire with art and architecture often compared to that of the ancient Greeks had mysteriously collapsed during the 8th and 9th centuries. They had abandoned their cities. They had been conquered by Spain.
Nearly 20 years later, McAnany will have money and time to write about the work she and others have been doing in Maya communities.
Last month, McAnany was named a 2013 Guggenheim Fellow, an honor that comes with a grant to support six to 12 months of research and artistic creation.
For the Maya people, McAnany said, they havent heard the story and they havent seen the artifacts.
Still, their people had survived, and 5 to 7 million of them live today in Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and rural Mexico, speaking a collection of Maya languages. But in many places, McAnany said, the Maya are regarded as second-class citizens.
Many dont know that theories of what might have brought down their ancestors empire have captivated generations of anthropologists, or that pieces of their pottery, dug from the ground and taken to other countries, are exhibited at world-class museums or auctioned for exorbitant prices on the internet.
McAnany is helping them to hear the story now, through classwork in their schools, puppet shows, community mapping projects and other activities.
Accepting a challenge
In 2005, a benefactor frustrated at seeing one Maya relic after another sold to the highest bidder told McAnany that he would pay if she could teach Maya people about their history so they would help protect it.
It would mean a sharp turn from her career path as a field archaeologist. But McAnany knew this was a rare offer. Its relatively easy to find funding for excavations that end with relic collections and articles in obscure scholarly journals.
Its much harder to get money for work that benefits the indigenous people, she said. Since I had the offer, I felt obligated to take it.
McAnany will use her recently awarded Guggenheim fellowship to work on a book tentatively titled, Heritage Without Irony: Transcultural Dialogue at a Busy Intersection.
The irony referred to in the title is the fact that the Maya people have benefitted less than anyone connected to their heritage. The busy intersection is all the activity focused on the Maya story and its physical artifacts: researchers; museum curators; tourists and tourism workers; the government, which collects fees from foreign anthropologists; looters, who make money off the illegal removal and sale of relics; reproducers, who copy relics and try to sell them as authentic Maya artifacts; and the Maya themselves, who McAnany says have begun to take pride in their past.
This is pioneering work shes done, said Paul Leslie, professor and chair of anthropology at UNC, who helped to recruit McAnany from Boston University in 2005.
In the field of Maya archaeology, she is one of the most distinguished archaeologists anywhere in the world, Leslie said. But on top of doing the straightforward work of trying to figure out just what happened in the past, she has also been engaged in getting local Maya communities involved in the work and understanding of their heritage. Thats been unusual in archaeology.
Born and raised in St. Louis, Mo., McAnany didnt get interested in archaeology until she was in college at the University of Alaska and spent a year in Honolulu through a program with the University of Hawaii at Manoa. She got involved in a project where she helped document and map archaeological finds.
I liked the hiking, the physicality of archaeological work, she said. I liked that sense of trying to figure out the mysteries of the past. I liked that we were adding something new to existing knowledge. I was hooked.
McAnany (pronounced MAC-uh-nay-nee) got her undergraduate degree from Alaska, then a masters and a doctorate from the University of New Mexico before going to work as a professor and researcher at BU.
Her arrival at UNC added to the universitys reputation as a center for Maya studies. The school is home to the Institute for the Study of the Americas, which has a half-dozen faculty members specializing in Maya language and culture and now is the base for InHerit and its nonprofit partner, the Alliance for Heritage Conservation, both outgrowths of McAnanys original work with Maya people.
Sarah Rowe, program director for InHerit and the Alliance, who shares an Alumni Building office suite with McAnany, said her favorite of Inherits projects at the moment are both in Guatemala. One involves incorporating Maya elements such as hieroglyphics into local schools curricula to teach math and other subjects. Another is a Geographic Information Systems program communities can use to create heritage maps, marking the locations of historic sites or the workshops of traditional potters and weavers.
Imagine being denied your own history
Walter E. Little, an associate professor of anthropology and director of the Institute for Mesoamerican Studies at the University at Albany State University of New York, has worked with McAnany on several articles and panels over the past decade or so.
He says the work she has done to teach Maya people about their own history is the payment of a debt long overdue.
Weve taken a lot of information from that region and havent done a lot to bring it back, he said. Can you imagine being denied your own history? That is essentially what has happened.
Trish is part of this small and hopefully growing group of scholars who are dedicated to sharing what theyre learning with the people who live in the region. It can have very powerful, positive effects on their cultural and ethnic identities.
McAnany, 60, is still negotiating how much time shell take off from teaching at UNC. Once she finishes her book about InHerits work what the projects entail and why theyre important she hopes to find a sponsor to publish it in Spanish, a second language for many Maya people.
She plans to write it in a readable style, she said, not like a dense academic tome, so it will appeal to the people shes writing about.
Ultimately, she hopes InHerit programs could become models for others working in places where modern societies have roots in the archaeological past. That could help save history from being lost to looters or development.
Every archaeological site cannot be saved, she said. But it doesnt even occur to anyone to try to save a place unless it has some significance to them.