Arthur Demarest

Lucas Wolfe


Image 1 - Archaeologist Dr. Arthur Demarest

Dr. Arthur Andrew Demarest is an American anthropologist and archaeologist who is a world leading expert in the Mayan Civilization. Dr. Demarest also has interest in the Olmec, Aztec, and Incan Civilizations as well. Dr. Demarest has published several books and many articles pertaining to Mesoamerican anthropology and archaeology. He is currently an Ingram Professor of Anthropology at Vanderbilt University and is the director of the Vanderbilt Institute of Mesoamerican Archaeology. Dr. Demarest has participated in excavations for over 33 years and has earned many awards. He is well known for his contributions archaeological community development, Mesoamerican archaeology, as well as to archaeology and anthropology as a whole.


Arthur Demarest grew up in New Orleans, Louisiana, where at age 4 he declared to his parents that he wanted to grow up to become an archaeologist [1]. Demarest earned his BA in anthropology and archaeology from Tulane University in 1974. Demarest graduated as Summa Cum Laude and also earned the Deans Medal for outstanding academic achievement [6]. Demarest then went on to study under famed Mayanist Gordon Willey at Harvard University. In 1981, Arthur Demarest earned his PhD in archaeology and anthropology from Harvard University where he graduated with highest distinction. As a post Doctorate, Demarest was appointed to the prestigious Society of Fellows at Harvard University and held this position until 1984. As a member of the Society of Fellows, Demarest conducted ethno historical research pertaining to Inca Ancestral Worship as well as Aztec human sacrificing [4].

Dr. Arthur Demarest had an opportunity to continue his early career at Harvard University, but instead decided to move his career to Vanderbilt University, located in Nashville Tennessee. Demarest's decision to do this was because Vanderbilt University would offer him the resources to lead a large archaeological project in northwest Guatemala [1]. Dr. Demarest has been with Vanderbilt University ever since and he has taken part in numerous archaeological projects, most of which are located in Central America. Aside from doing research and working abroad on large archaeological projects, Dr. Demarest also gives lectures and trains PhD students in archaeology and anthropology in both the United States and Guatemala. In recognition of his training and instructing of Guatemalan PhD students, Demarest received Guatemala's career leadership award known as the Order of Matt. Demarest was also the recipient of an honorary doctorate degree from the Universidad del Valle de Guatemala [6]. Aside from the countless contributions to Mesoamerican Archaeology, Dr. Demarest is also very well known for his work in community development. Demarest is known as a pioneer for community development in archaeological projects and often acts as a spokesperson on the importance of community involvement in recovering material culture from impoverished lands.

Dr. Demarest still works with Vanderbilt University to this day, doing research and other archaeology projects as an Ingram Professor of Anthropology. Dr. Demarest is a member of several professional societies including the American Anthropological Association, the Latin American Archaeologist group, the Society for American Archaeology, the American Institute of Archaeology, the Society of Field Archaeology, the Society for Values in Higher Education, Phi Beta Kappa, and the Academy of Geography and History of Guatemala [4]. He is a resident of both the United States and Guatemala, along with his wife and sons. He spends most of his days now in the jungles of Guatemala, but he also frequently visits Finland, where he collaborates with European museum exhibitions as well as international development efforts [5].

Archaeology Career

Dr. Demarest has been involved in many archaeological projects throughout his lengthy career. Many of his projects are very involved and last for many years. This gives Dr. Demarest an opportunity to conduct extensive archaeological research as well as train new generations of students in archaeology. Between 1987-1988, Dr. Demarest was a project director for the El Mesak Project along the coast of Guatemala. The goal of this archaeological project was to excavate sites that were among the first complex societies in Guatemala. Dr. Demarest was also a project director for the Petexbatun Regional Archaeological Project between 1988-1995. This large project involved the excavation of 7 ancient Maya cities and their surrounding areas located in the Petexbatun region of Guatemala. The purpose of this project was to answer questions about exchange, the ecology of the area, and settlement patterns. Another project Dr. Demarest directed was the Punta de Chimino Archaeological Project between 1996-1997. This project was also located in the Petexbatun region of Guatemala and dealt with the excavation and subsequent study of the Punta de Chimino island fortress constructed by the Maya. Following the Petexbatun project, Demarest helped to create and lead an art exhibit that contained artifacts found in the tombs and caves of the Petexbatun project[4].

