Digging Up The Past

Digging Up The Past

Anthropology alum treats undergraduates to Guatemalan expedition

When anthropology undergraduate students Matthew French and Serinah Alexandri set out to study an active, 2,000-year-old Maya pilgrimage site last summer, they expected to return a bit sleep-deprived, weathered and muddy.

What the freshmen anthropologists were not expecting, however, was to return from their first field experience with a 2,000-year-old cave discovery to their names.

“It was the ideal first experience,” Alexandri said, breaking into a slight giggle as she recounts the surreal 40-day Guatemala trip and discovery.

“We have real world experience and it’s opening doors,” she added.

Alexandri and French, who spotted the rock-shielded tomb, were both in Guatemala thanks to Cal State L.A. alumnus Sergio Garza ‘03. Garza hosted the students on the expedition, which was funded in part by Christian Christensen.

Garza and Christensen have been studying and traveling to the pilgrimage site of Quen Santo – which means Holy Rock in Maya – for more than a decade. Garza invited the two Cal State L.A. undergraduates on their most recent expedition to survey rock paintings and conduct ethnographic work because he wanted to give back to the University that gave him his start.

“The whole trip provided an invaluable research background for Matt and Serinah,” said Garza, who is pursing his doctorate at UC Riverside. “And it’s so unusual that undergraduates get to do these things.”

Throughout the teams’ 40-day trip, French and Alexandri clocked hundreds of hours photographing and cataloging Maya pots, analyzing paintings and immersing themselves in the culture and community.

The cave discovery didn’t come until at least three weeks into their trip. The team had climbed about 100 feet up from the base of a canyon to see where a fissure in the cliff they were studying ended.

Crouched on a ledge 80 feet from the floor, French spotted a rock that as he put it “just didn’t look right.”  It was a square boulder, covering a round hole.

“When I peered behind it, there were all these pots that were just inches away from my face,” he said. “They were just beautiful … untouched.”

With the help of some others, French and Garza managed to dislodge the boulder and gained access to the small tomb. Inside, were the five preserved, clay pots, filled with ashes and small pieces of bone, and alongside them were a femur and a skull.

The research team – which also included Christian Christensen, Anne Christensen, and Torben Redder from Denmark – photographed and documented their finding and then contacted the Guatemalan Archeology Institute to enlist its support in the recovery.

The pots are now on display in a museum. As for French and Alexandri, they are garnering international recognition. Since the discovery they have been featured on news shows in Denmark, Guatemala and Los Angeles. They will also be presenting a paper at a national archeology conference in Atlanta in the spring.

“It was Indiana Jones-like at times,” French said of his experience. “It’s no textbook that you can pick up and put back on your bed.”

Alexandri agreed, saying that the trip reinvigorated her drive and determination to work in the field of anthropology. She now even has aspirations to pursue a master’s and study her own Armenian heritage.

“That’s the great thing about anthropology – you never have to stay at home,” she said.