Dr. Joanne Baron is working to preserve a unique archaeological site. Under the town of La Florida in Guatemala, an ancient Mayan city sleeps—explored but never before excavated. Untold historical treasures could still lurk under the feet of modern-day inhabitants, and it is with these inhabitants that Dr. Baron must now work closely to both uncover and preserve the mysterious ruins.
By Dr. Joanne Baron
The kingdoms of the Classic Maya once formed a web of alliances and rivalries that spread for hundreds of miles across the lowland jungles of Guatemala, Belize, and Mexico from around 250 to 900 A.D. One of these kingdoms was the ancient city of Namaan, today known as the archaeological site of La Florida. The site is located on the San Pedro River in Guatemala just upstream from the Mexican border. Its location naturally positioned it to move economic commodities from the rich Tabasco Plain to the markets of the Usumacinta valley to the south and the central Peten to the east. Namaan is mentioned as an important ally in the inscriptions of several of its neighbors, and as a perpetual enemy in the history of another. Today, La Florida sits unexcavated in the modern town of El Naranjo, with the potential to reveal valuable information about ancient Maya commerce, but only if it can be protected from the slow encroachment of the increasingly urbanized landscape.
I visited La Florida in 2013 and 2014 with my Guatemalan colleagues (and husband-wife team) Liliana Padilla and Christopher Martinez. Our visit in 2014 was sponsored by a National Geographic Center for Research and Exploration grant and our purpose was to explore the site beyond what had been previously published and to assess the feasibility of long-term work there. We have had overwhelmingly positive experiences and we look forward to starting excavations in the near future.
We received a warm welcome from the mayor’s office. Town officials were very pleased by our presence and interest in the ruins. What was once downtown Namaan now mostly lies on protected municipal lands. But some of El Naranjo’s residents wish to settle and develop this area. So far, the mayor’s office has appeased them by granting lands elsewhere, but town officials requested that we produce a map showing the extent of the archaeological site. We hope to fulfill this request next year by conducting detailed survey and collaborating with the Guatemalan General Directorate of Cultural and Natural Patrimony to clarify the extent of the archaeological site to limit urban development.
El Naranjo doesn’t look like many Guatemalan towns. It has no central church or plaza. Instead, the town has developed along a paved road that leads from the highway to the San Pedro River, where a ferry runs people and vehicles across to the northern side. Hotels, eateries, and stores have grown up on either side of the main road to service drivers, who often have to wait for their turn on the ferry. Although the town is doing well economically, infrastructure has not quite caught up. During our 2013 and 2014 visits, electricity was supplied by a town generator or business-owned generators and was unreliable. This made it hard to withdraw money, and spotty refrigeration conquered my stomach twice. But permanent electrical lines are now being run and should be up in time for the 2015 field season.
While El Naranjo may not be picturesque by tourist standards, the San Pedro River is lovely. The ancient site took advantage of a natural inlet that both provides shelter from stormy weather and affords a view of a large river bend. The Guatemalan army takes advantage of the same features today, and part of the site is now occupied by an army base. Its personnel are tasked with patrolling the jungle and oil wells to the north as well as supporting the border with Mexico about 20 minutes to the west. They gave us permission to enter the base and photograph the carved monuments inside.
Our explorations at La Florida took us beyond El Naranjo as well. Across the river is the small village of Santa Marta, part of a different municipality. We explored the hill above the village and discovered an entirely new section of the site, conveniently situated in newly planted cornfields. This area, which we now call the Santa Marta Group, consists of monumental architecture arrayed along a large plaza. The farmers planting their corn looked at us curiously, but had no objection when we asked for permission to explore and photograph the area. Another part of the site may contain ancient Namaan’s residential sector. This area is called “The Island” by locals since it is surrounded by river and swamp. Today it contains a small finca. While we were unable to reach the landowner for permission to explore, we hired a boat to take us as close as possible and we could see several residential structures.
As we explored the site, photographing and taking GPS points, we met and chatted with the residents of El Naranjo and Santa Marta. Children were especially informative. We learned from multiple sources about tunnels snaking under the site (drainage features perhaps?). Others told us about structures that have long since disappeared under development. Improbable stories abounded about treasures buried in the pyramids: one girl repeated a story her grandmother had told her about a golden crocodile somewhere in the main plaza. Only further research will reveal the truth behind these accounts.