Since 1987, Professor of Anthropology Bill Ringle has led Davidson students on summertime archeological digs in search of clues about the ancient Maya civilization. During the seven-week season, Ringle and his student assistants visit sites in the Puuc Hills region of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula that were active as long ago as 500 or 600 B.C. This summer’s research intern is Matt Morris ’13, who is spending his second summer on site with Ringle.
“We can tell ancient Maya were advanced for their time,“ explained Ringle. “And by the elaborate décor on buildings we can tell they were wealthy. One question we’re trying to answer is how people made such a good living back then.”
Ringle’s investigations include collaboration with local village workers, graduate students, professional archeologists, and electrical engineers. On a typical day, team members wake at 5:30 a.m. equipped with electronic scanners and hand tools, they dig at the site, and Ringle draws maps of the structures they’ve uncovered. During the evening he analyzes artifacts.
Ringle has specialized in both Mayan architecture and writing systems for 32 years. He uses his skills to answer questions about urbanization and about how Mayans exerted political power.
The mayan writing system is similar to egyptian hieroglyphics. Ringle says about 85 percent of the writings are decipherable. “From engravings, we’ve gathered information on calendric rituals, and we’ve learned that a number of women were quite powerful,” Ringle explained. “Some women were rulers and were instrumental in the organization of ceremonies.”
In March, Ringle was featured in the PBS documentary “Quest for the Lost Maya,” filmed by National Geographic. Ringle noted that the title of the show supports the common misconception that Mayans no longer exist. “People often ask me, ‘What happened to the Maya?’” Ringle said. “I explain that Mayan people are still around. Many Maya people in the region today lead normal, everyday lives.”
“Sadly,” he added, “the idea of the Maya and Mayan culture is often exploited by the establishment of Maya resorts and Maya tours by people who have nothing to do with the culture.”
By Cathryn Westra