University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

The Punta Laguna Archaeology Project


The Punta Laguna Archaeology Project

Sarah Kurnick and David Rogoff, co-directors

One of the Kolb Society's recently graduated fellows, Sarah Kurnick, is director, along with David Rogoff, a Ph.D. candidate in the Anthropology Department at Penn, of the Punta Laguna Archaeology project (generously funded by the Gerda Henkel Foundation). Sarah graduated from the Anthropology Department at Penn in 2013, and is splitting her time, teaching at Lehigh University and Penn, as well as serving as a consulting scholar for the Penn Cultural Heritage Center.

Elote mound with a miniature masonry shrine at Punta Laguna

Located in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, the archaeological site of Punta Laguna consists of over forty mounds, at least seven miniature masonry shrines, a cenote containing an ancient mortuary deposit of over a hundred individuals, several stelae, and a series of caves. The site was likely occupied at the beginning of the Maya Classic period (250–600 C.E.), depopulated, and then reoccupied and reached its zenith during the Postclassic period (1100–1500 C.E.). It was thus likely inhabited before, abandoned during, and flourished after, the Maya collapse.

Stela at Punta Laguna

The archaeological site of Punta Laguna lies within a contemporary village of the same name – a small community consisting of approximately 130 people. Both the site and the village are located within a spider monkey reserve. To generate revenue, the current residents of Punta Laguna have embarked on a cooperative ecotourism venture in which they provide tours of the reserve, showing visitors the spider monkeys and the ancient Maya structures. Although extremely knowledgeable about the monkeys, they know little about the structures.

Entrance to the village of Punta Laguna

The long-term research objectives of the Punta Laguna Archaeology Project are twofold. First, the archaeological research aims to understand how political authority functions in the wake of catastrophe. How do rulers use the past to justify their authority after a collapse? Do they continue to emphasize their ties to the past or do they eschew those ties? And, how is the past represented after a societal catastrophe? Is it glorified, modified, or forgotten? To address these questions, the project examines the relationship between Punta Laguna’s Postclassic inhabitants and their Classic period predecessors, and particularly whether the Postclassic community practiced ancestor veneration and whether they chose to desecrate, revere, or ignore the Classic period buildings and objects at the site.

Second, the Punta Laguna Archaeology Project intends to practice and serve as a model of community archaeology – of archaeology with, by, and for local communities.  The contemporary residents of Punta Laguna are directly benefitting from research they help design and carry out. Archaeologists and residents are deciding what information should be sought about the site and how best to present that information. Collectively, the aim is to preserve Punta Laguna’s cultural heritage and to increase the revenue the community generates from its cooperative by broadening the scope of the tours to include information not only about spider monkeys, but also about archaeology.

Spider monkeys of Punta Laguna

To further this goal, during the 2014 field season, Sarah and David met and spoke at length with the contemporary residents of Punta Laguna and began developing strong working relationships with them. They provided residents with access to all published articles about the archaeological site and the contemporary community, print-outs of photos and the GPS point map, and an information sheet for the tour guides. In coming field seasons the Punta Laguna Archaeology Project plans to continue to share information with the residents, and to install in the community museum a small exhibit focusing on Punta Laguna’s archaeology and cultural heritage.

Punta Laguna museum

During this field season the team also began determining the extent of the archaeological site and created an initial site map, documenting over sixty architectural features covering an area of approximately 40 hectares. Based on their style and size, several of the architectural features were likely built in the Maya Early Classic period. Other features, and particularly the miniature masonry shrines – shrines too small for a person to enter – were built in the “East Coast” architectural tradition, and thus likely date to the Postclassic period. This architectural tradition is characterized by a variety of time-saving construction techniques, including the use of extensive amounts of mortar. The completed fieldwork thus supports the notion that Punta Laguna was occupied in the Early Classic period and then reoccupied in the Postclassic period.

GPS map of the Punta Laguna remains

Punta Laguna site map

The work this past season also suggests that the Postclassic community at Punta Laguna directly interacted with its Classic period past, and that it did so in complex ways. Throughout the site, Postclassic structures were built in close proximity to those built during the Early Classic period. And, in several instances, Postclassic architecture appears to have been built directly on top of Early Classic mounds. The miniature masonry shrines, for example, frequently top large Classic period mounds. In some cases the shrine faces in the opposite direction as the mound. In other cases the mound and shrine face the same direction. With additional fieldwork Sarah hopes to explain and understand the meaning of these and other architectural configurations.

Durazno mound with a miniature masonry shrine

(Thanks to Sarah Kurnick for compiling this information.)

Website Links:!punta-laguna-archaeology-project/civh

Read more about Sarah Kurnick.

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