Julie Hoggarth

Season 2 - Episode 246
November 8, 2019

Julie Hoggarth
Julie Hoggarth

Julie Hoggarth, archaeologist and assistant professor of anthropology at Baylor, received national attention for the discovery of an ancient vase containing stories of war and conflict among the ancient Maya. While leading a dig in Belize, Hoggarth and her team found the Komkom vase, dated A.D. 812, which featured one of the largest hieroglyphic texts ever uncovered in the Central America lowlands. In this Baylor Connections, she explains how the vase helps shape our understanding of Maya societal breakdown and digs into the stories and meaning behind the text.

Transcript

Derek Smith:

Hello and welcome to Baylor Connections, a conversation series with the people shaping our future. Each week we go in depth with Baylor leaders, professors and more discussing important topics in higher education, research and student life. I'm Derek Smith and our guest today is Baylor Archeologist Dr. Julie Hoggarth, an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Baylor. Dr. Hoggarth led a team that last year uncovered an ancient painted vase in the Belize River Valley containing one of the longest hieroglyphic texts ever uncovered in the Central American Lowlands, helping scientists better understand societal breakdown for the ancient Maya.Hoggarth's nationally recognized work focuses on the impact of climate and other factors leading to the breakdown of Maya society. That work was featured in Newsweek, Archeology Magazine and other national publications and she's with us today here on the program. Julie, welcome to the program. Thanks so much for coming.

Julie Hoggarth:

Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Derek Smith:

It's great to have you here. And so Dr. Hoggarth, what has the last year or so been like for you since the discovery of the vase and the attention that that's brought?

Julie Hoggarth:

It's been a very exciting time and the most important aspect of that is to be able to convey to the public the real importance of the vase and the story that it tells. Our collaborative research team has been meeting with people, meeting with groups, presenting at conferences, telling the story of the Komkom vase, which essentially gives us a tale from the Maya themselves about this time period in ancient Maya society in which we see a lot of political and environmental instability and the breakdown in the political systems all across the Maya Lowlands. The story on the Komkom vase essentially tells us about all of these warfare events and the political landscape of Western Belize at that time.

Derek Smith:

So it's got a story in hieroglyphics on it written out. But for most of us, if we were looking at it, what would we see? What does it look like?

Julie Hoggarth:

Well, it's would have been a drinking vessel and it has about 202 glyphs all across it. So it just has glyphs all around it. There's no other imagery on it. When we found it, it was broken into many different pieces. So we actually had to piece it together, glue it together to actually be able to see the whole text. And then of course our specialists, our epigrapher who reads Maya hieroglyphics was able to actually decipher the story itself. So it's not that large of a vessel, but it tells a really powerful story.

Derek Smith:

So we're going to dive into that story here in a little bit, but in terms of its significance, 202 glyphs, what's that mean to your discipline to find something like that?

Julie Hoggarth:

Right. So the most important thing that we learned from the vase is how at the end of the classic Maya period, you actually have a lot of warfare between different kingdoms. And the story of the vase tells the story of the breakdown of Maya political systems by the Maya themselves, essentially about the King of a kingdom known as Komkom. That essentially is in an alliance with some of the most empowerful kingdoms across the Maya Lowlands sites. And how they, in their Alliance, go around and sack and burn a variety of different centers. Some of them, which are named, that we don't actually know the locations of, but all in this area that they describe as being East of Naranjo, which we now know is the Belize River Valley of Western Belize.

Derek Smith:

So studying the ancient Maya, big part of what you do through your archeological work through radiocarbon chronology and other aspects that we'll talk about. But what is it about the Maya that fascinate you? What is it about the Maya that you know, a thousand plus years later that there's significance to what we can learn from them?

