Museum curator thanks his inspiration: a sixth-grade history teacher

As a museum curator, I have the pleasure of working with lots of volunteers. Most of them are students who are interested in archaeology, anthropology and museum careers. This time of the year, as graduation nears, there is an uptick in requests to come visit with me and ask for information and advice. “How did you become a museum curator?” is a question I hear often. “How long do you need to study?” is another one. One of the first things I bring up is that finding employment in anthropology is not easy. However, it is possible. Moreover, I ask my visitors to suggest one field of study where one would be guaranteed a job upon graduation. I can think of only very few.

Van den Bossche, Gaston

Gaston Van den Bossche, a man who made a difference with his students.

The first question – How does one become a museum curator? – has many answers, I am sure. In my case, there was one elementary school teacher who made a difference, now 44 years ago, to be exact. The sixth and final year in elementary school, my class had a teacher who loved history. He loved the city we lived in too, and it just so happened that city had a very long history.

As the year went by, he organized us into groups and assigned various projects. One involved painting a bird’s eye view of what our hometown would have looked like in the Middle Ages. That required research. It also entailed getting covered in paint as we worked on that assignment. Eventually two different canvases were finished. Much to our delight, they were hung in the entrance to the library. In another assignment, we were divided into five or six groups, each named after a Medieval guild. Some of us were the “coopers” or barrel makers, others the “tanners,” “bakers,” etc.  We were given assignments. To get the answers, we had to visit museums and churches, observe and ask questions. It made us interact with the past, and made this past come alive. It became part of what I got interested in. All because of a teacher.

As time went by, that sixth grade class went on to graduate. I found myself continuing down this path of “studying old things.” This took me from a university in Belgium to a U.S. institution in New Orleans, always pursuing the study of these “old things.” Over the years, that meant studying Roman and Greek history, some Egyptian history, and ultimately the art, archaeology, and history of American cultures, especially the Maya.

Photo by Robin Merrit

Photo by Robin Merrit

I have been very blessed to find a job, and to find myself working at a museum, where I now teach visitors, young, old and anyone in between. Sharing what you have learned about a culture that happens to be the topic of an exhibit is a joy. It is very rewarding to see the light come on in a child, when they “get it.” I love hearing visitors say to each other “I did not know that…” as they walk out of an exhibit. I am indebted to my old teacher for this sense of awe. It never left him. I hope it will never leave me.

Sadly, I recently received news that the man who sent me on my quest, and created that spark in me, had passed. Reason for sadness? For sure. Another reason to keep guiding people as much as possible, and maybe, just maybe, make a difference with one or two people? Absolutely. Next time you see a teacher at a reunion, and you know they made a difference in your life, say so. Give them a hug. They deserve it.

The sweetest story: Learn about the chocolate revolution at an HMNS Distinguished Lecture

On cold nights, one of the best comforts out there is hot chocolate. You come home from a long day’s work, take off your coat, defrost a bit (OK, we’re in Houston, so just go with me here), boil up some water, add in the mix and mmmm … hot chocolate.

Oh, the convenience of it all! But have you ever wondered what the real story of this drink was?


As modern Americans, we might consider hot chocolate to be a unique invention, seeing that much more of the chocolate around us exists in its hard candy form. But really, this drink harkens back all the way to early Mesoamerican cultures.

Cacao cultivation started as early as 1400 B.C. by the Olmec civilization. From residue left on pottery, we can tell that the Olmecs used the bean to create a fermented drink, most likely used in religious ceremonies. The Maya borrowed the Olmec’s cultivation techniques but created a drink far more recognizable to today’s chocolate connoisseurs, creating the first “modern” chocolate 2,000 years ago. The drink was associated with fertility and was also used in a ritual setting.
The Aztecs, in turn, borrowed from the Maya and seasoned it with vanilla, chili pepper and achiote to create a bitter, frothy drink called xocolatl. By this time, the beverage had become a luxury item for wealthy Mayans. Europeans would pick up on this when they came to the New World, and maintained chocolate as a luxury item for European courts until the Industrial Revolution would make chocolate accessible to the masses.

