Posted by: Johan Normark | March 29, 2009

El Mirador and “ideology”

The largest archaeological site in the Maya area is the Late Formative center of El Mirador in northern Guatemala. Its size is simply massive for the lack of a better word. It is being excavated by Richard Hansen (who was Mel Gibson’s consultant for the Apocalypto movie). El Mirador is being developed for tourism and by 2020 the plan is to have a propane powered train that will transport thousands of tourists to the site (and I guess the other huge sites in the Mirador basin, such as Nakbe, Tintal, Wakna and Xulnal).

Hansen’s team has recently exposed a large panel dating to around 200 B.C.  with motifs similar to those described in the much later Popol Vuh. Hansen argues that this is an example of “the remarkable resilience of an ideology that’s existed for thousands of years”. Ideology as Mayanists view it is a very coarse and quite outdated concept, it is nothing more than a static transcendent quasi-object. I would rather rephrase Hansen and suggest that the iconography is an example of an expressive axis of assemblages that have had a highly territorializing affect on its component parts (including people reproducing and viewing the figures).



  1. I recently traveled to the sites at Mirador, Nakbe and Uaxatun and spent several days hiking, camping and exploring the area as well as speaking with individuals who are involved in the community leadership and conservation of the areas. I also had the chance to speak to and spend time with some of the government workers at these sites and they all paint a very different picture of the Mirador project than Mr. Hansen seems to present.

    In my visit to the site and the various structures in the area it seems that Mr. Hansen’s push to “conserve” the site also includes uncovering structures and leaving them exposed, destroying sculptures in the process of excavation and tunneling through structures in search of artifacts that will keep the money flowing to him and this project.

    Meanwhile, he has constructed not one, but two very nice houses on the site entirely of mahogany construction with ceramic floors and stuccoed facades ornately painted with mayan art, Mr. Hansen’s temple if you will. The artifacts found there and any collaboration are strictly controlled by Hansen and his select team while the Guatemalan workers and government officials charged with patrol and protection of the area, are sent away and the area of discovery is quarantined and restricted to anyone not involved with his agenda.

    I heard stories of his support of a highway system that would cut through the Mirador basin as well as the potential for him to profit from the installation of a rail system to transport tourists into the area and his relentless push to force people from there land along the way in his lobbying efforts. I was told by leaders of his attempts to close routes of access to the site from Uaxatun and only allow operators to have access through Carmelita, the area that the rail would originate.

    I have to say that along the way I did not meet anyone who had any positive view of him as an archaeologist. Rather it was a bleak view that he was looting the area, that he was very influential and the people were fearful to speak against him because of his corporate backing and influence. I have to say that gauging what I saw, the looters have done less damage to the area than this man and the saddest part is that he has complete control with no oversight and if at some point he has to step away from the project then the control simply passes to his family who are also “archaeologists” on the project.

    I have a great respect for the Mayan culture and history, its richness and power to inspire the imagination. I have visited and explored sites in Belize and Guatemala over the past 4 years and met people and seen things most don’t get the opportunity to see. I heard about Mirador three years ago and planned and anticipated my visit to the site. The anticipation of this visit was definitely dampened by what I observed and was told by the local people. Mr. Hansen has an agenda there. It is his legacy that he seems most interested in and the people who inhabit the area and could be part of the process are being shut out while the history and treasure that is Mirador is being exploited, misrepresented and unilaterally controlled by him.

    Unfortunately it seems that unless others can go and spend some time there as more than just tourists then the status quo will prevail. The indiscriminate exposure of structures, dissemination of information and speculation on history of the area and peoples that accords with Mr. Hansen’s religious views instead of what can be shown to be factually accurate, and the courting of corporate sponsors who will expect some return on their investment will destroy this area. The consumerist and political/religious ideology of a disconnected stranger that seeks something other than the truth and history of the area will be the destruction of this beautiful and tremendous piece of human history and culture.

    I’m glad I got to see it before it is devoured. I am sad for the people of Guatemala at what they are about to lose.