Julie Hoggarth:

The Maya are a fascinating case study in ancient societies, because we see the development of a complex society in this tropical environment and the ancient Maya, during the classic period, had all the vestiges of civilization. They had a writing system, mathematics, a complex calendrical system. They recorded the movements of astronomical bodies. They built these large temples and ball courts and had really complex political systems and cities with large populations. So I think this is what really captivates people's imaginations about the ancient Maya, that you could have such a grand civilization in this tropical jungle. And then just as amazing as the buildup of that was. Another aspect that fascinates people is the breakdown of that political system and it really gives us this idea that even really complex civilizations can fall apart.

Derek Smith:

Visiting with Dr. Julie Hoggarth, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Baylor, take us on a little mental journey into the area that you founded.

Julie Hoggarth:

Well, our excavations were focused at the site of Baking Pot, which is an archeological site in Western Belize not too far from the Guatemalan border. And our work at Baking Pot was primarily focused on trying to understand the processes of abandonment between about AD 750 to 1000. And so we had targeted certain areas of their ceremonial centers to try to understand when do we see the end of ceremonial and rituals activity associated with the classic political systems and the rulers at that time. And we know from work in other locations that the ancient Maya at the end of the use of these ceremonial spaces, they oftentimes would break large numbers of ceramic vessels in the corners of the plazas and courtyards. So we targeted these areas to excavate and we ended up finding one of these termination deposits, which represent the final activities of these centers. And in that deposit is where we first found some of the initial shards from the Komkom vase and we expanded our excavations to try to recover more of them.

Derek Smith:

As an Archeologist, as an Anthropologist, what are some of the skills, I mean, as you'd describe, you're targeting specific areas in an abandoned society. What are some of the skills that help you know where to dig? What are some of the different disciplines you have to draw on to help better make use of your time and efforts in what you do?

Julie Hoggarth:

Right. Well, archeology likes to borrow from a lot of different disciplines. So, one of those disciplines that we borrow heavily from is geology for example. So we have to understand the complex stratigraphy at a site. We also need help from art history, especially in a case like this where we have this hieroglyphic inscription. We need to actually be able to look at the text. If it had any iconography with it, we might actually want to decipher what we think that that means. But in terms of trying to use our skills as anthropologists, we're interested in cultures, ancient cultures and living cultures and how societies organize themselves. And as archeologists we have to piece together the past from the broken bits of sometimes garbage, other materials, essentially broken items that people left behind in the past. And so some of our best skills come from thinking about ancient behavior and how what we find today might actually represent different types of behavior. So whether it's things like termination activities as they were abandoning the area, or if we found other items that were, for example, more related to residential life, things like grinding stones from preparing food, we might interpret it different. So archeology involves a lot of interpretation and we look at the context of where we find things.

Derek Smith:

To put the discovery of the Komkom vase in the broader picture of what you do as an archeologist and anthropologist. If someone's to ask you really what you do, why you do it, and what are some of the questions you're trying to help answer, what would you tell them?

Julie Hoggarth:

Right. Well if I were to really try to explain what I do as an archeologist, I'm fascinated about the past and piecing together these pieces, which can actually write the history for those people who may not have been able to write history themselves. As we know, a lot of the written sources are from the elites themselves. So as an anthropologist and archeologist, we are essentially piecing together those different aspects of the past. And part of the aspect that I really love about archeology is that we can explore the past from a variety of different perspectives. We can look at it from the everyday farmer for example, and how their life was, and how their daily activities might've changed over a period of time. Or we can look at it from the perspective of the rulers themselves. Or we can look at multiple sites across a region and see how the society as a whole was changing. So we almost get to zoom in using different angles to really piece apart the culture and look at broad cultural change.

Derek Smith:

What elements of this discovery of putting together those fragments of pieces of stories from the past. How does it relate to today? What elements really stand out to you as being applicable to things that we can really apply to modern life?

