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August 18, 2016

In the seventh century A.D. the Snake rulers presided over this capital city—in what today is southern Mexico—and its largest structure, a pyramid 180 feet tall. From Calakmul they managed an intricate web of alliances.

A fascinating story on Calakmul and the Maya Snake Kingdom appears in the September 2016 issue of National Geographic Magazine. Here is an excerpt.

"At the end of the fifth century, Tikal was one of the most powerful city-states in the region. Archaeologists suspect that it held its position with the help of a much larger city high in the mountains 650 miles to the west called Teotihuacan, near today’s Mexico City. For centuries these two cities shaped Maya painting, architecture, pottery, weapons, and city planning. But all that changed in the sixth century, when Teotihuacan disengaged from the Maya region, leaving Tikal to fend for itself.

Enter the Snakes. No one’s sure where they came from; there’s no evidence of them ruling Calakmul before 635. Some experts imagine th...

July 31, 2016

Last Saturday, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Joyce E. Taylor and Jeffrey Bashir, two of the grandchildren of Samuel Walker Houston. To listen to the interview, visit: To learn a little more about Samuel Walker Houston, his daughter Helen Hope Houston, and his grandchildren Joyce Taylor and Jeffrey Bashir, keep reading. (Special thanks to the Samuel Walker Houston Museum and Cultural Center and Briana Weaver for helping out!)

Born around 1871, Samuel Walker Houston was the son of Joshua and Sylvester Houston, two former slaves who worked for General Sam Houston in Huntsville, Texas. During the 1880s and 90s, Samuel Walker Houston attended the nation's leading black schools, including Atlanta University in Georgia and Howard University in Washington, D.C. At the turn of the century, he returned to Huntsville and founded a training school in the little community of Galilee. Houston's school was one of the first c...

On Thursday, June 9, we arose early and packed the van for the trip from Chicanna Ecovillage (in Xpujil, Campeche) to Chablis Hotel (in Palenque, Chiapas). The drive took the better part of the day, and we arrived around 3:00 pm. After unloading our luggage, we took our laundry to a local business owner, ate dinner, and Brant went swimming with several of the students.

Early the next morning, June 10, we drove to the archaeological site at Palenque. It was a short trip through a lush, green forest. At the entrance to the site, there were numerous Lacandon Mayas, who were selling hats, crafts, food, and drinks. In fact, people took up positions throughout the archaeological zone to sell handicrafts and souvenirs.

Palenque proved to be everything that we hoped it would be: mysterious, imposing, and enshrouded in jungle. The Maya first settled at the site around 100 BCE, and it reached its height between 600 and 800 CE, when it served as a regional power. The city fell into decline during t...

June 17, 2016

On Wednesday, June 8, we arose at 5:30 AM to leave our hotel -- Chicanná Ecovillage in Xpujil -- for the archaeological site of Calakmul. I was excited to finally have the opportunity to visit this crucial classic-era Maya site, which competed with Tikal for preeminence during the period from 550 to 800 C.E.

Before we set out, our guide, Raul Garcia, arranged for us to have a boxed breakfast and lunch, which we carried with us. The boxes included fresh fruit, sandwiches, eggs, and juice. The ride to Calakmul proved long and rough. We rode for about an hour on highway 186 to a turnoff at Conhuas. At that point, we left our bus, split into two smaller vehicles operated by the local community, and began the 60 kilometer drive down a bumpy road to Calakmul. Our route took us through an extensive biosphere reserve, and we saw dozens of ocellated turkeys and other wildlife. In fact, Calakmul offered a great contrast to Chichen Itza, where the crowds were considerable. Due to the remote locati...

June 13, 2016

On Tuesday, June 7, we checked out of the Francis Drake hotel in Campeche, traveled to the archaeological site at Becán, and then continued on to the Chicanná Ecovillage near Calukmul. The route took us from the northern border of the state of Campeche roughly 200 kilometers to the south.

Becán is located in central Campeche, along highway 186, six kilometers west of the town of Xphil. Construction at Becán began as early as 550 CE., and it became a political, economic, and religious center of the Rio Bec area. The city features large plazas surrounded by monumental architecture built in the Rio Bec style.

Becán was one of the many cities in the region that fought against Tikal, the major military power in the Petén forest of Guatemala, some 150 kilometers to the south. As a result, the leaders of Becán had a 2 kilometer moat and wall constructed around the city between 100 and 250 CE. Expansion at Becán briefly slowed after that period only to rebound again during the classic period aro...

