Washington State Magazine

Winter 2001

Winter 2001

In This Issue...


Mariner Mania :: A new hero surfaced every game. Ichiro, Bell, Boone, Martinez, McLemore, Olerud, Cameron, Garcia, Sele. by Pat Caraher

Cataclysm, Light, & Passion :: Even though the Washington wine industry is in its relative infancy, it is playing with the big boys. How did it get so good so quickly? by Tim Steury

The Laguna's Secrets :: On the shore of the Laguna Especial, some 30 locals of all ages watch patiently, no doubt mentally rehearsing the crazy gringo stories they'll share tonight over dinner. The archaeologists are the best show on the mountain. by Tim Steury

Peter Van Sant Thrives on a "48-Hour" Day :: Peter Van Sant hasn't seen it all. But he hasn't missed much either. by Pat Caraher

State Route 26 Revealed :: Pepto pig, abandoned barns, dueling windmills, poplar trees that grow 15 feet a year. Revealing the soul of a highway. by Andrea Vogt




ASK DR. UNIVERSE: What came first, the chicken or the egg?

Cover: Winemaker Cheryl Barber-Jones ('76 Food Science), of Silver Lake Winery. Read the story. Photograph © 2001 Laurence Chen, www.lchenphoto.com.

Laguna Especial. <em>Tim Steury</em>


Laguna Especial. 'Some of the best clues to climatic history lie at the bottoms of lakes.' Tim Steury

Peter Mehringer at Laguna Especial. <em>Tim Steury</em>


WSU expert in fossil pollen and paleoecology Pete Mehringer at Laguna Especial. Tim Steury

Reconstruction at Copan. <em>Tim Steury</em>


The centuries did not leave a city, but a puzzle. Reconstruction continues at the base of Copan's Acropolis. Tim Steury

Maya god statue. <em>Tim Steury</em>

A Maya god. Tim Steury

Peter Mehringer and graduate student Lance Wollwage examine a core of sediment from Laguna Especial for environmental clues. <em>Tim Steury</em>


Peter Mehringer and graduate student Lance Wollwage examine a core of sediment from Laguna Especial for environmental clues. Tim Steury

Remains of a Maya temple atop Copan's acropolis. <em>Tim Steury</em>


Atop Copan's Acropolis are the remains of a structure that was once a temple. This spot was the center of the universe. Tim Steury

Copan's ball court. <em>Tim Steury</em>


Copan's ball court. Each Maya city had its own version of the ball game. Tim Steury

Coffee grown in Copan Valley. <em>Tim Steury</em>


As they did in the fifth century, farms again creep up the slopes above the Copan Valley. Now coffee, rather than maize, predominates. Tim Steury

The Laguna’s Secrets

by | © Washington State University

Some of the best clues to climatic history lie at the bottoms of lakes.

WE ARE GATHERED on an eight-by-12-foot raft with a hole cut in the center of its floor, in the middle of a lagoon in the mountains 30 kilometers out of Copan, Honduras, driving four-inch PVC pipe into the sediment, searching for clues to the demise of Maya civilization.

On the shore of Laguna Especial, some 30 locals, of all ages, watch patiently, no doubt mentally rehearsing the crazy gringo stories they’ll share tonight over dinner. They joke and kid around. Some kids swing on long vines out over the laguna. But mostly they just stand and watch. The archaeologists are the best show on the mountain.

Pete Mehringer is the star of the show. An expert in fossil pollen and paleoecology at Washington State University, he is certain that the lake bottom will reveal the area’s environmental secrets. Doctoral student Lance Wollwage is studying the vegetation history they hope the laguna will reveal and its relation to the area’s Maya history. Judson Finley, whose graduate focus is ancient cave dwellings in Wyoming, is spending a few weeks in Honduras for the experience, both scholarly and otherwise. He also serves as a roustabout on this tiny coring rig.