Julie Hoggarth:

Right. That's a great question. And so what we see, not only in the vase itself, but in its context is at the time period when it was made, the Maya Lowlands was really engulfed in a lot of political instability as well as environmental instability. Environmental, because you have a period of severe drought that occurred during the same time that the Maya were abandoning some of these sites and we see warfare and political instability because you have a lot of infighting amongst some of the rulers and the elite lineages competing over trade routes and resources essentially. So, with both of these in mind, we can think about how a scenario like this in the past, in which ancient societies had to adapt to changing climactic conditions, could be a very good example that we can think about applying for our decision making process to deal with climate change today. What did the ancient Maya do? What challenges were they faced with and how did they respond? Were those responses successful at some sites or not successful at other ones? All of these could be taken into consideration. And one of the ways that archeologists hope that their research is relevant is that by giving concrete examples like this, we can work with policymakers who might be able to influence some of the changes and the decision making that's going on today.

Derek Smith:

This is Baylor Connections. We are visiting with Dr. Julie Hoggarth, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Baylor. Dr. Hoggarth, as we think about those implications, you've talked about the Maya being in many ways an advanced society. What about their agricultural or environmental practices stand out to you today?

Julie Hoggarth:

Well, we know that they had large populations in their urban centers and they primarily practice a form of agriculture that's called swidden or slash-and-burn agriculture. But we also know that they implemented different types of intensive agriculture and this could be changing the landscape in ways that would make the soil more productive essentially. And so we have evidence of hillside terracing to stabilize hillsides so you can actually cultivate more land. You also have evidence of wetland fields, and these include raised fields in these more marshy areas or ditched fields in areas that are prone to flooding. So essentially modifying the environment so that they can actually increase their agricultural yields. And so what we see is that the Maya were actually able to be quite sustainable by implementing these different types of intensive agriculture. But we don't yet know how some of these severe droughts may have impacted intensive agricultural structures. This is an area of study that's really starting to take off.

Derek Smith:

What are some of the most meaningful tools to help you make sense of what you find, what you uncover?

Julie Hoggarth:

Well, some of the tools that we have come from, again, different disciplines. It could be anthropology, it could be art history, where we find a variety of materials. So for example, in these deposits we have a lot of broken ceramics. We might ask questions about what do these broken ceramics tell us? And we can piece them together and see that. Some of them might be plates and some of them might be dishes and some of them might be storage jars. And then we could ask questions like, okay, so what do these forms tell us about the activities that they were doing? Were they storing more types of materials, food or water during certain time periods? Were they serving more food or serving larger numbers of people food during certain time periods? And then we would juxtapose that information from some different information, like what types of species of animal bones do we find? What were they eating? Did elites have access to certain meat protein that common families might not have had? And then we would take another bit of evidence and another one and look at where this material's coming from. So really it's like being a detective, where you're trying to bring together as much different information as possible to answer these questions from different angles.

Derek Smith:

I don't know. As you think about the timing, Dr Hoggarth, you received a National Science Foundation grant for putting together a radiocarbon chronology in the Maya Lowlands. How exactly does that radiocarbon dating work and how do you use that? What are some of the artifacts that you're able to find to kind of put them in a time frame?

Julie Hoggarth:

That's a great question. So in the deposits themselves, we find a variety of materials. We find broken ceramics, animal bones, sometimes musical instruments, sometimes we'll find charcoal. So from this, we want to answer questions about when were the activities that formed these deposits occurring and how does that relate to other changes in the society? And so for example, if we're interested in the breakdown in political systems, when do we stop seeing royal burials, for example? Or when do we stop seeing activity in the royal palace? Right? These can start to answer those questions.So, in order to do this, we want to develop high precision radiocarbon dates to actually test some of the ideas about the timing of this. And so what we've been doing is directly dating animal bones from the deposits themselves and we were able to recover them from different stratigraphic layers and we were able to constrain the radiocarbon dates that we get from them based on where we find the dates in the deposits, because those at the bottom would have been deposited earlier than those above it. So we can essentially develop these radiocarbon chronologies in a pretty precise manner to really get a sense of when did these termination types of activities occur in relationship to when the rulers finally abandoned the sites.

Derek Smith:

You mentioned animal bones, you mentioned charcoal. What types of materials are useful in creating and using the radiocarbon technology?

