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Graduate student conserves more than 1,200 ancient Maya burials

June 05, 2013

Arizona State University graduate student Katherine Miller has spent portions of the past nine years among ancient Maya bones and burials at Copan, Honduras.

In the process, she has isolated the burials from challenges of the tropical environment – including invading cockroaches and rodents – while categorizing, organizing and conserving approximately 1,200 Maya skeletons at Copan, a UNESCO World Heritage site with the largest collection of Maya burials in all of Mesoamerica.

When Miller first started working at Copan through the recommendation of her advisor, ASU School of Human Evolution and Social Change professor Jane Buikstra, and Colgate University professor Allan Maca, she encountered a vast collection that was in dire need of preservation.

“I found a huge collection of 1,200 burials. A lot of people had worked on it over the years, but it was an uphill battle for researchers to obtain funds to preserve it,” she said. “I kept coming back year after year.”

Copan was discovered in the 1890s and excavations have continued since that time. Miller’s most intensive work at the site was in 2012 when she secured a National Science Foundation grant to completely rehouse the entire collection.

“The collection had been stored in deteriorating paper boxes, in no discernible order and in a facility without any controls to prevent damage to the delicate skeletal material,” said Miller, an anthropology graduate student in the Center for Bioarchaeological Research in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change, who grew up in Indianapolis.

Working on the collection that was housed in huge boxes stacked to the ceiling of a storage facility was a process of painstakingly cataloging bones and labeling and documenting each burial amidst rodents that at times got into the boxes and cockroaches that invaded in the tropic environment.

“Sometimes there were up to 20 burials in a box. If we had a full skeleton, there may have been legs in one box, the torso in another and arms in a third. Now all of the burials are complete with the skeletal elements all together in a box,” she said.

Working at Copan was both wonderful and challenging with spotty electricity and water during the summer, yet incredibly beautiful scenes such as tropical birds everywhere and mountains bathed in clouds. Days spent in Honduras started with a two-kilometer drive or walk to the lab and working with her crew one skeleton at a time, cleaning, bagging, sampling and measuring, while making sure everything was documented in an electronic database.

“Working in Honduras is challenging at times, but its beauty and tropical climate keep me coming back,” she said.

Classic period Copan dates from 250 to 800 A.D. and features some of the greatest art in the Maya world where relief sculptures are carved “so deep that they seem to come at you,” Miller said.

“That’s partly why it’s such a huge collection and so very special,” she said.

Now the collection is stored in a temperature- and humidity-controlled facility with each burial in its own box, contained in high-quality bags that will not readily deteriorate.

Engaging with the burials provides Miller with insight into the lives of these ancient individuals by examining their bones, teeth and bodies to discern information about migration, kinship relationships, health, overall population stress, when they died and, in some cases, how they died.

Working with burials doesn’t bother her since she is conserving what is left and, in a way, giving these people a voice again and telling their life stories by learning from what is left behind.

“I feel like this is the best respect that we can give to these burials. It’s our duty to learn from the burials, since we disturbed them, and to conserve them as best we can.”

Miller is studying the neighborhoods at the main center of Copan that at one time housed about 20,000 people. Looking at how the people lived gives her an idea of the kinship relationships and biological ancestry patterns. Background clues can be learned from items people were buried with, where they were buried and what their body position was when they were laid to rest.

“It looks so far like things are pretty dynamic and diverse,” she said.

Miller will bring the world of Copan to students at the University of Honduras when she teaches anthropology there soon. Then, she’ll travel once again to the world of the ancient Maya.

“I’ll pop down to Copan this summer to check on everything. When I came down for the first time in 2004, I never thought it would be such a big project. I think at this point I’ve signed up for a lifetime of work there. I feel fortunate to be part of such a fascinating project and I’m grateful for those who worked on the collection before me and those who have helped me preserve the burials,” she said.