Finley fastens a pipe vise bolted to a two-foot section of pipe onto the drive pipe. Wollwage hangs above us on an eightfoot coring tower. The coring system is ingenious, comprising lengths of one-inch pipe that adjust the depth of a piston, which determines at what depth the coring will begin; lengths of two-inch drive pipe, which is used to drive the core barrel into the sediment; and at the end a length of four-inch PVC pipe that, if all goes well, will emerge from the lake bottom with a solid core sample of the sediments.

Once the coring pipe reaches the lake bottom, Judson attaches the length of pipe with the pipe-vise high on the drive pipe, and we all grab where we can and push down, smoothly, until we can push no more. We’ve hit a hard barrier, the layer of clay beneath the laguna’s sediment.

Now we start pulling it up, undoing the rig pipe by pipe until Mehringer pulls up the tube holding a core of sediment nearly two meters deep.

“Secrets of the past,” he says, holding the core upright and smiling.

The core barrel is plugged at the end with gray clay, plugging the upper layer of softer sediment, which represent hundreds, maybe thousands of years of climatic and environmental history. But Mehringer won’t even venture a guess as to how long a record he holds upright on the deck of his plywood time machine. Drawing it out of the laguna, where it has lain for who knows how long, is only the first step of the investigation. Now a strong hired campesino must hold it perfectly upright as he climbs a muddy, slippery jungle trail over a ridge and down the other side through a coffee field to a waiting pickup. The distance is only about a kilometer, but it’s steep.

The piston corer was invented by the Scandinavians a century ago. This particular set-up was designed at the University of Minnesota, but Mehringer has adapted it over the years for lakes of the American West, which have harder silt bottoms than the bogs of Minnesota and Scandinavia.

It is not foolproof. After again driving the core barrel as deep as it will go, we start pulling, first with the help of a oneton chain hoist, then by hand. When it’s nearly up, we hear a gurgling sound, as the soft sediment, lacking any solid bottom to seal it, leaks out. Strike an hour and a half of work.

After a tense silence, Mehringer says, “That’s okay.” Another silence. “That’s okay,” he says again, assuring himself as much as anyone. We untie the raft’s mooring lines and paddle back to shore for a longer core barrel. I decide to stay ashore and mingle with the local audience for a while.

Mid-afternoon, we are joined on shore by Tito Serrano and Alice and Jay Hall. Serrano works for Rene Viel, a French archaeologist who directs the Proyecto Profuturo-Copan, a sweeping project (funded by the World Bank) that seeks to define the role of landscape and environment in the history of the Copan Maya. The Halls are from Brisbane. Alice teaches at a private school, and Jay is an archaeologist. He was a student of Mehringer’s years ago, at the University of Utah. Now he is head of the archaeology department at the University of Queensland and has worked for years with Rene Viel.

It is Jay who asked Mehringer to join the project. Even though others had cored in the area years ago, they had limited their endeavor to near the edge of lakes. No one has cored in the more stable and more information-rich deepwater lake sediments.

This laguna itself is something of an anomaly. In spite of a long rainy season, there are few lagoons or lakes in the surrounding mountainous jungle. A landslide long ago blocked the stream that now feeds the laguna. The locals think there is something mysterious about the laguna, perhaps part of the reason they are such a rapt audience. Perhaps the gringos will reveal the laguna’s secrets.

WHEN ADVENTURER John Lloyd Stephens wandered into the ruins of Copan in 1843, the city had been abandoned for 800 years and was nearly reclaimed by the jungle.

In Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan, Stephens wrote of his entering the city: “…We followed our guide, who, sometimes missing his way, with a constant and vigorous use of his machete, conducted us through the thick forest, among half-buried fragments, to fourteen monuments of the same character and appearance, some with more elegant designs, and some in workmanship equal to the finest monuments of the Egyptians; one displaced from its pedestal by enormous roots; another locked in the close embrace of branches of trees, and almost lifted out of the earth; another hurled to the ground, and bound down by huge vines and creepers; and one standing, with its altar before it, in a grove of trees which grew around it, seemingly to shade and shroud it as a sacred thing; in the solemn stillness of the woods, it seemed a divinity mourning over a fallen people. The only sounds that disturbed the quiet of this buried city were the noise of monkeys moving among the tops of the trees, and the cracking of dry branches broken by their weight.”