Julie Hoggarth:

Well, you really need to identify organic materials. So this is why primarily archeologists will date items like charcoal, which is essentially burned plant material for example, which might come from trees that they use for construction for example, might come from firewood when they're actually heating, you know, heating food, cooking food or from other maybe firing ceramics. And then also bone is helpful because one, animal bones come from the actual food that they're eating and they represent real events, as opposed to we can also date human bone for when people died. So essentially radiocarbon dating, we can figure out the time essentially when the organism, the living organism, stopped intaking radiocarbon and we know the decay rate that how much radiocarbon decays over time and the half life of it. And from that we can actually figure out when the death of that organism occurred. And that gives us the date that we need in our archeological context.

Derek Smith:

Talking to Dr. Julie Hoggarth. And Dr. Hoggarth. You can use this information to figure out a time or a time frame, but I know the Komkom vase had an actual date-

Julie Hoggarth:

Yes.

Derek Smith:

... how valuable, what was that date and how valuable is it when you can find something specific? And what can you extrapolate from that?

Julie Hoggarth:

So the date, the Maya liked to actually record the commemoration or the dedication of either sometimes making items or commemorating monuments, which they're putting hieroglyphic text on. In this case, they record a long count calendar date, which corresponds in our calendar with AD 812. So this is smack dab in the terminal classic period. This time period where you see a lot of instability all across the region. But interestingly enough, as we read further in the vase, we actually have some other calendar dates in there, which actually say when these warfare events were happening occurred 13 years earlier. So it's a retrospective account where they're talking about all of this warfare that was going on 13 years ago, and how they were victorious against these other kingdoms in these raids against competing polities essentially.And so the reason why having a date is so important is we actually can use that date to give us a sense of when is the earliest possible time that that deposit was formed. Because we know the vase was made in AD 812, so that layer of the deposit cannot be earlier than 812 because we know when the vase was made. So we can actually use historic information like a calendar date from the Komkom vase to constrain our radiocarbon dates and actually get the precise timing for when the deposit was formed. In this case, we know it would have been around the mid to late 9th century in that same century that the Komkom vase was made.

Derek Smith:

Well, Dr. Hoggarth, we are heading into the final couple of moments on the program here, but as we look ahead, what's next for the Komkom vase and what you find from it? What's been most meaningful for you to use for future research, you or others in your field?

Julie Hoggarth:

Well, the Komkom vase was ... initially, when we first found it, we had sent the photos to our epigrapher, Christophe Helmke at the University of Copenhagen and he led the actual epigraphic translation of the vase. We were able to publish that. And so now we've been going on and trying to make sure that, first and foremost, this is a really important part of prehistory. We want to get the vase professionally conserved to make sure that it would be available in the future to be viewable in a museum context for example. Right now it's broken into pieces, so it's not great for that. But we hope that in the future this could be something that would be display worthy at a museum.

Julie Hoggarth:

And in terms of the future research that we're continuing to work on, part of what we're really interested in is trying to step further into the aspect of the rulers and the end of their reigns during this time in the late classic period and the terminal classic period. What types of decisions were they making? How were they allocating resources? And if they did have to deal with these severe droughts, did that change the decisions that they're making from earlier time periods and earlier Kings that might have preceded them? So, that's where our new research is going. The part of the Komkom vase that ties into is also maybe trying to identify some of the sites that are named on the Komkom vase that we don't have any idea where those sites are. So it's an exciting time and we really hope to build on what we've already found.

Derek Smith:

Well, very exciting. Dr. Julie Hoggarth, congratulations on the discovery of the Komkom vase. It's been an exciting year. We really appreciate you coming on the program to tell us more about it.

Julie Hoggarth:

Thank you.

Derek Smith:

Dr. Julie Hoggarth, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, our guest today on Baylor Connections. I'm Derek Smith. Reminder, you can hear this and other programs online, baylor.edu/connections. Thanks for joining us here on Baylor Connections.