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Belize and Back: Anthropology Professor Digs in Mesoamerica

Assistant Professor Sarah Jackson adjusts to a new excavation site and a new academic home.

Date: 10/26/2009
By: Kim Burdett
Phone: (513) 556-8577
Photos By: Provided by Sarah Jackson
Hiking through the Belizean jungle this summer, Sarah Jackson wasn’t sure if she and her research team would ever find their excavation site. The directions they were given to Say Kah left much to be desired.

“The coordinates to Group A had been located, but we were working at Group B. The directions got us to Group A, then told us to walk 15 minutes south or southeast,” Jackson recalls, shaking her head. “In the jungle, those aren’t very explicit instructions.”

Sarah Jackson.
Sarah Jackson spent a month this summer excavating Maya artifacts in Belize.

But with a watch, a compass and some luck, the assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology and her research team stumbled on archaeological findings—and a faint marker tied to a tree that designated the location Group B.

Once they found the site, located just outside La Milpa, Belize, the group busied themselves excavating the artifacts of the Maya who lived there in the late Classic period—around 600 to 900 A.D.

The group, consisting of Jackson and anthropology graduate students Meredith Coats and Lindsay Argo, traveled to the site to work for a month on Maya archaeology alongside the Programme for Belize Archaeological Project. Jackson’s interest in Mesoamerican political hierarchy and intersite relationships brought her to Say Kah as the project director because of the interrelatedness between it and larger sites like La Milpa.

Say Kah is thought to be a secondary site, Jackson says, because it’s smaller and assumed to have more limited access to resources.

But artifacts found this summer might change the way archaeologists think about smaller sites beings subservient.

“It was a really exciting field season because we found some pretty unexpected things at the site,” Jackson says. “We found a lot of markers that typically represent an elite presence—such as buildings that were built from stone instead of the thatched roofs that a typical small site would have.”

They also found polychrome pottery and remains of a person who was buried with jade ear flares. Jade, a sacred stone to the Maya, would have only been worn by an important person.

Sarah Jackson (right) helps direct undergraduates at their dig in Say Kah. UC graduate student Lindsay Argo (center) is studying Say Kah for her thesis.

“It was surprising on all accounts, and shows that we need to question the model we’re working with because clearly these people had access to important resources,” Jackson says. “It suggests we need to better understand identity issues and demographic issues of what class structure looked like during that period.”

The excavation marked the first time Jackson took students with her to a site. A visiting professor last year, 2009 marks her first year as a tenure-track faculty at University of Cincinnati.

Jackson received her PhD from Harvard University in 2005 and spent a few years working as a lecturer at University of New Hampshire and a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at University of Toronto.

UC will be a permanent spot, she says, because it feels like home to her.

“I grew up around this campus,” she says. Her father, Howard Jackson, is a professor in the Department of Physics and she was raised in Clifton. She recalls spending many hours in Braunstein Hall—the former home of the physics department and current location of anthropology.

The irony doesn’t stop there. Jackson recalls volunteering for Anthropology Professor Alan Sullivan in high school to analyze artifacts in his lab, a project that allowed her to work in a collegial environment and collect data for a science project. Now Jackson has an office adjacent to the senior faculty member.

“It’s pretty wild to think about,” she says. “But UC is a really good fit for me and a good place to be.”

“I like working here a lot. Our department is an exceptionally collegial department with really kind and interesting people. I feel very lucky getting to work with such great anthropologists and archaeologists.”

It might be tricky for Jackson to locate a new dig, but at least she has no trouble finding her way back home.

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