    • Thanks for the information and sorry for the delayed response (I have been travelling for six weeks). Many long-term archaeological projects do tend to see the sites where they are working as “theirs”. I therefore suspect you can hear similar stories from many projects. There are also rumours surrounding any project that gets distorted along the way (I know that from several of the projects where I have worked). Just to give you an example: In the CRAS field report in 2002 there is a depiction of a serpent head found in a sweat bath. The depiction shows the same serpent head from two different angles. One year later the rumour was that there had been two serpent heads and that the archaeologists had taken one of them. If similar distortions are true for Hansen’s project(s) I do not know. However, he is very succesful in exposing himself and El Mirador:

      I am not in favour of his kind of archaeology (“I have the biggest pyramdids”) and for various reasons I am not surprised of what you have written. However, it will be difficult to get an “objective” view of the situation in the Mirador basin. It would be a positive thing if more than one person could lead the excavations in that area though…

  2. One last little comment connecting to the reference to his “teams” discovery of the panel depicting the Popol Vuh. It seems, according to people working at the site, that this “discovery” was actually made by a a doctor employed to provide care to the workers on the project. The story goes that there had been no injuries or illness in the encampment for sometime and he was restless for something productive to do. Hansen gave him some digging tools and sent him and two other men to “just go find some place and start digging”. So with no direction they did just that and as they dug into the area this panel was found in also were destroying parts of it before it was recognized to be what it was. Once Hansen heard of it he came and took over, sent everyone away and proclaimed “his” discovery. The doctor was paid twenty five dollars for his part.

  3. I Glad To See The Artifacts Kept Insitu,Rather That The Plunder That Was Veiled In The Cloth Of Scolasticism,For God,Country,And Alma Mater.Hansen Is An Excelent Fund Raiser,He Wants To Have A Train To Mayaland.He Has $12,000,000 Promised From Doners From Citi Bank,GHF,Fundesa,Private Doners And The Guate Goverment,Much Being Laundered Through PACUNMAM.
    I Respect Your Effort To See El Mirador,In Itz Present State,And Your Heads-up On The Meglamania Of Dr.Hansen aka Col.Kurtz.


  5. Ryan, as a member of the Mirador Basin Project and someone who has worked with Richard Hansen for the last decade I do not purport to be entirely unbiased in my opinion on him and his project. However, there are many facts that true irregardless of the person stating them, and there are many of these that flatly contradict the entirely negative picture you have presented. For example, you state that you have “heard stories of his support of a highway system” but clearly you never spoke to him or read any of his own publications on this subject, for if you had you would know that Richard is the strongest opponent of any and all roads in the region, which he sees as leading to inevitable deforestation and the destruction of the environment of the Mirador Basin. Your claim that he has left buildings exposed, “destroying sculptures in the process of excavation” and essentially looting the buildings in order to sell the artifacts and thus fund the project is not only patently false (I would urge you to present even a single example of this if I was not already certain you actually never heard of any specific examples) but libelous as well. Hansen and his team have spent literally millions of dollars consolidating and backfilling the structures he has excavated, as well as providing scientifically designed roofs and other protective materials specifically to avoid just the type of damage you purport we cause.

    It is clear that your guides and the “community leaders” you spoke to are not fans of Hansen, which is not surprising since Hansen’s conservation campaign means stopping the illegal logging that has deforested so much of Peten. You cannot please everyone, and since conservation and the lawless exploitation of the jungle are not compatible, it comes with the territory that we will make some enemies of the local people. However, the Mirador Basin Project also has tremendous support from many other people in the same communities, having provided employment, community support, and education, such that we now have multiple generations working for the project. It is most unfortunate that you let only the one group form your opinion of Hansen, without ever contacting him, or apparently even reading any of the project publications. This has led you to report gossip as fact. Case in point, your comment on the Popol Vuh frieze. The “doctor” you claim found the frieze is Craig Argyle, who is a doctor and indeed did find the frieze, but he is also a student at Idaho State University and was investigating the water system in the Central Acropolis of El Mirador as part of research that was planned out long before the season began. So there was plenty of direction, and you are 100% wrong that Craig or anyone else destroyed any part of the frieze. Again, what you say is libelous gossip without any foundation in facts. I do not ask that you simply take our word for it, but I would also hope that next time you do not post one-sided gossip as fact without actually looking at the actual data and other perspectives.

  6. Yes, archaeological projects do always face positive and negative attitudes. Although most are positive I have also experienced the negative part. I was working with the El Pilar/BRASS project for three seasons and in 2000 I was surveying the borders of the El Pilar reserve. One late day I had accidently left a survey flag five meters inside the territory of the former owner of this land. The morning after we found a large sign saying “No trespassing” on that spot. We could often hear chainsaw’s from illegal logging in the distant while surveying the reserve. Needless to say, somone did not want our presence there.


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