Exhibits on the Plaza

Archaeological dig

Archaeologists study ancient cultures by digging into the earth to uncover ruins of buildings, structures, artifacts, and burials, as well as animal and plant remains. In the Maya homeland, excavations have concentrated on uncovering temples, plazas, and other stone buildings abandoned centuries ago. But work has also been done on excavating the thatched-roof huts of the common people. Methods used with stone buildings are different from those used to unearth more modest structures.

The forests provided the materials needed by the common people to build their houses. House timbers and posts were made from sapodilla; doors, windows and frames from mahogany and cedar. Vines were used for tying together the wooden framework, and guano and corozo palms for thatching the roof. The shape of the huts was rectangular, with curved corners. Extended families -- parents, children, and grandparents -- lived in the huts. People prepared their food in fire pits located outside the huts; fire pits were also used indoors for cooking and lighting. They slept in hammocks strung up in the houses during the rainy season; weather permitting, hammocks were also used outdoors. Many Maya continue to live in houses similar to those in which their ancestors lived.

Like the dwellings of North American Native peoples that were made from organic materials, the Maya huts have long since disappeared, leaving only traces of their foundations in the earth. These traces include house-post moulds (where the earth appears darker because of decayed wood), the remains of plastered stone foundations, middens (garbage dumps), hearths, caches, and burials.

Plan of an ancient Maya house from the northern Yucatán
1. raised floor • 2. midden deposit • 3. cache • 4. hearth depression •
5. wattle and daub wall • 6. post supporting the roof • 7. plastered step • 8. bench

Maya House Ruins
This replica shows the remains of an ancient Maya house partly uncovered by archaeological excavation. The raised plaster platform is the floor (1). Wall foundations are indicated by stones interspersed with vertical sticks and posts (2). The sticks served for wall construction and the posts for roof supports. Toward the centre of the house floor is a basin hearth for heat, light and cooking (3). Passages for doors and steps to the ground level are situated on either side. Food and valuables were stored in cache pits in the vicinity of the main door (3), usually on the east side of the building. In addition, there is a midden for household garbage to one side of this door (4). Maya house mounds are common features near the ruins of ancient Maya ceremonial structures in central America. Some of them continue in use as sites for modern Maya houses.
Photo: Stephen Alsford; CMC D2004-18429 Photo: Stephen Alsford; CMC D2004-18430 Photo: Stephen Alsford; CMC D2004-18431

The work of archaeologists can be compared to that of a detective searching for clues to solve a puzzle. Archaeologists interpret their findings, providing concrete evidence to support their ideas as well as making educated guesses to explain others. As information is brought to light, some theories about the past may be discarded or modified, or replaced by new ideas.

Over the past half century Canadian museums and universities have made important contributions to the study of great civilizations in Mesoamerica.

During the 1950s and 1960s, Dr. Richard S. MacNeish of the National Museum of Canada (now the Canadian Museum of Civilization) directed projects in Tamaulipas and Tehuacan, Mexico. Using archaeological evidence he was able to document the steps by which ancient peoples domesticated wild corn and other plants more than 4000 years ago. Today, many of those plants have become food staples around the world.

The 1960s witnessed an expansion of Mesoamerican studies at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, the University of Calgary, l'Université de Montréal, and Trent University in Peterborough.

Today there are numerous Canadian archaeologists, epigraphers, geographers and art historians at work on Mesoamerican history. The founding of the Canadian Society for Mesoamerican Studies in 1992 is a sign of continued support for such research.