May 19, 2012

Maya Weekend

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Available from iTunes with the video podcasts also on YouTube

In 2011 Penn Museum hosted a weekend academic conference on the Maya civilization. This series consists of recordings from that conference; each podcast is a single presentation. The topics covered focus on Mayan women and archaeological techniques (lots of discussion of research from doctoral dissertations). There are eleven episodes all around 30-40 minutes in length. Five are videos of presentations (so that the presenter and their slides are visible), but the remainder are audio-only recordings. Production quality is generally good, although the videos do occasionally go out of focus. The talks are quite academic and dry. I found it hard to follow sometimes, perhaps because I don’t have enough background in Mayan history to hang the new facts upon. This series is probably best for people who already have a knowledge of Mayan history.

The five video presentations all look at aspects of modern archaeology technique. One looks at remote sensing – the process of using photos or data from planes and satellites to identity large ancient sites (usually because the vegetation growing over ruins is somehow different to normal). Another presentation takes the complete opposite approach and details pedestrian surveys. This is as it sounds – walking around and recording what is seen, not as easy as it sounds in a jungle. This talk provided some interesting details on Chunchucmil, a town much larger than local agriculture could support so trading must have occurred. One presentation looks at what can be discovered from skeletal remains. This is not just looking at the wear and tear on the body, but also analysing isotopes in the bones. In this manner the researcher discovered about a quarter of people at one site emigrated from their childhood areas. Another researcher analysed pollen samples found in lake sediment to determine historical ecology. They found that the highest levels of deforestation occurred soon after agriculture began. It seems these first farmers didn’t know the limits of the land. At the time of the Mayan collapse forest levels were fairly balanced, opposing some theories suggesting that deforestation was the cause. Instead, evidence was found for drought around this time, boosting an opposing theory. The last video presentation promotes a new repository of 3D measurements and models of Mayan sites.

Without the aid of visuals many of the audio-only podcasts are very dry and hard to follow. Some becoming just recitations of events in Mayan history. All but one of the audio presentation look at the position of women in Mayan culture (the other concerned with inter-city interaction and trade). Some notable facts include that at least three women rose to become Ajaws (rulers of their city) and that childbirth was considered equivalent of going to war.

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