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2012 Faculty & Staff News

Longwood faculty member publishes book on the ancient cultures of Mesoamerica

January 30, 2012

Dr. Walter Witschey

Dr. Walter Witschey, professor of anthropology and science education at Longwood University, has studied the ancient cultures of Middle America for more than 30 years. He recently published a book that will help people whose interest in the subject is just beginning.

Historical Dictionary of Mesoamerica, published Dec. 23, was co-authored by Dr. Clifford Brown, a longtime collaborator with Witschey who is an associate professor of anthropology at Florida Atlantic University. The 466-page hardback was published by Scarecrow Press (an imprint of the Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group) as part of its Historical Dictionaries of Ancient Civilizations series, in which there are about 30 books.

"The book is designed as a helpful introductory companion and quick reference guide for a beginner or advanced beginner or student who has an interest in one or more parts of Mesoamerica and these ancient cultures," Witschey said. "There are so many culture groups and so many places with strange names, and this is designed to give you a few basic facts about a person, place, group, artifact, or language. Also, the book should appeal to fellow scholars who might want to directly consult the primary sources that we used."

Scarecrow Press first approached Brown and asked if he would be interested in writing the book. He said yes but only if he and Witschey did so together.

"We began with about 500 entries that we considered 'must have' entries but ended up with 1,000 entries in the book," Witschey said. "The book also has about 650 bibliographic references and 30 photographs, all taken by Cliff or me. The writing of the entries was done in the latter half of 2010 and early 2011. The book took about 18 months, preceded, of course, by a lifetime of becoming informed!"

The editor's foreword in the book calls it "an excellent starting place for discovering and exploring this fertile cradle of civilization," which should "benefit not only the initiated but also those who know relatively little but want to learn more about a truly remarkable period of human endeavor." The book's preface says it "offers students, researchers, and other interested persons concise definitions and descriptions of the major peoples, places, ideas, and events related to ancient Mesoamerica."

Witschey has collaborated with Brown since 1987, two years after the former entered graduate school at Tulane University, where the latter also was a graduate student. "Cliff and I worked together on our degrees and in the field, and we have just continued over the years to work together on interesting projects," Witschey said. His master's thesis and doctoral dissertation examined an archaeological research project at Muyil, an ancient Maya site on the Yucatan Peninsula, with the Mexico National Institute of Anthropology and History, in which he was principal investigator. The site was occupied before 400 B.C. and was occupied continuously until the arrival of the Spaniards in A.D. 1511, Witschey said.

Since around 1996, Witschey and Brown have worked together on an electronic atlas of ancient Maya archaeological sites, which now includes about 6,000 sites.

"The atlas, which is an ongoing project, is a Geographic Information System capable of mapping ancient Maya settlements as well as mapping modern features such as roads, countries, states, lakes, rivers, elevations, and soils," said Witschey. "We get our information from three main sources. First, Cliff and I continue to look for old maps, especially archaeological maps, and digitize the information from them. Second, we try to get our hands on the most modern scholarship reports and extract data from them, and then we either add that to our database or correct what was there. Third, we use Global Positioning Systems data - that is, we record the longitude and latitude of where they were standing - from someone who has physically visited ruins in the Maya area, and again we update and add this information.

"The database has two aims: to support the research of others and to support our own research into the settlement patterns of the ancient Maya. If someone asks for a map, we can produce it. If someone wants information on a location, or ask about settlement locations, we can supply data sets. New places are being discovered all the time. The database is on my laptop and Cliff's laptop, which have the electronic master data set and the software we use, ArcGIS 10, to maintain, manipulate and analyze the data.

"We also make available a Google Earth gallery, with different tiers for each site depending on its size. You start with the largest sites, marked with a pyramid, and as you zoom in closer, more and more sites appear and you get highly detailed aerial photographs. You go all the way from the equivalent of New York City down to sites with at least a tiny community of people, like a hamlet. With Google Earth, you can tell the dimensions of the larger sites. The database is available mainly on request, but the Google Earth file is publicly available at http://MayaGIS.smv.org. We get about 15 to 20 inquiries a year, a low level of steady activity."

The ancient Maya occupied eastern Mexico (the Yucatan Peninsula), Guatemala, Belize and the western portions of Honduras and El Salvador. Witschey has visited the Maya region "between two dozen and 30 times, not quite once a year, since 1978," most recently in 2008 when he led a tour that included people from Longwood.

Asked what first prompted his interest in the Maya, Witschey retrieved the book God, Graves, and Scholars from the bookshelf in his office. This popular history of archaeology by the German writer C.W. Ceram was a gift for Witschey's 10th birthday, two years after it was first published in 1949. He was especially riveted by two chapters: "Edward Herbert Thompson, Chichén Itzá, the Sacred Well" and "John Lloyd Stephens Buys a Jungle City." "The former chapter is the story of dredging gold artifacts from the large cenote there - a large natural sinkhole in the thin karstic crust - and the latter chapter is about the Maya ruins at Copán, Honduras," said Witschey, who has visited both sites.

"Today, Chichén Itzá is one of the most visited Maya sites in Mexico," he said. "The sacred well that Thompson dredged marks the end of a Maya roadway from the massive El Castillo pyramid. Each equinox at this pyramid, the setting sun casts the pattern of a diamond-back rattlesnake onto the pyramid, creating a long serpent from ground to stairway top.

"Stephens (a 19th-century American explorer who was a pivotal figure in the rediscovery of Maya civilization) visited Copán in what is now the premier national park in Honduras. Its hieroglyphic stairway records the longest inscription yet known, a dynastic king list of 16 consecutive rulers."

Witschey joined the Longwood faculty in 2007 after serving as director of the Science Museum of Virginia for 15 years. He is a past president of the Virginia Academy of Science (2003-04) and of the Association of Science-Technology Centers (2001-03), an international organization of 500 science center members.