In 1828, the cocoa press was invented by Dutch chocolatier Coenraad J. van Houten. The press created a fine powder from roasted cacao beans, which dramatically lowered the production price. This, in turn, paved the way for British chocolatier J.S. Fry to make the world’s first chocolate bar in 1830. In 1875, the Swiss were the first to add powdered milk to the mix, creating milk chocolate.

Today chocolate is a worldwide industry, with 45 percent of chocolate revenue coming from Europe and two-thirds of cocoa produced in Western Africa. So to all the chocoholics out there, be grateful for the rich history of chocolate, which has made it so readily available to us today!

Can’t get enough chocolate history? Come to HMNS on Tues., Feb. 4 for “Chocolate, A Revolution in a Cup” as part of our Distinguished Lecture series. The lecture starts at 6:30 p.m., but come early for a chocolate frothing demonstration … and stick around after to taste unique chocolates from Araya Artisan Chocolate!

HMNS Distinguished Lecture
“Chocolate, A Revolution in a Cup”
Rosemary Joyce, Ph.D.
Tues., Feb. 04, 2014
6:30 p.m.

This lecture is cosponsored by Archaeology Institute of America Houston Society. Get tickets!

Teachers, get credit for hearing the chocolate doctor at a special Teacher Tuesday just for you:

ExxonMobil Teacher Tuesday
“Domestication of Plants: Chocolate”
Tues., Feb, 4, 5
8 p.m.

Examine the natural science and yummy cultural history of chocolate with hands-on classroom activities. Then attend lecture by Dr. Rosemary Joyce, who will tell how the cacao plant was domesticated to produce chocolate. Purchase tickets.

An early Maya metropolis: El Mirador raises questions for archaeologists

Located in the Central Maya Lowlands in what is now northern Guatemala, the Preclassic city of El Mirador was a giant compared to most of its contemporaries. Its massive ruins still tower above the rainforest canopy. They are silent witnesses to Maya ingenuity and the Maya’s ability to sustain such a massive settlement so early in their history. Agriculture involving the cultivation of corn, beans and squash enabled its inhabitants to thrive.

Manmade plaster-lined catchment areas collected water, making up for the absence of rivers. Even in such apparently mundane aspects of city life, the Maya showed their artistic nature.

El Mirador: An early Maya metropolisDr. Richard Hansen kneeling next to plastered panel at El Mirador.
(Image courtesy of Dr. Hansen).

In March 2009, archaeologists discovered a series of panels made of carved and modeled-lime plaster that lined a water collection system in an area of the city known as the Central Acropolis. The panels and water collection tanks date to the Late Preclassic period, from 300 B.C. to the beginning of our era. The panels, which flank the series of pools in this unique water control system, depict two “swimming” individuals that are framed by cosmic monsters of great importance in ancient Maya art.

According to Dr. Richard Hansen, who led the team of archaeologists at El Mirador: “[T]he ‘swimmers’ represent the Hero Twins of the Popol Vuh.” He is referring to the Quiche Maya text of the Maya creation story, which was found in the highland town of Chichicastenango in A.D. 1700 and transcribed by a Dominican monk named Francisco Ximenez by about 1704 A.D.

Dr. Stephen Houston, who has worked at the neighboring site of El Zotz, says, “These figures represent god impersonators and bear no secure connection to twins in the Popol Vuh.” Instead, he argues,”Perhaps the artists commemorated a narrative of the first rainmakers and their watery assistants. In this way the rulers of El Mirador, through the mechanism of deity impersonation, presented themselves as supernatural agents who controlled the rain.”

