Spotlight on Research: Antonia Foias

Anthropology Chair and Professor Antonia Foias has, since 1998, spearheaded archaeological excavations at a site called Motul de San Jose in Guatemala. She recently received a grant from the National Science Fund for yet another exciting venture: the excavation of two of Motul’s peripheral sites. “How were [these sites] connected to Motul? How did Motul control these secondary administrative centers?” These were some of the questions that Foias posed to me when I sat down with her to talk about her research. These questions, which Foias and her team will seek to answer in their excursion, also have bigger implications. They could, potentially, uncover certain truths behind the nature of Maya state politics. At the forefront of this exciting research will be Foias and the five lucky anthropology majors from the College that get to be part of her team.

For two months this summer, Foias and her team will be exploring the site of Kante ‘T ‘U’Ul. “It is close enough, between two and three kilometers away, is smaller in size [than Motul] and has architectural features similar to those found at Motul, to suggest that this might have been a secondary administrative center,” Foias said. Based on the size of the monumental and public architecture at Motul, Foias and her team had previously estimated that its span of influence had a radius of around five kilometers, putting Kante ‘T ‘U’Ul well within that range. The presence of small pyramids on the site – normally indicative of administrative activity – also points to the political significance of Kante ‘T ‘U’Ul. The archeological intrigue only builds from here. “This is where it gets more interesting,” Foias said. “We think that the site may have had specialized economic activity, which we want to test.”

Kante ‘T ‘U’Ul, which the locals have been calling the site for centuries, apparently translates to “place of many cacao trees.” Cacao, of course, is the source of chocolate; but while for us chocolate is a delicacy indulged in on Valentine’s Day and on particularly stressful days, for the ancient Mayans chocolate was a spicy concoction used ritually and therefore with high political and religious significance. If Kante ‘T ‘U’Ul was indeed the place of many cacao trees and was thus able to specialize in the production of chocolate, it would have been a vital economic hub for the elite of the day. “There is a river running alongside the site, and in other parts of the region the soil is too dry for cacao trees,” Foias added. “So the name and the ecological zones give us evidence.” In order to make sure that their theory stands, however, Foias’ team will have to conduct a couple of experiments during their summer stay: “We are going to do soil analysis that looks at the acids that come from cacao plants and get preserved in the soil,” Foias said.

Of course, the excavation of Kante ‘T ‘U’Ul will explore much more than this. Excited because the site “has not been explored yet (this is the first archaeological project there),” Foias hopes to uncover many things regarding the nature of life at this administrative center. The goal of the project is still primarily to understand the relationship between this site and to the main administrative center of Motul de San Jose. “We are going to focus on the apogee of Motul de San Jose. [This would be] the [Maya] Late Classic, between 600 AD to 850 AD. We want to see how the site changed as Motul came in and took over; did they flourish or did they get poorer because they had to pay tribute?

It is clear that the five Williams juniors who are flying to Guatemala with Foias this summer have an amazing opportunity ahead of them. Not only will they get hands-on exposure to very exciting fieldwork, but they will get the opportunity to be part of an amazingly international team of students and experts. “Under Guatemalan law, I have to hire as many Guatemalan students as American students on my team,” Foias said, “so the Williams students will be working with just as many local students on the project.” Also present will be both local and foreign grad students, and international experts in various fields. The team will also include a couple of Guatemalan workers, who will be doing most of the manual labor. When asked how she and her students were preparing for the trip, Foias responded that most of them, as anthropology majors, had already taken archaeology classes with her and some had even gone on previous archaeology projects. “Of course, most of the learning will be done when they are actually in the field,” she said.

Foias, whose excavations in Motul de San Jose were done alongside a similarly composed team, loves working with students. When asked if this was something that she would continue to do, she replied, simply, “Absolutely.” It seems that as long as Foias is making leaps in archaeological fieldwork, there will be no shortage of opportunities for students to learn alongside her.