By Erin Papakostas ’23 (she/her), Staff Writer

Poster image courtesy of Dr. Maxime Lamoureux-St-Hilaire, art by Walter Paz-Joj

The 14th annual Maya at the Playa Conference, one of the leading Maya conferences in the world, took place over a four-day period from October 1st through the 4th. This year’s theme was “Indigenous Maya Writing and Literatures,” and the event was co-hosted by Davidson Anthropology professor Dr. Maxime Lamoureux-St-Hilaire (known as Dr. Max among his students) and Mat Saunders, anthropology teacher at Davidson Day School. 

The conference is always tied to the study of the Maya civilization/peoples, thus the name Maya at the Playa. Saunders founded the conference in 2007, and the event usually takes place in Palm Coast, Florida. Saunders and Lamoureux-St-Hilaire met in Belize in 2009 while doing fieldwork.

The duo organizes a sister conference in the spring called Maya at the Lago and co-edits a journal called The Mayanist. They also make up the staff of the nonprofit organization American Foreign Academic Research (AFAR), which the website describes as “an organization dedicated to the advancement of archaeological field research, cultural site preservation, and the belief that the science can be advanced through the education and outreach of professionals and non-professionals alike.”

This year, the conference took place over Zoom with free admission for all attendees. Saunders and Dr. Lamoureux-St-Hilaire took advantage of the online format to broaden the scope of the topic in hopes of attracting a diverse audience. Dr. Lamoureux-St-Hilaire said Maya hieroglyphs are generally quite popular, so the theme appealed to people from all over the world. 

After coming up with this year’s theme, Saunders and Dr. Lamoureux-St-Hilaire compiled their ideal list of speakers with authority on the topic. “The most famous Maya scholar was one of our presenters, David Stuart from UT Austin. He’s extremely famous, and he’s also a buddy,” Dr. Lamoureux-St-Hilaire said. This year’s conference included modern Indigenous scholars, as well as authorities in archaeology and anthropology, and a historian. 

“We’ve always invited people from Mexico or Guatemala or Belize to come and speak, but now we are trying to emphasize inviting Indigenous scholars to speak,” Dr. Lamoureux-St-Hilaire commented. “The ultimate ‘lemonade’ — you know the expression ‘when life hands you lemons, you make lemonade’ — of the web conference was our capacity to invite more people from abroad.” 

“We had a professional artist who is Kaqchikel, from the highlands of Guatemala, who presented in Spanish. We had a Kʼicheʼ speaker; she lives in the United States, Iyaxel Cojti Ren. She is a very prominent young scholar and Indigenous Maya woman and archaeologist. And then Walter Paz Joj, who is an ajtz’ib,’ a scribe or artist, from the Kaqchikel highlands of Guatemala. This was the first time we ever had Spanish in our presentations, so that was really cool,” Dr. Lamoureux-St-Hilaire said. 

Part of the conference included a workshop component. An ordinary conference, Saunders said, normally includes two workshops: an introductory one, and another for intermediate/advanced attendees. In the virtual setting this year, there was just one workshop.

“The online workshop caused more apprehension than anything else in the conference,” Saunders said, explaining that the online format was tricky for this interactive component of the conference. 

Led by Dr. Harri Kettunen from the University of Helsinki, Dr. Marc Zender from Tulane University and Dr. John Chuchiak from Missouri State University, the workshop focused on the manuscript from Spanish friar Diego de Landa, whose notes created a “Rosetta Stone” for the ancient Mayan language. In particular, the workshop explored the decipherment and interpretation of the hieroglyphics. Handouts were available for download on the website so participants could follow along. According to Saunders, the attendees thought the workshop was a success, and that message transferred well in the virtual setting. 

In preparation for the online conference, Saunders and Dr. Lamoureux-St-Hilaire secured one of Davidson’s two webinar licenses and then learned to run the license. They sought permission to allow Saunders into Dr. Lamoureux-St-Hilaire’s office due to COVID-19 regulations, and Saunders and Lamoureux-St-Hilaire acted as the MCs for the event. They live-streamed from Lamoureux-St-Hilaire’s office, handled the introductions, and facilitated the Q&A portion after each presentation. 