The inhabitants of the region did not know what the strange site was. Stephens and the owner of the site could not come to an agreement concerning its exploration, so Stephens bought it from him for 50 dollars.

Starting in the late 19th century, archaeologists began to study and restore Copan. Though much of the mystery remains, the jungle has been cleared, many of the structures have been partly restored, and the imagination can run more freely.

Dominating the site is a huge mound of earth dubbed “the Acropolis.” The Acropolis, it is thought, symbolized a sacred mountain. On its top are the remains of a structure the archaeologists call “Structure 10L-22.” It is the entrance, all that is left, of what was once a temple. This spot was the center of the universe.

Archaeologists think that inside this temple the Maya performed sacrifices to their gods in order to keep the universe in tune. One of these rituals, started by a king known to archaeologists as “18 Rabbit,” involved the king piercing his penis with a stingray spine. Fortunately, this particular ritual was probably only performed every five years.

We are midway through a personal tour of Copan with Rene Viel as our guide. He calls his tour the XXX-rated tour, as it includes graphic descriptions of Maya self-mutilation and dramatic means of ingesting hallucinogenic drugs that accompanied the questionable privilege of ruling this city.

But rule they did, a dynasty of 16 kings that began in A.D. 426 with K’inich’ Yax K’uk’ Mo’ and ended in A.D. 822 with Yax Pasah. Copan has been called the Athens—by others the Paris—of Maya cities, its intellectual atmosphere reflected across the centuries by the stories told in its hieroglyphs, its extraordinary sculpture and architecture waiting for us moderns to absorb and marvel.

Buried beneath the Acropolis are the ruins of other temples, the detritus of preceding reigns, each king destroying, then building on top of, his predecessor’s glories. Fortunately, one king refrained from the practice, and what archaeologists call the “Rosalila” temple remains whole, still entombed within the Acropolis.

Stretching below the Acropolis is the main plaza of Copan, studded with carved stone stelae, intricately commemorating the glories of the dynastic kings. At the near end of the plaza rises the Hieroglyphic Stairway, its steps covered with hieroglyphs, making it the longest hieroglyphic text in Central America.

Between the main plaza and the Hieroglyphic Stairway is the Ball Court. A ballgame was played, in different versions, throughout the Maya world. Not only was it a game, but also something of a religious ritual, symbolizing the players’ efforts to keep the sun moving across the sky and returning after the darkness. One way to make sure this and other natural events continued to occur was through sacrifice, sometimes of the players themselves.

Copan was only one of many great Maya cities—as many as 70—that graced the landscape of Guatemala, Belize, southern Mexico, and western Honduras and El Salvador during what is considered the Classic Period of Maya civilization, approximately A.D. 250 to A.D. 900. The total population of the Maya region of Central America during this period probably reached between two and three million people.

The Classic period, however, is simply the “golden age” of much longer occupation. The ceramic sequence of the Copan region described by Viel, building on earlier work by John Longyear, reaches back to 1400 B.C. Evidence from earlier coring by other investigators suggests that humans were burning off vegetation as early as 3600 B.C. and growing maize by 2000 B.C. In spite of early settlement, population growth was slow until about A.D. 600. By the height of the Classic period, the population of Copan may have exceeded 25,000.

Of course, Maya still live in the region, nearly six million, speaking 28 recognized languages. But for some reason, the great cities were abandoned a thousand years ago and have been reclaimed by jungle over the centuries.

Archaeology at Copan also has a rich history. Increasingly, interest has shifted from the primarily cultural to multidisciplinary studies. Originally thought to be a settlement of priests, a religious and ceremonial center, Copan has become in the archaeological mind a vibrant and diverse city with many of the same problems that beset modern cities. It is becoming clearer that the end of the dynasty and the abandonment of Copan, though probably related, were not simultaneous events. Why the dynasty ended is still unclear. Maybe, says Viel, it came about because of people’s lack of faith in their rulers, who were unable to deal with some as-yet unidentified crisis. After Yax Pasah, a pretender attempted to rule for a short while. But the actual demise is dramatically illustrated by the unfinished “Altar L.” One day in A.D. 822, the sculptor simply laid down his tools and walked away. One of the greatest dynasties the world has known was over.

