Skip to main content

Maya archaeologist receives national medal from Guatemalan president

Nov. 11, 2004, 1:20 PM

NASHVILLE, Tenn. ñ In recognition of his efforts "to protect and
conserve" its cultural resources, Maya archaeologist Arthur Demarest
has received one of the Republic of Guatemala’s highest awards, the
National Order of Cultural Patrimony.

Demarest, who is the first U.S. citizen to receive the award, is the
Ingram Professor of Anthropology at Vanderbilt University. The award
was presented to him by the Guatemalan president, Oscar Berger, in a
ceremony at the National Palace in Guatemala City on Nov. 10.

The "Orden Nacional del Patrimonio Cultural de Guatemala" was
created in 1999. Its purpose is to honor organizations and individuals
for meritorious activities "in defense, rescue, promotion and
distribution" of knowledge about Guatemala’s cultural patrimony. It is
considered one of the most important of the presidential awards that
are given annually. This year, the archeologist is one of four
recipients.

Demarest, who is cited for his contributions to "the rescue,
conservation and protection of tangible cultural patrimony," is being
honored primarily for his pioneering effort to develop a new "ethical"
approach to archeological reconstruction that provides tangible
economic benefits to the modern-day Maya people living in the area
surrounding the excavations.

For the last five years, the archeologist and his colleagues have
been excavating the ruins of a Maya royal palace and working with
Q’eqchi’ Maya villagers in the area to develop the site as a
sustainable ecotourism center that they will operate. To make this
possible, the project is providing participating villages with services
such as generator-run mill houses, solar panels for electrical power
for schools, monthly medical clinics, potable water and training in
sustainable agricultural methods. In addition to providing the
modern-day Maya with a source of income, the archeologists have also
been educating them about the impressive achievements of their
ancestors. In this fashion, Demarest is attempting to forge an economic
and psychological attachment that will cause the people living in the
area to protect the site rather than loot it.

With support from the National Geographic Society, Counterpart
International and the U.S. Agency for International Development, the
humanitarian project has expanded from a single archeological site and
a single village to 12 sites and a dozen villages. The key role that
Maya leaders played last year in the dramatic and highly publicized
recovery of an altar stone that was looted from the site, along with
the arrest and conviction of a number of the looters, has helped
validate Demarest’s approach. Last year, the World Bank selected it as
one of "the ten most innovative rural development projects" in the
world, and the Guatemalan government has embraced it as the preferred
model for archeological development.

"We are at the leading edge of a new period in archeology," said
Demarest. "The days of Indiana Jones, when archeologists could go to a
place, excavate and then leave without concern about the impact that
their actions are having on the people in the area, are gone. We are
showing that archeologists can work with local people with extremely
positive results. Our new model doesn’t just apply to Central America.
It also applies to Iraq and Afghanistan and any other place where
archeological ruins are located among people living in poverty."

The development project also received recognition in the second week
of September when Demarest was honored in New York City as one of four
finalists for an international humanitarian award sponsored by the
World Cultural Open. According to its website, WCO is "an
international non-profit organization that serves as an open
environment, free of constraints, where individuals and organizations
engaged in the creative arts, holistic well-being and humanitarian
service can share, experience and celebrate each other’s cultural
traditions."

According to the organization, Demarest was selected out of an
initial pool of 400 because of his "ambitious and innovative"
development project. "The initial goal of the project was to convert
the ancient Maya city of CancuÈn into an archeological and ecological
preserve that would provide an economic resource to the local Q’eqchi’
Maya through ecotourism. Now, Demarest has expanded his efforts to the
entire region, creating a series of community-managed parks connected
by a network of community-run boat services and rustic inns."

Demarest participated in the WCO awards ceremony held in Lincoln Center.

Media contact: David F. Salisbury, (615) 343-6803
David.salisbury@vanderbilt.edu

Upcoming Events

MORE EVENTS »