Bananas, temples and scholars

October 27, 2000

Arthur Nead

In 1924, banana king and Tulane benefactor Samuel Zemurray launched the university on the path to discover the buried cities of long-dead kings in the jungles of Central America. Originating with Zemurray's purchase of a collection of Mexican books and manuscripts and his establishment of a $300,000 endowment, Tulane's Middle American Research Institute has been a leader in the field of Mayan archaeology for more than three quarters of a century.

Headquartered on the top floor of Dinwiddie Hall, the institute features a gallery exhibiting striking examples of Meso-American art including sculptures, pottery and folk textiles. Many students get their first taste of archaeology and anthropology in classes taught in these exotic surroundings. What accounts for the popular interest in the Maya, the great pre-Columbian civilization that flourished in areas of Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Belize?

According to E. Wyllys Andrews V, director of the institute and professor of anthropology, the media have romanticized the legacy of the Maya-their tropical jungle paradise, their splendid temples, and the myths and speculations about this vanished civilization.

Forget Indiana Jones, however. The work at the institute is serious scholarship. The institute established its reputation as a pioneering force in Mayan archaeology through the efforts of its first permanent head, Frans Blom, who became director in 1926. Blom led Zemurray-funded expeditions to Maya areas of Mexico and Guatemala.

Tulane's expeditions to ruined cities in the Americas received a lot of publicity during this period when spectacular archaeological findings, such as the discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb in Egypt, were in the news. Many of Blom's plans for the institute (called the Department of Middle American Research until 1942) were frustrated by the Great Depression, which made funding hard to obtain.

In addition, some of his ideas struck many as impractical, such as his plan to relocate the institute to a new building on the Tulane campus built in the style of a Mayan temple. His tenure as director came to an end in 1940.

Robert Wauchope took the reins of the institute in 1943, but the war years delayed his active involvement. In 1946, however, he put the institute on a solid financial and scientific footing, pursuing a vigorous program to publish the results of the institute's archaeological and analytical projects. In addition, he was able to integrate the institute with the larger Tulane academic community.

During this same period, E. Wyllys Andrews IV, father of the current director, led a series of fruitful archaeological projects for Tulane at several major Mayan sites in Central America. Wauchope continued as director until 1975, when Tulane-educated archaeologist Andrews was named to the post.

"The goals of the institute are entirely scholarly-instruction and research," Andrews says. "In some ways the most important thing we do is graduate training of archaeologists who are interested in the Maya or the areas surrounding the Maya."

Andrews says the program has "grown a lot" in the last 25 years and is now the largest program of its kind in the nation. Key to this burgeoning instructional program is Andrews' close coordination with the anthropology department.

"We have two Meso-American archaeologists here at Tulane, so students can get a lot of course work," says Andrews. "There is a good deal of strength in the department's Maya area-hieroglyphics, social anthropology, ethnohistory, linguistics, archaeoastronomy and Maya language."

A second activity of MARI is placing graduate students in the field to do pilot projects. "From time to time we run projects out of the institute," says Andrews. "The most recent was from 1990 to 1995 at the site of Copan in Honduras."

This archaeological undertaking was a joint effort by Tulane, the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard, and the National Institute of Anthropology and History of Honduras. Tulane's role was to excavate a group of buildings that turned out to be the palace of the last king of Copan. During the five-year project, Andrews guided some 20 graduate students in fieldwork.

"So a lot of people who came through the program have one or more seasons of an intensive experience at a major Maya site digging major architecture," he says. "A number of students have done dissertations on that work."

The third main area of MARI activities is its publications program. "Digging is the fastest part of archaeology," says Andrews. "Analyzing the materials afterward takes considerably longer, and then writing it up afterward takes much longer than that."

The institute publishes one to two books a year, according to Andrews. "We now have about 70 major books out plus two minor series," he says. The institute also has ethnological and archaeological collections, numbering more than a million items. "Our collections go way back-none of them are recent," says Andrews. "But they provide study materials for a lot of people."

Guatemala textiles collected by one individual from 1935 to 1937 are probably the most famous material in the institute's possession. "Ours is still one of the finest in the world," says Andrews. Does Tulane plan to go back into the field soon? "Tulane should and will be involved in the future in large archaeological projects," says Andrews. "It's something Tulane's famous for, and something we should continue doing."

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000