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.