Thursday, May 23, 2013

Observing the Environmental Impact of our Trash in the Oceans

Greetings Morton 5th Graders!

On Wednesday, we had an eventful day on the island.  In one of our projects, students were collecting sand samples to analyze the amount of trash mixed in with the sand grains.  You would be surprised with the amount of trash is in the oceans, and how much of it gets washed up on beaches, becoming mixed in with the sand and affecting plant and animal life.  Trash and debris found in the oceans are mostly plastic and styrofoam, that has been just thrown away instead of being recycled.  Please remember to recycle your plastics. The environmental impact is huge, and we must do as much as possible to reduce/reuse/recycle. 

My internet has been really weak while here on the island.  I didn’t see any questions from you today, so if any were sent, I’m sorry that I missed them. 

Today (Thursday) we toured the Smithsonian Marine Station on Carrie Bow Caye.  After, we went snorkeling at a section of the Belize Barrier Reef, the second largest barrier reef in the world!  In the afternoon, we will be taking the boat back to the mainland, and staying in Dangriga.  Friday we are heading back to Atlanta, so this will be my last blog post.  I have really enjoyed your questions.  I look forward to seeing you all on June 3rd!

Dr. Atchison
Georgia State University

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Living on a Belizean Island

Greetings Morton Belizean!

Welcome to the middle of the week.  I’m sure everyone is counting down the days until summer.  Kadie told me you only have 10 days remaining!  Summer is close, but keep working hard until the end. 

We had another eventful day working with town officials in Dangriga.  After a very hot day, we caught a boat for a 45-minute ride to South Water Caye.  I am including a picture for you to see how rough we have it here.  We will be staying two nights before returning back to the mainland.

Again, good questions today.  I’ll do the best I can with them: 

Question 1:  How did the tzolkin or sacred round calendar work that only had 260 days? 
There were 20 names for days in ancient Maya (we only have 7, Monday through Sunday).  There were also 13 numbers associated with these names (example:  Tuesday the 7th).   Many believe that the sacred cycle of the Tzolk’in (which means “division of days”)calendar was based on the combination of these days and numbers (20x13=260).   Others suggest that it was based on the time from pregnancy to birth for a human.  Regardless, this calendar was used as a way to maintain specific rituals throughout the 260 days of the sacred year. 

Question 2:  The daily calendar shows 360 days and based on the sun with 5 "unlucky" days.  What were the unlucky days?
The calendar we use today is based on the sun’s cycle around the Earth, and has 365.25 days.  Every four years, we add up that ¼ of a day and have a full day.  This is February 29th, or leap day.  This is similar to the Mayan calendar in that their calendar was based on 360 days.  But the sun required 365.25 days to completely orbit the Earth.  They believed that these five extra days were therefore “unlucky”.  Additionally, there is no evidence that they observed the “leap day”, so if you think about it, they were losing more than just five days each year.

Most believe that the five unlucky days show up at the end of each year, but since we do not know when the year officially started, we cannot know for sure.  Remembering that the Mayans were extremely spiritual, and wanted to keep their Gods happy, each of the 360 days were dedicated to a certain God.  These last five days were seen as 'useless days' or the days that were dedicated to no Gods, and anything that happened during these days were used to forecast the events of the coming year. Therefore the Mayan people tried to do as little as possible on these days, to not have anything bad happen to them and cause their upcoming year to be full of bad luck.  Any person who was born during this time was considered unlucky. 

Question 3:  How did they shrink heads?  Whose and  heads were they? 
From what I understand, many Central and South American civilizations would decapitate the head of enemies in battle, perhaps the leaders.  Then, during spiritual ceremonies, enemies’ heads were carefully reduced through boiling and heating.  Since the Mayan people believed that life was continuous after death, this was an the attempt to lock the enemy’s spirit and protect the people from spiritual revenge.

I’m going to try sending this email now, and hope for the best.  The internet hasn’t been treating me too well the past couple of days. 

I’m looking forward to seeing you all on June 3rd! 

Dr. Atchison

Monday, May 20, 2013

Onward to Dangriga!

Happy Tuesday, Morton Belizers:

Today, we traveled to Dangriga, Belize.  On the way, we stopped by the Belize Zoo and saw many of the native animals that I discussed in yesterdays message.  My favorite were the big cats!  I am attaching a picture of Junior Buddy, a six-year old Jaguar who was born at the zoo, and was absolutely beautiful.  We were actually able to get into a smaller cage within his cage to get close enough to him and feel his fur.  I have a video of him licking my head last year, so I will have to dig it out to share with you. 

Excellent questions today, everyone.  I have so much more that I could have talked about with each of these, and I look forward to talking with you in person to discuss more about them.  For now, here is a brief explanation. 

Question 1:  What was the most important ritual?  It appears that there was no one single ritual that was more important than another.  However, one that shows up often in stone carvings is the ritual of sacrifice to keep the Gods from getting angry.  There were well over 100 Gods and Goddesses that the Mayans believed in.  Of the most important were the God of rain and harvest (Chak), fertility (Ix-Chel), and creation (Itzamna).  For example, if Chak, the rain God was angry, then the people might suffer drought, or even flooding and destroy their crops.  They needed to keep Chak happy, and this sometimes meant giving offerings of pottery, food, clothing, or sometimes offering the blood or even soul of a person.  The rituals of worship were very important for the Mayan people.

Question 2:  What do you know about the game pok-a-tok that they played in the ancient ball court and did you always die if you lost?  Ball court ruins have found in each of the Mayan city-centers.  Attached is a picture we took of the ball court at Xunantunich (in the background).  I will find a better picture to show you.   The rules have been loosely defined, but it seems that each city-center had different rules of the game, based on the layout of the courts and the stone carvings representing the games.  These carvings depict a game that was played with a very heavy rubber ball made from the sap of rubber trees.  Players had to use their elbows, shoulders, hips and knees to get the ball into a series of hoops to score points.  Sounds like a cross between basketball and soccer, doesn’t it? 

Many of these games were played with high stakes:  death.  You might think that the losers were the ones who were killed after the game, but surprisingly, there is also evidence that the winners were killed after the game.  This is hard to understand, but there was significant spiritual meaning to winning the game.  This message will get very long if I continue to elaborate, so it might be best for me to discuss this in person when I come visit on June 3rd.  Just know that winning, and therefore being sacrificed to the Gods was a major honor for the Mayan people, and therefore the players played their hardest to be the winners, and then be offered to the Gods in sacrifice.  So, to answer your question, when the games had high spiritual implications, it could have been either the losers or the winners that were killed after the game.  We can discuss this more soon. 

Question 3:  Do you have any update on the destruction of that monument?  I have not heard any updated information.  That site is a few hours north of where we are.  I do know that the landowners and construction workers could face up to 10 years in prison and 10 thousand dollars fine if they are convicted of willfully destroying the temple.  Since it is already political, that might not even happen.  Sad but true. 

Tomorrow, we are working in the city of Dangriga with the town council to determine what open spaces they have and what they can do to improve the space for public use.  After this work, we are packing up and taking a 45 minute boat ride to South Water Caye, a very small (about 9 acres) island on the Belize Barrier Reef… the second largest barrier reef in the world, second only to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.  We will be staying two nights on the island working with the South Water Caye Marine Reserve and the Smithsonian Institution Marine Research Station on nearby Carrie Bow Caye.  While there is solar powered internet on South Water, it is very weak.  I will do my best to answer your emails over the next two nights.  If you do not hear from me, you’ll understand that the internet wasn’t strong enough to get the message out. 

Until you hear from me again, enjoy learning about Belize and the Mayan people.  I’m looking forward to hearing from you!

Dr. Chris Atchison
Georgia State University

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Weekend Exploring in Belize

Hello Morton 5th Graders!

Welcome back from the weekend.  It has been an exciting couple of days here in Belize.  I have added a few more pictures that we took this weekend. 

On Saturday, our group visited the world famous Actun Tunichil Muknal, or ATM cave.  This is a very wet cave, and we had to swim in several sections that had water over our heads!   Over 1400 artifacts from the Mayan civilization have been found in this cave, including pottery and artifacts from rituals and ceremonies.  Also found are the skeletal remains of 14 humans.  I am attaching a picture from the famous “Crystal Maiden” that is the only completely intact skeleton in the cave.  This person died over 1000 years ago!  Visitors are no longer allowed to take cameras into the cave, so I had to borrow this picture from the public domain.   All of the remains are from ceremonies of sacrifice, the people were killed to make their Gods happy. 

Sunday, we went to the ancient Mayan city-center of Xunantunich (picture).  This city began over 2000 years ago and was abandoned nearly 1200 years ago.   I have many pictures and videos to share with you.

You have perfect questions for today, because on Monday, we are visiting the Belize Zoo to see most of Belize’s native animals.

What is the official language of Belize?  Belize is a British Colony, so the official language is English.  However, being so close to Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras, Spanish, Creole, and Garafuna are very common.  Many still speak the Mayan language in certain parts of Belize. 

What are some of the native animals?  Life is everywhere in Belize, and I have attached some pictures that we just took this weekend!  The most popular animals include Howler (picture) and Spider Monkeys, Jaguars, Iguanas (picture) 8-10 different poisonous snakes, many different types of parrots, many types of bats (picture of a small fruit bat) and tarantulas.  I was able to upload a video of the Howler Monkeys we saw at the Mayan Ruins.  The sound they make is very scary, and loud for only being about 20 pounds each! 

I will take plenty of pictures at the Belize Zoo and show you more of the animals that can be found here. 

After the Zoo, we will be heading towards the coast and staying in Dangriga.  I am sure Mr. Schmidt has showed you a map of Belize, but you can find one here to follow us:  So that you can follow along, we arrived in Belize City, have spent the first five days in San Ignacio, and will finish up our trip in Dangriga.  The Belize Zoo is near Belmopan. 

Have a great day and I look forward to hearing from you soon!

Dr. Chris Atchison
Georgia State University