In the Green Room

Archaeologist Anabel Ford

I’d Like to Go Into a Maya House to See How They Lived

Photo by Aaron Salcido.

Anabel Ford is an archaeologist and Director of the MesoAmerican Research Center at the University of California Santa Barbara. She is best known for her rediscovery of the ancient Maya city center of El Pilar. Before taking part in a Zócalo/Getty Villa panel discussion titled “What Can the Ancient World Teach Us About Living Sustainably?” at the Getty Villa, she spoke in the green room about being a California teenager in Lebanon, Native American bracelets, and riding a train from Mexicali to Mexico City.

Q:
How did your interest in Maya culture start?

A:
I had lived in Europe and the Middle East, and my whole early education … was European. And I decided that I wanted to know what was American…. So when I was about 18, when I graduated from high school and I was here in Los Angeles, I drove down to Calexico, crossed over the Mexicali, and took the train. It was the equivalent of about $12.75, second-class train, and went all the way to Mexico City. And I was a backpacker and I really was interested in anthropology, and became very captivated by it. And so the next year I went down and joined a project in the Petén of Guatemala. And I got to know people there, I liked them and went back to visit them, and pretty soon that became my career.

Q:
So was there a teacher or professor who really influenced you?

A:
Not so much. It was really a question of the settlement and environment. When I was four years old I was in Sicily, and at 14 I was in Babylon, and when I was 18, 19, I was in Tikal. And there is a common ground; they’re all ancient civilizations. What made them flourish, and what made them dissipate? And how did people live?

Q:
What are you reading for pleasure?

A:
I’m reading Infamy: The Shocking Story of the Japanese American Internment in World War II, by Richard Reeves. When I was taking my 12th-grade class in contemporary American problems, I discovered that we incarcerated Japanese Americans. I also just finished reading Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism. It was a great book, but really for me very hard to read. He’s dense. And while I really agree with the premise—I have this whole thing I’m working on called ecological imperialism, and I know he’s talking about that—some of the stuff, literature and this whole deconstruction stuff, it gets way too hard for me to plow through. But I did. But very readable is his autobiography, Out of Place.

Q:
If you could time-travel to any period, which would you pick?

A:
You know, I sort of got over that idea when I imagined it. I was in Tikal, and it was a thunderstorm, lightning, and I had gotten permission to walk in at night. And I was, “Wow, this is really impressive!” And then I was thinking, “If I were really here, what would I be? I would be a slog [commoner]!” So I kind of got over that. Unless I could go in to their house, and see how they lived!

Q:
What’s one of your happiest childhood memories?

A:
When I lived in Beirut I was very much learning to be a person, and I was very independent. And I think those were both very challenging times, because there is a lot of prejudice from Americans toward the Middle East, but also Middle Eastern people are prejudiced against Americans. I don’t know if you’d call it happy, but understanding that was very challenging and very rewarding for me.

Q:
How did living in Lebanon help you learn to be a person?

A:
Well, I went to a Lebanese school, and I was a displaced California teenager and I was really very unhappy about that part. But realizing that the North American people that I met weren’t the kind of people that I wanted to be, I think that cleared up my mind on what I should be.

Q:
I have to ask about your bracelets.

A:
I’m glad you did! They’re actually all from the Northwest coast. These are Tlingit and Haida. Ordinarily they would wear only copper. If you’ve seen pictures by Edward S. Curtis, they would [show Native Americans] wearing them all up their arms.