Love Among the Ruins

Traci ArdrenKeeping pace with months of grueling excavation in Latin America for 18 of the past 20 summers has earned Traci Ardren what she calls “street cred” in a “very macho” discipline. “There’s a lot of ‘How long have you been in the jungle?’” says the associate professor in UM’s Department of Anthropology. “It’s physically challenging, you get sick, and it takes a toll on your family relationships because you’re gone.”

When not in the jungle, Ardren lives with her husband and two teenage sons in Miami Springs. To balance the intense fieldwork, she putters in her garden, frequents local galleries and museums, and writes about her passion—New World prehistoric culture. Books she’s co-edited include Ancient Maya Women and The Social Experience of Childhood in Ancient Mesoamerica.

A Sunshine State native, Ardren began digging archaeology as an undergraduate at New College of Florida, following up with her master’s degree and Ph.D. at Yale. “Archaeology appealed to my love of the outdoors and kept my mind challenged,” she says.

Concentrating on identity and symbolic representation in the archaeological record, Ardren has spent the past decade studying artifacts from ancient trading centers in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. Since 2004 she has co-directed a first-ever project at Xuenkal to understand how daily life and politics there would have been affected by trade with the city’s much larger neighbor, Chichen Itza.

Funded for the next two years by a $200,000 National Science Foundation grant, the Xuenkal dig already has yielded rich data for Ardren and her crew, which sometimes includes UM students. Among the significant clues: an intact burial site that spans centuries and a high concentration of weaving tools, which Ardren says is evidence of a dramatic spike in textile production during Chichen Itza’s peak. Her article about the latter discovery, written with UC Berkeley grad student Julie Wesp, A.B. ’08, is to be published this spring in the journal Latin American Antiquity.

Although a serious academic, Ardren is hardly stuffy. “Is Apocalypto Pornography?” her searing critique of Mel Gibson’s bloody epic film about the ancient Maya, set the Internet ablaze with comments. Originally written “as an exorcism of having seen the movie,” she admits her piece garnered “a lot more attention than I thought it would.” Eager to share her expertise with the entire UM community, Ardren also directs the College of Arts and Science’s Program in Women’s and Gender Studies and recently curated her third Lowe Art Museum exhibition—The Jaguar’s Spots: Ancient Mesoamerican Art from the Permanent Collection of the Lowe Art Museum—slated to open in June.

Despite more than two decades of painstaking excavation and analysis, Ardren knows she’s only scratched the surface of a vast mystery. Still, each artifact she uncovers compels her to the next. “It’s exciting work,” she says. “I am obsessed with it.”

Robin Shear