Phantom Skies and Shifting Ground: Landscape, Culture, and Rephotography in Eadweard Muybridge's Illustrations of Central America

Rescuing the "Sacrificial Stone," 1/10/2009

Barbara Arroyo Pieters is a Guatemalan archaeologist. She was an especially helpful guide who led us to another of Muybridge's subjects. Barbara calls it "Monument One." It is a large basalt stone that has a circular hole in its center. Muybridge posed a boy with his head in the hole and called it "Ancient sacrificial stone." One cool January morning, Barbara brought us to see the stone on her birthday. It was the fourth year in a row that she had celebrated her birthday on the site. From 2006-2009 Barbara devoted herself to the site, which sits about 2.5 miles northwest of Guatemala City's main plaza.

Monument One is located on a large forested parcel called Finca El Naranjo or Cerro El Naranjo. It is part of an archaeological site that Barbara calls Naranjo. The finca contains one of the few remaining forested areas that has not been leveled by Guatemala City's sprawl. The family that owns Finca El Naranjo recently had opened some of their land up to residential development. It sits in the middle of the most recent development, Condado Naranjo (Orange County). Hence, Barbara's work on Monument One is an example of rescue archaeology. She had to rescue information from the site before it was covered by streets and houses. Her research was complicated by a host of constraints, the most important of which was time. The developers' timetable forced her to sacrifice an exhaustive survey in favor of an expedient one that allowed her to quickly record what the bulldozers might uncover and soon would erase. Finca El Naranjo’s owners also initially hampered Barbara's work when they restricted access to the land. She explained that landowners often are hesitant to cooperate with archaeologists because they worry that discovery of important sites might result in their land being taken from them. Despite these fears, the landowners and developers recently had agreed to allow Barbara to continue her research.

Barbara discovered that Monument One was just one of more than 35 basalt monoliths, "plain stelae," in a Middle Preclassic site that existed between 1000 and 400 BC. Monument One and the other stones stood approximately 5 feet high and formed 4 parallel lines, all oriented 21 degrees east of north. Beneath each of the rough basalt pillars Barbara found a layer of clay, a remnant of the bare-earth surface that covered the site during its occupation. Beneath some of the pillars were the remains of grinding stones and at the base of some of the stones she found horizontal basalt slabs. The shapes and arrangement of the stones and slabs are similar to the stelae and altars found at Classic Mayan sites and suggests that the practice actually predates the Mayan Classic Period (250 CE to 900 CE). A report of Barbara's work can be found at the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies (FAMSI) website and in a 2010 publication, “Entre cerros, cafetales y urbanismo en el valle de Guatemala,” by the Academia de Geografía e Historia de Guatemala.

During our visit to the site Barbara showed us how her efforts had combined archaeological rescue and landscaping. After passing through a security gate that marks the entrance of the new, upscale subdivision, we drove on a ribbon of new pavement that curved through a new cookie-cutter development of small, houses that blended aspects of Cape Cod and Spanish Colonial architectural styles. The stuccoed houses were arranged to maximize density. Small yards separated each house. A four-feet-high wall enclosed the clustered houses. The lane looped around a boomerang-shaped central parkland of trees and lush Bermuda grass. Two mounds separated by about 170 meters rose at each end of this 2.5-acre arboreal island. Among the grass and trees was a scatter of basalt boulders bordered by plantings of mother-in-law's tongue (Sansevieria). The scene resembled a typical mid- to high-end residential development in the United States in which the uniformity of architecture was softened by controlled nature.

Manipulated antiquity was Barbara's contribution to the site. The parkland, with its mounds and stones was actually the new home of the archaeological site that Barbara had excavated. The developers had provided her access to the site with the condition that she would transplant some of the artifacts in their original arrangement and orientation, but thirty meters to the northwest of their original location. In their new location, the mounds and stones enhance the development's village green.  Monument One sits at the center of the glade.

Barbara explained rescue archaeology and showed me the recently landscaped Middle Preclassic Mayan landscape while Byron photographed Monument One. In defiance of the dry season, the sprinkler system had soaked the grassy sward. Fortunately, a pathway of steppingstones (relics?) led between the two mounds and allowed strollers to keep their feet dry. Several residents and their pets enjoyed a leisurely walk among the unmarked stones. Our walk, however, was interrupted by a security guard who, not surprisingly, was suspicious of a camera on a tripod and a photographer cloaked by a black hood. Barbara explained our presence to the man and shrugged to me as if to indicate that such is the nature of rescue archaeology.

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