A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Scholars reconstruct the lives of laborers on a Yucatán plantation.
On the limestone plain of Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula, several hours' drive inland from the flashy resort towns of the "Maya Riviera," are the weathered ruins of what was once the largest sugar plantation in the region, a vast 35,000-acre tract known as Hacienda Tabi. When I first arrived at Tabi as a graduate student nearly 10 years ago, I was overwhelmed by its serene wildness. I had never been to a place that felt more remote and disconnected from the modern world. Thick jungle spread across the landscape, and the air resonated with calls of exotic birds like the blue crowned mot-mot, with its curious tail that swings from side to side like the pendulum of a clock. If I cursed anything, it was the unforgiving, pothole-laden road that battered my rented Volkswagen van as I drove through the orange and mango groves and past the thatched-roof cottages of the local towns and villages.
Some 3,500 acres of the original plantation remain, and at their heart stands a magnificent two-story house nearly as long as a football field. Called the palacio, the 22,000-square-foot residence has 24 rooms, reflecting the enormous wealth of the plantation's owners during its heyday more than a century ago. Across the yard, obscured somewhat by the encroaching jungle, stand a defunct church, sugar mill, and rum distillery, the walls and roofs of which have crumbled into piles of rubble that make comfortable places for iguanas to lounge in the sun. The masonry structures on the hacienda include stones stripped from Precolumbian ruins, and many finely carved pieces are visible in the walls to this day. For all its deep decay, the grandeur of the place is still palpable.
While the early period of hacienda history (1750-1860) is well studied, surprisingly little is known about the layout and organization of these peculiar settlements from the late period (1861-1911), when increasingly oppressive conditions on haciendas provided the tinder for the Mexican Revolution in the early twentieth century.
Since 1996, I have worked with an interdisciplinary team to reconstruct what life was like for laborers on the plantation in the waning years of the Mexico's plantation system. The Cultural Foundation of Yucatán, a nonprofit organization based in the state's capital of Mérida, invited us to investigate the site as part of its effort to restore the hacienda as an educational center and staging point for ecotourism. Perhaps because Mexico is so blessed with spectacular Precolumbian ruins, only a few projects have used archaeology to understand hacienda sites, and ours is the only one to actually excavate a hacienda town in Yucatán. Exploring this fascinating place has now consumed my energies for almost a decade.
Allan Meyers is assistant professor of anthropology at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida, and the director of the Hacienda Tabi Archaeological Project. For information on staying overnight at Hacienda Tabi, e-mail the Cultural Foundation of Yucatán at email@example.com.