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Written by Kat Bernhardt, Advancement Associate, SAR

With her sparkling dark eyes and guarded genuine smile, there is a big-hearted openness about Dr. Adriana María Linares-Palma, 2021-2022 Paloheimo Fellow in residence at the School for Advanced Research (SAR) in Santa Fe, NM. There is something musical about her, so it is not a surprise to hear that she is learning to play the harp. Even the title of her SAR Scholar Colloquium has music to it: “Mapping the Constellation of Memory: Engaged Archaeological Research in San Juan Cotzal.”

Linares-Palma was born in congested Guatemala City during the worst years of civil war when the survival strategy was to be very secretive and trust no one.

“I didn’t know there was a war in the country I was living in until I got to college,” remembers Linares-Palma. “It was like an earthquake in my life.”

Adriana Linares-Palma, SAR 2022 Paloheimo Fellow Resident Scholar

Adriana Linares-Palma
Photo courtesy of
Adriana Linares-Palma

Growing up, Linares-Palma learned to view time as a wise force. She often heard the words: el tiempo lo cura todo. Healing takes time: in a country and in a family.

Her mother, who had light-toned skin, was able to study in the university. Her father, whose complexion was darker, was educated only to about a middle school level. His culture negated by his own people, he often erupted in anger.

“My family was a reflection of what was going on in the country,” says Linares-Palma.

She grew up roller skating around Guatemala City because only boys were allowed to ride bicycles.

It was after her father died when she was fifteen that she was able to travel to the farthest place she’d ever visited: Tikal in northern Guatemala. Linares-Palma’s first view of Tikal changed her life.

“I got so excited by how huge the pyramids were and the park rangers talking about the jaguars. I became obsessed with Tikal,” she says.

Although vocational tests indicated medicine as her best career choice, Linares-Palma said no, I’m going into archaeology.

For six years, she worked as an archaeologist for a project at El Mirador on the border of Mexico and Guatemala, where she spent short field seasons of two or three months at a time walking for days to the site, living in the rustic jungle, digging, drawing, and following the ceramic analysis methods she learned at the Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala. She returned to Guatemala City to compile and analyze the data.

What she enjoyed most about the work was the stratigraphy. “You can see the history in the earth, in the soil,” she says.

Linares-Palma received a Ford Foundation Scholarship to study in the United States at the University of Texas Austin. She discovered that while archaeologists in Guatemala become very good at the technical aspects such as excavating, drawing, and drafting reports, there was more theorizing happening in other countries.

During her Master’s Thesis studies, a friend invited Linares-Palma to visit Cotzal in western Guatemala, home of the Ixil (pronounced “eesh-il”) Maya people.

“We walked two hours up a mountain. I wasn’t used to it being from the city.”

The landscape and its stories of the genocide of the Ixil during the civil war had a powerful impact on Linares-Palma.

“It is so beautiful and so ironic and complex that all these mountains had all this sad and cruel history of violence and bloodshed.”

Although they did not have a shared language, Linares-Palma felt welcomed by the Ixil. She was intrigued by their non-linear concept of time, the constant circular connection of past and present. She engendered their trust.

Multi-national companies were building hydroelectric plants without considering the land, the people, and the places sacred to the Ixil, who weren’t even benefiting from the energy they produced. The Ixil showed Linares-Palma the exposed architecture of their past, asking how she knew how old it was, wondering if archaeology could help them in their fight.

The Ixil asked Linares-Palma to be their archaeologist.

Linares-Palma drafted a plan and met with the Ancestral Authorities, a non-governmental group, mostly men, chosen by the majority, who represent the local people. When the Ancestral Authorities found out that items unearthed would have to be moved, catalogued, stored, and put under the control of the Guatemalan government, they said no. There had to be another way.

Over the next four years, Linares-Palma drafted three different research designs, carefully reviewing each of them with the Ancestral Authorities.

“We started a relationship, a friendship, based on being explicit about how I feel and what I believe. I expressed my worries about how we would do the research without excavating.”

Together, the Ixil and their chosen archaeologist, selected a mapping design.

Linares-Palma views the years working with the Ixil as a model for community-based archaeology. She learned to keep expectations open and design research in collaboration with the local authorities.

“If decolonization can happen, this could be one way to do it,” Linares-Palma says.

The work became her doctoral thesis at the University of Texas Austin where she received her doctorate in September 2021 prior to coming to SAR to turn the thesis into a book. Her doctoral dissertation is titled: “Ixil political geography during the Postclassic period: Approaches from archaeological knowledge and Ixil ontologies.”

“I’m using the information to make an example of an archaeological site that is not just a ruin to be visited to attract more tourism in the name of progress. We need different ways to explain what is going on in Guatemala. The country has a lot of problems related to inequality, patriarchy, and racism. Those who benefit from tourist income are not the ancestors of those who built the ruins.”

Dr. Linares-Palma wants to continue writing about the politics of archaeological practice in Guatemala, specifically her concerns about exploitation through cultural appropriation, and the use of the past as a commodity.

“All these experiences have helped me to feel confident talking about the practices of archaeology. I’ve been in the field for twenty years.”

Like the little girl who laced on skates to roll like the boys, who said no she will be an archaeologist, Dr. Linares-Palma forges her authentic path with courage, not letting her life, her research, and her thinking be prescribed to her.

View Dr. Linares-Palma’s presentation at SAR here: