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An interpreter of Maya culture
Harri Kettunen’s discoveries include a hitherto unknown Maya city. The best ideas come to him at four in the morning, studying hieroglyphs at home in Virenoja.

Jani Saxell

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Harri Kettunen, who last December defended his doctoral dissertation on Maya art and hieroglyphs, is very much at home in the Didrichsen Art and Cultural Museum in Helsinki’s Kuusisaari. The museum displays discoveries by the renowned archaeologist Arthur Demarest from the excavations at Cancuen in Guatemala. Kettunen shows me obsidian knives, jadeite earrings and stucco statues that guarded a Maya palace. He stops to interpret the hieroglyphs on a magnificent stone panel and comments on a slight error in the Finnish translation.

Kettunen was not involved in Demarest’s research project before the exhibition came to Finland, but he has visited Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and Southern Mexico a dozen times.

“I am trained in Maya art and writing system, not in archaeology,” Kettunen explains. The ‘armchair archaeologist’ has, however, spent four summers at excavations in Belize. He does not have any colleagues in Finland, and only one in each Nordic country. His research from his home in Orimattila’s Virenoja, a village approximately 90 kilometres from Helsinki, is made easier by his daily routine. He can contact his colleagues in Central and North America in real time by e-mail in the small hours. That is the time when his brainwaves on the interpretation of hieroglyphs come to him.

From stargazers to warriors

Popular literature and school textbooks still cherish the image of the Maya as a people ruled by a stargazing priest class, giving rise to a peaceful civilisation. Scientific study has turned this idealised image on its head in many ways in the past few decades.

“The Maya are the only pre-Columbian culture whose texts have been preserved up to our time in the thousands. They reveal the Maya to have been a people like all others. In the 7th and 8th centuries AD, the area was the most populous in the world and the city-states waged wars against each other,” says Kettunen.

Kettunen explains that there are quite human reasons why the idealised image of the Maya arose. An early authority on Maya studies, the British archaeologist Eric Thompson had experienced two world wars. “He wanted to believe that the world had had at least one peaceful civilisation.”

Revolutions in the image of the Maya are sure to come for quite a long time. New information is gained almost daily as it is estimated that a mere 5 per cent of Maya cities have been scientifically studied. “The downside is that grave robbers have penetrated far more sites. The artefacts are in private collections or museums,” says Kettunen.

Grave robbers and archaeologists

The Spanish conquistadores did not vanquish the last Maya stronghold until 1697. Today, there are approximately five million Maya descendants in Central America, speaking 31 different languages. Latin America is seeing a revival of native cultures and a heightening of their self-esteem. This is also reflected in Maya studies, says Kettunen. “In the past, it was Guatemalan government policy that the modern Maya should not know too much about their history. Today, however, the people are interested in their roots, and even small children are given courses in hieroglyphic writing.”

When Kettunen began to study Maya culture in the early 1990s, he only had a handful of colleagues with a Maya background. Today, he meets them continually at conferences. On the other hand, poverty and underdevelopment cause many modern Maya to be indifferent to their heritage. Kettunen tells us how he has spoken with local Belize people who do not make much of a distinction between grave robbers and archaeologists. “Archaeologists take the artefacts and objects to vaults and museums, away from the country in the worst cases. At least some of the profits of grave robbers stay in the country to benefit the local community.”

The time for the Indiana Joneses is over

Kettunen is strongly in favour of the type of archaeology carried out by Demarest. It educates local people to foster their own cultural heritage and takes into consideration the ecological and social consequences of archaeological excavations and tourism. A recent doctoral graduate and a down-to-earth person, Kettunen wants to dispel the Indiana Jones romanticism surrounding

archaeological fieldwork. “More than 90 per cent of archaeology consists of rather boring archiving or washing shards of pottery with a toothbrush. It is very seldom that we find objects that are completely intact.”

Once, thanks to the clearing of a maize field, Kettunen, along with his colleagues, discovered a Maya city hitherto unknown to the scientific world. “A lump of rock was caught in the plough of Mennonite farmers. The site revealed the

centre of a city with its temples, and 50 mounds, which were the remains of buildings – that is, a medium-sized Maya city.”

Belize is a place where one better beware of grave robbers and drug dealers. Most jungle animals shrink away from human sounds but fer-de-lance vipers are interested in archaeologists. “The worst I have experienced was being bitten by a venomous spider. Fortunately, local herbal medi-cine cures are available. That is a kind of know-how that should be kept alive.”

Kettunen wants to continue his research and teaching in Finland. “I am not too keen on taking two young children to the other side of the world. Also, if I leave, I take the entire study of pre-Columbian Maya culture in the country with me. I would like to have sufficient students to ensure the continuity of the field in Finland.”

Harri Kettunen: Nasal Motifs in Maya Iconography.

Back to summer issue 2006