Molly Morgan discovers life's work in the Guatemalan jungle
By David F. Salisbury
Published: June 9, 2004
Like many freshmen, when Molly Morgan left her home in Peoria, Illinois, to come to Vanderbilt, she didn't have an idea of what career she wanted to pursue.
A combination of archaeology and ancient history courses focused her interest on the study of ancient cultures. One of the courses Morgan took was taught by Francisco Estrada-Belli, assistant professor of archaeology, who invited her down to his dig in Guatemala. When she experienced life on a dig and got caught up in the search to discover and decipher the meaning of ancient Maya artifacts, she was hooked.
That was in 2001. Immediately after getting her bachelor's degree, she joined the graduate program in archaeology at Vanderbilt. In 2002, she worked at the excavation of the Maya royal palace at Cancuén being run by Arthur A. Demarest
and acted as laboratory director at a Maya site in Northwest Belize operated by archaeologists from Texas Christian University.
In 2003, she returned to Estrada-Belli's dig just in time to be involved in the recent discoveries at Cival. She is one of a number of Vanderbilt students who have worked at the remote site. Other graduate students include Jeremy Bauer, who is continuing excavations in the center of Cival, and Jennifer Foley and Justin Ebersole, who are working nearby. They are being assisted by undergraduate students Amelia Townsend, Valerie Osbourne and Byron Dubow.
"The last year at Cival has been one of extensive excavation," Morgan says. She was directly involved in one of two major excavations in the city center where all the temples and pyramids are located: excavating at the foot of the stone monolith bearing the illustration of a Maya king.
The purpose of the excavation was to determine if the current location of the massive stone stela was the position where it was originally erected. The first part of the job involved cleaning up a looter's trench. But, when that was done, she and her workers began removing the overlying layers of dirt and rock.
"Almost immediately we began to find caches of pottery and other objects that remained from generations of public offerings," Morgan recounts. When excavating artifacts it is very important to understand their physical relationship with the material in which they are buried. This helps archaeologists date the objects and determine the relationship between different artifacts found in the same area. "The stratigraphy was very complex, with a number of thin layers," she says. So she called in another graduate student, Jeremy Bauer, to help out. Bauer is an expert in an archaeological technique called single context planning, which is largely regarded as one of the most precise methods of excavation.
After about three weeks of hard work—much of the excavation was through solid bedrock so Morgan and her workers were working by hanging over a board laid across the trench or leaning over the sharp edge of the cut—they struck it big. They reached a cache that contained more than 100 jade objects.
It took them another three-and-a-half weeks of painstaking work to extricate all the jade pieces. "It was one of the most exciting things I've done in my life," says Morgan. She and Bauer would get up at the crack of dawn and work on the excavation until nightfall. Besides being exciting, it also was very hard work, she acknowledges.
The location she was working on was about five minutes down the path from the place where another team was tunneling into the top of a pyramid to uncover a stucco mask that Estrada-Belli had discovered when he felt into a narrow looter's trench from the other side.
"One day we heard the other crew screaming and shouting," Morgan says. She and Bauer rushed over to see what the hollering was all about. When they got to the other excavation site and walked to the end of the tunnel, they saw that a portion of the surface of the mask had been uncovered. "It was just amazing. You could see how well it was preserved, but you couldn't tell how big it was," she says. It took the team about three weeks to shore up the tunnel and carefully clear away the rest of the rock so that the entire mask was exposed.
Her parents are both proud of the work that she is doing and a bit fearful of the fact that it takes her to such remote places where she is totally out of touch for long periods of time. Her father is an orthopedic surgeon and her mother raises flowers and acts as a judge at local floral competitions.
"We were very much an outdoorsy family," Morgan says. "We did a lot of hiking and fishing. My parents instilled my love of the outdoors and my sense of adventure."
Some of the stories the young archaeologist tells probably haven't helped her parents' peace of mind. For example, there was the case at Cival when she and some other archaeologists were walking around the site when no Guatemalans were available to accompany them. Normally, the Americans take locals along because they are so much better at spotting snakes and know how to get rid of them. "We walked right over an enormous, seven-foot-long fer-de-lance (a large pit viper that lives in tropical America). We didn't even know it was there until I felt it move against my foot. When we looked down, we immediately jumped away!" she says.
Although Morgan does not expect to return to Cival except as a visitor, her time there had a definite impact. "At Cival we were exploring one of the earliest Maya sites. That experience has made me want to go even earlier, to the time when the Maya changed from a hunter-gatherer society to one with settled agriculture," she says.
That interest has led her to some pre-Maya sites on the Guatemalan coast that date between 1500 B.C. and 600 B.C. Although she will be working under the guidance of Arthur Demarest, she will be the only supervisor at the coastal sites.