Saunders explained that to avoid any technology-related complications during the conference, they organized a “tech check” before speakers went live. The behind-the-scenes was not stress-free: at the last minute, one of their recurring speakers, archaeologist Dr. Jaime Awe, was unable to attend. 

Dr. Lamoureux-St-Hilaire explained how they resolved the complication: “The conference was starting at 3:00 on Saturday, and at 1:00, I called my buddy and fellow archaeologist who is a student at Tulane and was like, ‘Dude, can you present at 5:00 pm today?,’ and he said ‘Okay, I’ll do it.’” Ruben Morales-Forte, an early PhD student, stepped in for an advanced scholar at the last minute, but Dr. Lamoureux-St-Hilaire said it ended up working out. 

Overall, more than 450 people attended the conference, with about 210-220 participants per day, according to Dr. Lamoureux-St-Hilaire. “It was a little less than I hoped, I thought that people would flock for speakers like Simon Martin, David Stuart, and Judith Maxwell,” he said. 

He said that he knew people organizing watch parties, so while it looked like only one person logged on, there could have been others watching in tandem. Participants tuned in from China, Korea, Belgium, Russia, Guatemala, Mexico, and Belize. 

The online format made the event more accessible to those interested in Mayan studies. Saunders described the pros and cons to the virtual setting: in a typical scenario, they would be lucky to have 100 people attend in person, but “the online format takes the social element out of the conference,” Saunders said. 

From a financial perspective, the online conference was beneficial for AFAR; without having to cover travel and hotel expenses for their speakers, this was the first time AFAR did not lose money on the conference. This year, their only main expense was sending a care package to their presenters with a t-shirt, a poster, and a copy of The Mayanist journal. 

Sara Wilson ‘22 participated in the conference as an Anthropology major interested in archaeology. “I had never been to the conference before, but the online format made it much more accessible to those who weren’t already in the field,” Wilson said. She could only attend the conference because it was online and felt the virtual setting allowed a range of people interested in archaeology to attend.  

Saunders said, “We asked the speakers to deliver a presentation that discusses their current research in a way that a college freshman would understand. It’s a balance of not too technical that an attendee would have to have PhD to understand, but not too watered-down that a professor wouldn’t get something out of it.” Saunders added that the conference will usually invite graduate students to present so they receive recognition and exposure as they enter the field.

“The conference attracts a lot of scholars, colleagues, and professors from across the world,” Saunders said. He explained that the Maya have a big draw from non-scholars, as well. “People travel to Mexico and Central America, and when they visit these amazing sites, they will come back with an interest in Mayan culture.”

Wilson explained that while she felt the lectures were mostly aimed for people who have some background information in the field, “the speakers did a great job of breaking down what they’re talking about.” When describing her ability to understand the presenters she added, “They didn’t assume everyone knew everything about the topic, but some things went over my head.” 

Saunders said that the conference was advertised in Archaeology magazine and marketed through Facebook. Additionally, various archaeology organizations posted about the event, and Saunders and Dr. Lamoureux-St-Hilaire notified participants who attended the previous conferences through email.

Wilson heard about the conference from multiple sources: in class with Dr. Lamoureux-St-Hilaire, through posters hung around the Anthropology Department, and in an advertisement in Davidson’s The Crier. Wilson even passed the information on to some of her other friends from different schools. 

She attended two talks on the evening of Friday, October 2nd: one by Mallory Matsumoto, whose talk was titled “Hieroglyphs in Context: Ideologies of Classic Maya Writing,” and another by Jocelyne Ponce, who focused her lecture on “Maya History beyond Glyphs: The Archaeological Experience of La Corona’s Hieroglyphic Stairway 2.” 

The conference was recorded, and the speakers’ sessions will be available through the AFAR website and on their YouTube channel. Saunders explained that the recordings cannot currently be posted because some speakers’ research has not been published yet, and they did not want the video released. 

The Maya at the Playa conference was Wilson’s first online conference, and she was impressed with her experience. “It felt [the same as] it would in person,” Wilson said.