Discovering the Maya: Behind the Scenes with a National Geographic Grantee

  • 7 Days

Q&A With William Saturno


Q: How did you become interested in archaeology?

A: Archaeology is something I've always wanted to do. An archaeologist was the first thing I can remember wanting to be—the first thing that wasn't physically impossible, at least. (I'd like to be a dinosaur, I'd like to be a Jedi....)

I was a very dirty kid! I used to bury stuff in my backyard, then try to dig it up. I went to museums, saw mummies, got excited. I can't remember a time when I didn't want to be an archaeologist.

Now that doesn't mean that I followed a simple path from my childhood desire to actually becoming an archaeologist without ever changing my mind. From the age of, say, six or seven until I was in college, that fantasy of becoming an archaeologist was just that. I started out college studying physics. I had this idea that if you're good at math and science, you ought to pursue that. But I found that I didn't want to. I didn't have a passion for it in the way that I could see my passion for archaeology. At a certain point I thought why am I doing this, why am I studying to become a physicist, and why am I not doing archaeology?

I got my first real taste of the discipline at the University of Arizona, went to their Grasshopper Pueblo field school, and never looked back. I got lucky and came back to my childhood dream.

Q: How did you end up studying the Maya?

A: It's a historical accident of the Gulf War. I wanted to work in Mesopotamia, but the war broke out, and I thought, well, I can't work in Iraq now. So I looked around and asked "Where else is there?" A professor at the university of Arizona, Pat Culbert, got me involved with a project on the Gulf coast of Mexico.

As part of that trip, we, um, stole the director's vehicle and went to visit the site of Palenque. The first time I set foot in Palenque, that was it for me. Just walking into a Maya city still shrouded in forest—the buildings, the mist: It's that romantic scene that you might expect at the beginning of a movie. I spent the day there, and knew that, now that I could choose, my focus would definitely be Maya. Untouched, in the forest, in Guatemala, in Chiapas, sites that no one's found before—I wanted to find them. That was what I wanted to do, where I wanted to be.

Q: What have been the most memorable moments of your career (so far)?

A: Finding the murals at San Bartolo—that's never going to be topped for me, a singular moment. I got, not just to discover them, but to excavate them. When I first discovered them, I saw 80 centimeters. The murals stretch 15 meters. They're a 2,100-year-old artistic masterpiece that tells the story of creation. Who gets to do that?

Archaeology involves a lot of hard work, but there's romance and excitement that make it all worthwhile—uncovering and seeing something remarkable for the first time, coming face-to-face with it. I still can't believe I get to do that.

Xultún was similar. I'd had this incredible good fortune to have happened upon San Bartolo. Everyone, myself included, thought what do you do next? When you've climbed Everest, what's left to climb? Xultún was a big eye-opener, and in a different way.

This last year, I've been deciphering handwriting on a wall in a small room on the outskirts of Xultún that is the workspace of ancient scholars, mathematicians, astronomers, calendar specialists—we don't know what to call them. But being in that space, seeing not a piece of art put together for a king but these notes, calculations, something that would be put to use getting figured out—that's really cool. That it's in a house just a couple of meters high, a site that's been devastated by looting, that something never seen before would be preserved there is astonishing.

People say I'm the luckiest person around. My luck doesn't extend past archaeology—I'll never be a Powerball millionaire!—but in this field, I've been so lucky to have stumbled upon these amazing finds.

Q: What will be most memorable about your upcoming Maya expeditions?

A: Lots for the travelers, and so much for me. Tonight I'm giving a talk. I give lectures a lot, teach courses, take people on journeys with pictures and stories. But there's no substitute for bringing a person there, right to the place—not just telling a story, but watching people's faces as they see things for the first time. I saw some of these places for the first time myself more than a decade ago, but to be there and see travelers' eyes opened to a world they only dreamed of—that's a spectacular experience for me! I love taking people to these places I've studied and worked at physically, into the past, into a foreign place. To guide and witness their journey—that, for me, is incredible.