Pioneers in Maya Archaeology
Submitted by Keith Merwin
Most students of Mesoamerican archaeology would not recognize the name Raymond Merwin. But his work provided a number of firsts in the field. The site he is most identified with Holmul, Guatemala is often shown on maps of sites in the Peten. His excavation work there in 1910 and 1911 was the first stratigraphical study of a Maya ruin and produced the first ceramic sequence. Merwin located the famous twin tower structure at Rio Bec. At Lubaantun he found three round carved stones that he called ball court markers, the first such reference. Yet because of a long illness and early death little about his work was published and he is all but unknown.
Raymond Edwin Merwin was born in Humbolt, Kansas November 21, 1881. He received his undergraduate degrees from the University of Kansas. In 1906, Raymond entered Harvard University as a graduate student, he would receive his Ph.D. in June 1913, and started work at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology at Harvard, which was and is the heart of the Harvard Anthropology program. He was appointed to the Hemenway Fellowship for several years while working in the field for the Peabody.
The Peabody Museum planned an expedition to Guatemala in 1909 naming Dr. Alfred Tozzer field director and Raymond second officer. Raymond was also named the Peabody's Fellow in Central American Archaeology. The main objective for the trip was to map Tikal and gather the information needed to be able to publish the report on Tikal started by Teobert Maler. Raymond performed the surveys and photography at Nakum and Tikal and supervised work done at newly located sites including Holmul. The expedition produced not only the completion of the Maler report on Tikal but also two other Peabody Museum reports, one on Tikal and another on Nakum. He returned from this trip with a bad insect bite that would not heal. His health would continue to deteriorate for the rest of his life. Dr Francisco Estrada-Belli, head of the current research at Holmul, has suggested Raymond suffered from Chagas Disease.
Following the expedition of 1909-1910, Raymond was renamed Fellow in Central American Archaeology and the director of the expedition of 1910-1911. His younger brother Bruce, who had worked for the Peabody Museum at other sites, assisted him on this expedition. This expedition focused on Holmul. The expedition produced the first stratigraphical study of a Maya ruin. One building in particular Building B, Group II, produced much more than anyone would have hoped for. Jeremy Sabloff in his book “the New Archaeology and the Ancient Maya” sates “When in 1912 R. E. Merwin of the Peabody Museum excavated a pyramid at the site of Holmul, he found for the first time evidence that a succession of buildings had occupied the same location.” The results of this expedition were not published until many years later as, The Ruins of Holmul, Guatemala. By Raymond E. Merwin and George C. Vaillant.
Raymond was again director of the expedition in 1911-1912, this time he was joined by Chief Assistant Clarence L. Hay and J. L. Peters, Zoologist. They traveled to the southern region of Quintana Roo and the Hondo River area. The expedition explored Rio Bec locating groups of ruins undiscovered by Comte Maurice de Perigny. One ruin they located and photographed, Raymond called Temple B a structure that has twin towers with false doorways and is the basis of the so called “Rio Bec” style of Mayan architecture. Other sites including the ruin of Kohunlich best known for its Temple of the Masks were located on this expedition.
The 1914-1915 season found Raymond and his assistant A. W. Carpenter exploring Guatemala and British Honduras. A good deal of time was spent at Lubaantun locating many new structures and producing the first photographs and map. Raymond brought three carved round stones back to the Peabody Museum. Interestingly, Alfred M. Tozzer in his biography of Raymond included with the 1932 publication The Ruins of Holmul, Guatemala states “From this site he brought back three circular carved stones which he calls in his notebook 'Ball Game' stones. He has a drawing of a ball-court with the position of the stones carefully noted. This is probably the first definite statement of such a structure in a site, possibly First Empire.”
Raymond did not return to the field after 1915. He continued to work at the Peabody Museum for several years on his notes from the various expeditions. Raymond's premature death, on November 25, 1928, would keep him from publishing the details of his work. His obituary explains it this way, “In this work he contracted a tropical disease which baffled the skill of many physicians and from which he never recovered.”
Sources: The New Archaeology and the Ancient Maya by Jeremy A. Sabloff; The Ruins of Holmul, Guatemala. By Raymond E. Merwin and George C. Vaillant; Field notes in the Archives of the Peabody Museum, Harvard University; Personal correspondence in the collection of the author.