Whatever the reason for the dynasty’s fall, however, the exodus of the city and the surrounding valley was not sudden, as previously imagined. Just as they were likely the first to settle the valley, long before an elite class established its authority, the peasants were probably the last to leave, or die, struggling to scratch subsistence from a soil no longer capable of supporting a civilization.

Skeletons of Maya from the end of the Classic Period show evidence of poor nutrition. Studies of land use, soil erosion, and population history—all point to the same basic cause. The steady growth of population in the valley required more and more intensive farming, mostly of maize, which exacts of the soil an extraordinary nutrient toll. As farms crept higher up the slopes, leaving fields of exhausted soil behind them, the demand for firewood and building materials denuded the land, exposing it to sheet erosion. Finally, the valley lost its ability to support the Maya entirely. By A.D. 1200 they were gone.

This general scenario is pretty well accepted. What’s still missing from the story are the details.

SOME OF THE BEST CLUES to climatic history lie at the bottoms of lakes. Things that blow on the wind settle on water surfaces, then sink to the bottom, generally in well-defined layers. Pete Mehringer looks for what kind of pollen and how much settled on the lake at a certain time. He also studies fossil spores, seeds, algae, fungi, and zooplankton.

For example, if he finds corn pollen in a certain layer, that means corn was being grown in the area at the time represented by that layer. If in a subsequent layer he finds relatively more pollen from wild plants, he concludes that farming had diminished and that native vegetation had reclaimed some fields.

Since returning to Washington State University, Mehringer and Wollwage have been analyzing the core samples from Laguna Especial and Lago de Yojoa, a large lake 100 kilometers east of Copan. Besides describing the fossil pollen, spores, seeds, algae, fungi, and zooplankton the samples have yielded, their collegues can run many analyses on the sediment itself— patterns of paleomagnetism and stable isotopes, for example. Over the course of eons, the Earth’s magnetic pole wanders. Particles of sediment align themselves with the current position of the pole as they settle. If a geomagnetic reading can be determined from a Yojoa sample, for instance, then dated in relation to carbon or other evidence, that layer can be cross-referenced to the stratigraphic record at Copan and other sites.

Mehringer keeps me posted throughout the summer. Little by little, answers are starting to emerge. Seeds from Laguna Especial cores indicate that sediment first started gathering in the laguna 1,900 years ago. The bottom of the cores from Yojoa are 13,000 years old, providing the longest continuous climatic record for Central America. And even though it does not yet shed the longed-for light on the demise of the Classic Maya, Mehringer has retrieved a dramatic surprise.

Within the core from Yojoa he has found a layer of volcanic ash dating from around A.D. 400. But this isn’t just any ash. It’s from a catastrophic eruption of the Salvadoran volcano Ilopango, which lies southwest of Yojoa. The ash from this eruption wasn’t supposed to drift toward Yojoa, he says, because it was thought that most of the ash blew to the north. But most interesting, ash blowing from Ilopango to Yojoa passed directly over Copan.

Further, a study published in a recent issue of Latin American Antiquity reports that the previous dating of the Ilopango eruption was wrong. The authors reevaluated the carbon dates and found that the eruption occurred not in A.D. 260, as previously thought, but in about A.D. 410—the beginning of the Classic Period. Mehringer calls me again, with news of his latest analysis. The reason for the confusion may be that there were two eruptions.

What does all this mean? No one would venture a guess at this point. However, it is known that widespread migration and demographic collapse followed the Ilopango eruption. The lake cores will help establish its effect on vegetation. Mehringer’s conclusion?

“The good thing about studying the secrets of the past,” he says, “is the world is large and the past is long. I expect to be surprised more often than not.”

Categories: Social sciences, Archaeology | Tags: Maya civilization, Fossils, Paleoecology

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