NatGeo’s 1st. Archaeology Student Award in Guatemala

Monument 91, Bilbao. Photo by Sergio Lopez Garzona
Monument 91, Bilbao. Photo by Sergio Lopez Garzona

The International Maya Symposium held every year in Guatemala City brings the best archaeological discoveries of the season to the National Museum.  It is a gathering of academics, scientists, epigraphers, the public and archaeology students that currently participate in research projects.  Thanks to an initiative by Missions Programs SVP Sarah Laskin and EVP Terry Garcia, National Geographic has created a new student award that celebrates science communication.  This year, being the first of what we hope is a long tradition, the NatGeo student award played an important role in motivating students to do their best at presenting the results from their current research to a wide audience ranging from the public,  students, professors, and fellow archaeologists.  In total there were 15 presentations in the running and it was impressive to see the energy, passion and talent that these young students showed during their twenty minutes at the podium.

The Presentations

They ranged from ceramic analysis to lithic studies, conservation issues and the preservation of sites, monuments and artifacts.  Other studies included research on architecture, rock art, sculpture and murals from the contact period.  Needless to say, they were all quite interesting and while there was a winner, I feel compelled to share with you the top five, as well as some thoughts of what the finalists see for the future of archaeology in Guatemala.

1st Place went to Sergio Lopez Garzona, an archaeology student from the San Carlos University in Guatemala. His presentation focused on snakes, yes snakes.  He captured the audience with his solid knowledge of all species that are found in the Guatemala, their geographic  distribution, their morphology and the strength of their bite.  The brilliant stroke was when Sergio cleverly moved from biology to archaeology by providing evidence on the representation of snakes in the monuments of the ancient Maya. I asked Sergio  a few questions about his work and his future.

F: Why did you focus on Snakes for your archaeological research?

S: The representation of snakes in pre-hispanic monuments in Guatemala reflect the existence of a social specialization devoted to the representation of this animal. The diversity of venomous species, their habits and morphological characteristics that identify them are clearly represented in the monuments.

F: why do you think it is important to present your work to the public?

S: We have to share our investigations with the academic community and the general public with the intent to provide technical data, especially the interpretation of data that can explain the different ways of life of ancient cultures.

F: What do you think of NatGeo’s initiative in creating an award to the best science communicator?

S: National Geographic’s initiative is a great stimulus for the students so that they can present their archaeological investigations with enthusiasm and professionalism.  At the Symposium, we participate with professionals from different academic levels and the competitiveness is enhanced, this being a motivating factor as well as a challenge in making an effort in investigating and presenting the best way possible.

Rock Art Ilustration by O. Saravia
Rock Art Ilustration by O. Saravia

From second to fifth place, well, they were all great and I had the opportunity to ask a few questions.  A very impressive brother and sister archaeologists team, Miryan Isabel Saravia and Juan Francisco Saravia from San Carlos University caught my eye.  Their work stood out from the rest due to their artistic representations and interpretations of the research.  I was moved by their artwork, specially how precise the rock art  was represented in the proper context.  I asked Miryam and Juan why they were so dedicated to archaeology: “From the time we were very little, we had contact with different manifestations of the Maya culture.  This allowed us to understand the importance of conducting archaeological research, which provides important and fundamental details to our comprehension of historical processes in a country where this culture remains alive and contains so many elements that must be valued.

Hieroglyphic Stairway at La Coren, Photo by Jocelyne Ponce Stokvisa
Hieroglyphic Stairway at La Coren, Photo by Jocelyne Ponce Stokvisa

Jocelyne Ponce Stokvis from the Del Valle University in Guatemala focused on the Corona Archaeological Project in the Peten. This site has revealed some of the longest Maya texts and continues to be a center for multidisciplinary approaches to archaeological research.  This site was previously knows as the mysterious Site Q! I asked Jocelyne how she saw herself in ten years: ” I see myself finishing up my graduate work which will help me to better understand the social processes of ancient cultures.  I also hope to direct an archaeological project in the Maya Lowlands to contribute to our knowledge of the pre-hispanic Maya, and to the outreach and protection of the cultural patrimony of Guatemala.

