An assistant professor of archeology at the University of Calgary spent part of her summer digging up pieces of bone fragments at an abandoned Mayan city.

For nearly a decade, Elizabeth Paris and a team of researchers have been digging up thousands of tiny bone fragments at the abandoned Mayan city of Mayapan, located near Merida, Mexico, capital city of the state of Yucatan. They've been trying to piece together the mystery of a massacre that occurred around the 14th century.

Paris returned to Calgary on the weekend, and on Monday spoke to The Calgary Eyeopener

Below is a condensed version of that conversation.

Mayan bones

A researcher excavates bones from a site at Mayapan, an ancient Mayan city in the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico. (Elizabeth Paris )

Q: Tell us about this site in an abandoned Mayan city. How did you know there was a massacre there?

A: Mayapan was the largest city of its day, which was approximately from 1100 to 1450. So this is a city that was known about, that the Spanish wrote about and was still in the living memory of inhabitants. It's one of those cities that, ironically, was never really lost. So there's been archaeological interest, really, since the 1950s, and even before that through early explorers to the region.

Our own team has been working there since 2001, looking at the economic organization of the site. It's an international team of collaborators… We excavated 101 test pits all throughout the city looking at the economic organization and daily life of different areas.

In this particular area, which is an outlying political centre, my colleague Bradley Russell was excavating a test pit in 2003… and all of a sudden he found a human bone that was burned and smashed [along with] smashed pottery. It was a very unusual and exciting discovery. We excavated the whole area and found the remains of a large mass grave with over 17,000 bone fragments.

Mayapan ancient Mayan city

The excavation site at the ancient Mayan city of Mayapan, found in the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico. (Elizabeth Paris)

Q: What do you think happened there?

A: We interpret this as the result of an armed conflict. In and among the remains were smashed human bones that had been defleshed. My colleague found cut marks on the bone. There was lots of intentional defleshing and dismembering. There were spiral fractures, similar to what you would see for intentional breakage of bones. The deposit included the remains of 18 adults at least, and at least two children. Not only that, the bones were very heavily burned.

We interpret this as a factional armed conflict. From the city's history, we know there was a lot of factional violence between rival families. Family against family, committing acts of massacre as part of the political turmoil that occurred, really all the way from the 10th century to the Spanish arrival.

Mayan bones University of Calgary

Rresearchers examine bones at a site in the ancient Mayan city of Mayapan. (Elizabeth Paris)

Q: You're back at the site this summer. What are you up to there?

A: We've been working on a number of new projects. My own particular focus is on craft production and ancient artisans in the city, particularly ancient metal workers. Metal working was not very common in the Mayan area but it did come in both from west Mexico and Central America. So we're looking at that industry in the city.


With files from The Calgary Eyeopener