College of Arts & Sciences

arts&sciences

Legacy of a Great Explorer

A lectureship is named in honor of Maya ­archaeologist Norman Hammond.

By Jeremy Schwab

Archaeologist Norman Hammond on a ladder at the excavations at Cuello, Belize. Photo by Martha Cooper

In the spring of 1970, Norman Hammond and three other archaeologists, along with a team of Maya workmen, spent four months in the sweltering jungle of southern Belize, digging more than 100 narrow test pits in the ground they probed. They worked 12-hour days, lived in thatch huts they built themselves, and trekked to and from the site on foot and by boat—the nearest road ending quite some distance away.

The centuries of tropical rainfall had done their work. The limestone in the pottery that the team dug up had dissolved, so sometimes bowls or pots would just crumble in the workers' hands. When excavating human burials, they had to carefully preserve the bones with chemicals because they had become the consistency of butter.

The reward for their strenuous, painstaking labor was great, however. Hammond's team learned the secrets of the previously under-explored ancient Maya city of Lubaantun. Careful exploration and examination of pottery styles resolved such issues as when the city was built, when it was abandoned, and its connections with other areas in the region.

Looking back on a long and successful career in Maya archaeology, CAS Professor Emeritus Hammond reflects on the sweeping changes in his field since that dig 42 years ago. “It's probably only in the last five years that we've had really sophisticated stuff like airborne radar that can see through the forest canopy and do a lot of our mapping for us,” he says. “In many ways, I came into Maya archaeology several decades too early. I would have been able to use modern technology and get much faster results. On the other hand, I came into it at the end of a heroic age when the last of the great explorers were still uncovering previously unknown cities in the jungle.”

Norman Hammond (second from left) at Belize pyramid site. Photo courtesy of Norman Hammond

“I came into archaeology at the end of a heroic age.” —Norman Hammond

Longtime benefactors of Hammond's research, Raymond and Beverly Sackler approached him last spring about establishing a distinguished lectureship in his honor—a fitting tribute to the rich legacy that Hammond leaves to future generations of archaeologists. On February 29, the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Distinguished Lectureship in Archaeology in Honor of Professor Norman Hammond launched with a lecture by Yale College Dean and noted Maya art historian Mary Ellen Miller.
In addition to the annual lectureship, Hammond's legacy to CAS archaeology students includes an extensive collection of Maya pottery and stone tools given to Hammond's projects by the government of Belize and now housed at BU, along with their archives, for the use of future scholars and BU students. The only stand-alone archaeology department in the United States, the CAS Department of Archaeology requires PhD students to acquire a strong science background. Faculty experts train students in cutting-edge techniques in geoarchaeology (the use of geology to inform archaeology), paleoethnobotany (the study of ancient diets to inform archaeology), remote sensing of ancient sites using NASA satellites and airborne radar, and other useful resources.

Hammond's work has not only benefited CAS students and archaeologists worldwide, it has also contributed to present-day Maya understanding of their people's past. There are over six million Maya living in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras today, speaking 24 different Mayan languages. There is a movement currently to teach Maya schoolchildren to write Mayan languages using the Roman ­alphabet as well as Maya hieroglyphics.

One of Hammond's greatest finds was his investigation of an early village—Cuello, in Belize—that demonstrated that Maya culture and technology were indigenous to the area rather than being borrowed from surrounding regions. In this way, Hammond says, archaeology allows us “to understand where our society came from. Archaeology teaches us about what was and what could be.”