On Monday, June 6, the SHSU group ate breakfast at Hotel Francis Drake in Campeche before departing for the Mayan archaeological site of Edzna. Founded around 600 BC, the city reached its apex during the classic period between 600 and 900 AD. With a population of roughly 25,000, Edzna served as a regional trading, political, and religious center. It featured rich farmlands, which were watered by an extensive canal system that radiated out from the center of the settlement. The principal structures at the site included the Grand Acropolis, the Building of Five Levels, and the Temple of the Masks.



During the 1980s, refugees from the Guatemalan civil war worked at the site and helped reconstruct Patio of the Ambassadors.


Following our return to Campeche, the students submitted their journals for review. Several of us then traveled to the downtown square and Walmart (really!) to get supplies for our upcoming trip to the remote area surrounding Calakmul.


For a full photo album click here.



June 9, 2016

On June 5, we left Merida and traveled to Campeche. Alan Cordle, one of Dr. Heath’s colleagues from the 2011 NEH program to Mexico, joined us for the trip. Our guide, Raul Garcia and driver Carlos Can, took us to a remote cenote, or limestone sinkhole, called Yaal Utzil in the small settlement of Mucuyche. There, Alan discussed the significance of cenotes in Mayan cosmology. We then descended a wooden staircase into the cenote and went swimming. Ruben Vasquez led the way, swinging on a vine into the water. Then, one of our fearless graduate students, Lyndsey Holloway, jumped off a 12 foot raised platform into the water. In a few minutes, Michelle Balliet, Serena Barbieri, Savanah Burns, Andrew Eckhoff, and D.J. Sandidge were splashing around in the cenote. I even jumped off the platform! (Brant still wasn’t feeling 100 percent so he stayed on the sidelines with mom).



After the cenote, we drove to Campeche. The city was built on the site of a former Mayan fishing village in 1540. Duri...

On Saturday, June 4, we traveled from Merida to visit the archaeological site at Uxmal. On the way, we stopped at the small village of Yaxcopoil, where our guide, Raul Garcia, led us to the ruins of a henequén plant that had once functioned as part of Hacienda Yaxcopoil. The name Yaxcopoil means “The Place of Green Alamo Trees” in Maya, and the plantation was named after the Maya ruins nearby. The hacienda was once considered one of the most important rural estates in Yucatan due to its tremendous size and production. Covering roughly 22,000 acres, it first served as a cattle ranch and then turned to henequén cultivation during the late 19th and early 20th century. Henequén , the fiber that comes from the agave plant native to Yucatan, can be processed to make agricultural twine that is strong, durable, and resistant to saltwater. Although henequén (like sisal) remains one of the world’s finest natural fibers, production plants in Mexico and other countries have gone out of business du...

On June 3, we were based in Merida at the Hotel Caribe, which is one block from the principal downtown square called Plaza de Armas or La Plaza Grande. We began the day with a tour of the city. Our guide, Raul Garcia, told us that Merida was the capital and largest city in the Mexican state of Yucatan. It was built on top of a large Mayan city, and currently has a population of roughly one million. We then traveled by van to the Monument to the Fatherland, which was constructed by Romulo Rozo Pena (1899-1964) along Merida’s Paseo de Montejo in 1956. The monument features critical events from Mexican history and includes handmade depictions of dozens of figures from Mexico’s past. From the monument, we traveled to one of the University of Yucatan’s downtown buildings (where our guide Raul attended school). The university’s library and radio station are located there now.



We then visited Plaza de Armas and took in four key Merida sites. The first, the Cathedral of Merida, was built on t...

On June 2 – our third day in Mexico – the SHSU study abroad group began bright and early at 7:00 am. Everyone met in the restaurant at Hotel Mesón del Marqués for an excellent breakfast of eggs, beans, toast, and coffee. Then, the students and Dr. Heath came to my room for a lecture on the history of tourism at Chichén Itzá.  This topic proved to be one of my favorites because it enabled me to talk about early explorers John Stephens and Fredrick Catherwood, the amateur archaeologist Edward Thompson, the Yucatecan Barbachano family, and the rise of Chichén Itzá and Cancún as tourist sites.


Prezi on the History of Tourism at Chichén Itzá.


Following our class discussion, we drove from Valladolid to Chichén Itzá. There, we had the pleasure of touring the site with our guide, Raúl Garcia, who received his Master’s degree under the direction of Dr. Rafael Cobos Palma at the Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán. Dr. Palma is an expert on Chichén Itzá, and in 2009 he conducted an archaeological an...

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Sam Houston State University

Box 2239 | Huntsville, TX 77341

Professor of History

Co-Chair, University Diversity Committee

Tel: 936 . 294 . 4438

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