El Mirador: An early Maya metropolisReplica of the El Mirador panel on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

What we have here is one of the earliest representations to mythical characters we know from the Popol Vuh. The problem is that there is a huge time gap between this plaster panel and the earliest-known document referencing the Popol Vuh. The Newberry Library’s manuscript of this creation story is one of the most widely known and possibly the earliest surviving copy. It was transcribed between 1700 and 1715 in Chichicastenango, Guatemala, by the Dominican priest Francisco Ximénez. Father Brasseur de Bourbourg published a French translation of the text in1861. Images of the title page and first page of the text of the Ximenez manuscript are also on display. An original print of the latter, dating back to 1861, is currently also on display at our Maya 2012: Prophecy Becomes History exhibit.

An alternative interpretation of what we see in the panel is that it illustrates the role of Maya royalty.  As intermediaries between our physical world and the supernatural one, Maya rulers were called upon to ensure plentiful rains.

Proponents of either hypothesis have reasons to support their line of thinking. Because there are no inscriptions clearly identifying these characters in the water as either mythical heroes or historical rulers from El Mirador, I would favor a third interpretation: we just do not know who is represented here.

Visit Maya 2012: Prophecy Becomes History through March 31 and draw your own conclusions.

Educator How-To: Calculating your birthday in Maya Long Count

Adapted from “Cracking the Maya Code,” a NOVA activity.

We’re familiar with a method of tracking time that uses days, months, years, decades, and centuries. This method of timekeeping is based upon the Gregorian Calendar System. The Maya, however, measured time in kins, uinals, tuns, katuns and baktuns using a system called the Long Count.  If you add the numbers in a Maya Long Count date, the sum is the number of days from the beginning of the Maya Fourth Creation:  August 13, 3114 B.C.

Educator How-To: Calculate your birthday in Maya Long CountMaya Long Count dates are written as a series of numbers separated by periods. For example,  12 . 18 . 14 . 11. 16 (December 31, 1987) is the date you will use as a starting point for your calculations. The same date is shown below in its separate component parts above its representative glyph.

Educator How-To: Calculate your birthday in Maya Long Count

Step One: Using the “Maya Long Count Conversion” chart above, convert each place value in the date 12 . 18 . 14 . 11 . 16  into days. Add these five numbers together and subtract 2 to get the total number of days. A formula has been provided below to help you get started. You will need to do your calculations on another sheet of paper.

12*Baktun + 18*Katun + 14* Tun + 11*Uinal + 16*Kin – 2 = ________days

Step Two: Record your birth date (in the Gregorian method). If you were born prior to January 1, 1988, calculate the number of days from the day you were born to December 31, 1987 (Answer A). If you were born on or after January 1, 1988, calculate the number of days from this date to the day you were born (Answer B). Keep in mind that leap years have an extra day. The chart below will help you with the number of days for each month. Record this number.

Educator How-To: Calculate your birthday in Maya Long Count

Note: The following are leap years and have a total of 366 days (a 29th day in February): 1960, 1964, 1968, 1972, 1976, 1980, 1984, 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008, and 2012.  All non-leap years have 365 days.

Step Three:  If you calculated answer A, subtract this number from the Step One answer. If you calculated answer B, add this number to the answer from Step One. Record this number..

Step Four:
Convert the number of days since the Maya Fourth Creation to your birth date in Maya Long Count using the “Maya Long Count Conversions” chart.

To calculate your birthday:

How many whole baktuns are there in C days?  This number (we’ll call it D) goes in the baktun position.
How many days are left over from C after you subtract the number of days in D baktuns? Call this E.
How many whole katuns are in E days? Call this number F and put it in the katun position.
How many days are left over from E after you subtract the number of days in F katuns? Call this number G.
How many whole tuns are in G days?  Call this number H and put it in the tun position.
How many days are left over from G after you subtract the number of days in H tuns? Call this number I.
How many whole uinals are in I days? Call this number J and put it in the uinal position.
How many days are left over after you subtract the number of days in J uinals? This is the number of kin in your birthday.

Fill in the spaces using your calculations, and check your answer here by plugging it into the applet.

Educator How-To: Calculate your birthday in Maya Long Count