Eagle Warrior Mural, Photo by Fredis Ruano
Eagle Warrior Mural, Photo by Fredis Ruano

Alejandro Jose Garay Herrera from the San Carlos University in Guatemala focused on a very different yet important period in Maya culture and history.  In fact, what captured his attention was a fascinating and evocative art that was painted on the walls of homes in San Gaspar Chajul  from the 16th and 17th Century.  He pointed out that many of the murals are in much danger of disappearing and in order to bring attention to them, he has focused on pointing out the details of the murals and how they provide a glimpse of an era when both Mayas and Spaniards were exchanging ideas, ways of life, and where a sense of syncretism is quite evident.  I asked Alejandro what drove him to continue studying: ” My father, Pedro Garay, has always motivated me to follow my dream.  He never doubted in telling me to move forward, although this would bring challenges and personal sacrifices.  Even today he continues to push me, reminding me of the value of loving and enjoying ones work.

Delia Luz Gutierrez Public School Students at Kaminaljuyu site limits, Guatemala City, Photo by
Delia Luz Gutierrez Public School Students at Kaminaljuyu site limits, Guatemala City, Photo by Adriana Maria Linares-Palma

Last but not least is Adriana Maria Linares-Palma, a Guatemalan student  at the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies at  the University of Texas at Austin.  Adriana’s work focuses on the project titled the Archaeological Zone of Kaminaljuyu.  Perhaps one of the most challenging projects in the Guatemala city area and one of the most important sites of the Maya Highlands.  The site is located in the heart of the city and in the last fifty years it has seen a shrinking effect from the growing and ever encroaching city. Unfortunately many of the original structures and other architectural and cultural features have disappeared from the landscape.  During the past three years and under the direction of Dr. Barbara Arroyo, the site has been going a period of renovation which includes a new interpretation center, areas designated for Maya priests to conduct ceremonies, this happens all year, and a new archaeological program that includes conservation, excavation and community outreach.  I asked Adriana if she considered herself the future of Maya archaeology and why: ” the future of Maya archaeology already started in Guatemala.  Our professional, social and ethical responsabilities with the community have created new communication links with the Delia Luz Gutierrez public school.  During the excavations conducted at the school, the students participated in educational workshops where they learned about the history of Kaminaljuyu and their present shared neighborhood.

Students and Judges from the 1st NatGeo Archaeology Student Award, Photo by Alberto Alvarez
Students and Judges from the 1st NatGeo Archaeology Student Award, Photo by Alberto Alvarez

Why an award to a student? Well, it is important to communicate science, and it’s also important to give students a voice.  They are the future and in their hands will lay the cultural patrimony, how could we not offer them an opportunity to learn, to dream and lead us to the future.

Many thanks to all students who participated in the event and judges for their time and effort.
Special thanks to Liwy Grazioso for gathering the intel. and to Terry Garcia, Sarah Laskin and Barbara Arroyo for making it a reality. fe



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Meet the Author
Fabio Esteban Amador is an archaeologist, science communicator and visual artist. He uses visualization tools to get people excited about seeing, understanding and preserving their world and history. He is currently using gigapan technology, underwater imaging systems and aerial photography and video to capture art and culture around the world. Lately he has focused in the development of a new concept, strategy and workshop called the Art of Communicating Science, aimed at using creativity and visual technologies in exploration, discovery and story telling. He started his career as an art student at the School of Visual Arts in NYC and followed his interests in becoming an expedition artist by graduating as an archaeologist from the State University of New York at Buffalo. Lately, he has focused on the archaeology and exploration of caverns in Quintana Roo, Mexico, photo-mosaicking shipwrecks in Latin America and the Caribbean and capturing images and video from aerial platforms to document archaeological sites to create digital elevation models. Amador’s continued effort in communicating science has allowed him to use photography, cinematography and other multi-media tools to reach large audiences through his public lectures at universities, presentations at international scientific and professional symposia, publications in scholarly journals and on National Geographic’s Explorers Journal and NatGeo News Watch online blogs. Currently, he is a senior program officer for the National Geographic Society / Waitt Grants Program, promoting and coordinating scientific and exploratory research around the world. He is also an associate research professor at George Washington University and Executive Director and President of Fundacion OLAS, an organization devoted to capacity building for Latin American scholars dedicated to the study and preservation of the submerged cultural heritage.