One of Dr. Demarest's largest and most involved archaeological projects is the Cancuen Regional Archaeological Project/Cancuen Indigenous Community Development Project. The goal of the archaeological project is to survey, excavate, restore, and study the large Maya palace located at Cancuen in Guatemala. Dr. Demarest is the director of this large project that was started in 1998 and is still going to this day. The Mayan palace was constructed by Taj Chan Ahk sometime between A.D. 765-790. The palace was made up of over 200 rooms and 11 plazas which contained many artifacts that helped to answer questions about the ancient Mayan civilization. Dr. Demarest's interest in the site at Cancuen was to answer research questions about how trade had an effect on the rise and fall of the Mayan civilization. The site was very important during the height of the Mayan civilization because it was located along a river which made it an ideal centralized location for trade. The site took advantage of its location to create a monopoly on the trade of obsidian for blades, mirrors, jade, pyrite, and other valuables. Because Cancuen was a center for trade, most of the inhabitants were very wealthy artisans and crafters [9]. One major discovery at the site of Cancuen was a large alter stone that was a part of a collection of similar alter stones. The first alter stone was taken from Cancuen in 1905 and later recovered. The second alter stone was actually stolen from the site but was later recovered from the black market by Dr. Demarest and some undercover agents from the Guatemalan version of the F.B.I. (S.I.C. in Guatemala). A third alter stone was found by Demarest's team and was excavated and studied. Another discovery at Cancuen was a 100 pound stone panel that was able to offer several clues about Mayan culture [8].

The other aspect of Dr. Demarest's Cancuen archaeology project is the community development portion of the project. The purpose of the Cancuen Community Development project is to work closely with up to 30 local Q'eqchi Maya tribes in order to improve their lives and prevent looting and destruction of the site [8]. Dr. Demarest hired these tribe's people to work on the Cancuen project because it allows them to work closely with their own heritage. One service that was created by the Community Development project was a Mayan run boat service that transports tourists between the village of La Union and the Cancuen National Park. Because Cancuen National Park can only be reached by boat, it is vital to have a boat service that can easily transport people and goods between the park and La Union. The local Q'eqchi Maya tribes filled this role perfectly due to their familiarity with the land. Other services that local Q'eqchi Tribes were able to provide through the Community Development Project include a visitor center, an inn for tourists, a guide service, and a campground located at the park entrance. This Community Development Project greatly improved life in La Union as it provided the people with a source of revenue for essentials like potable water, electricity, and improvements to local schools. The Community Development project was also able to provide locals with revenue, water systems, school expansions and medical supplies [2]. In recognition of Dr. Demarest, the Guatemalan government actually adopted his community development philosophy by mandating that all archaeology projects in Guatemala partake in community development by hiring locals to work on projects. This was done due to the many positives that arise from community development but also as a thanks to Dr. Demarest for his pioneering of community development [1]. Dr. Demarest also became the first American to be awarded the Orden Nacional del Patrimonio (National Order of Cultural Patrimony) by the Guatemalan government in 2004, in recognition for his work in community development in Guatemala. His work with the Q'eqchi Maya tribes have also been honored and awarded in exhibitions in New York, Scandinavia, Guatemala, and Brazil [6].

Major Contributions to the field of Archaeology

Image 2 - Dr. Arthur Demarest's book, "Ancient Maya"

Due to his studies and extensive research and excavation, Dr. Demarest is considered to be an authority on the ancient Mayan civilization. His specific focus is on the collapse of civilizations, specifically, the collapse of the Maya and how it came to transpire [6]. Through his research and field work, Demarest has provided the world with valuable insight into the ancient Maya warfare, trade, as well as how the society eventually collapsed [1]. Dr. Demarest has provided hundreds of scholarly articles and has written several books pertaining to his archaeology projects and research findings. Through these writings, people can read, and educate themselves about the Maya and other Mesoamerican studies. Dr. Demarest is also able to educate students both in the field through excavation, but also in the classroom through lecture and exhibitions. Dr. Demarest also impacts archaeology by his continued involvement in public education and community development. Both of these techniques have been utilized by Dr. Demarest to increase public involvement in archaeology to improve the experience all together. All of these aspects of Dr. Demarest's work can then be used to answer important and mysterious questions about the Maya and other civilizations.

One book written by Dr. Demarest is entitled "The Petexbatun Regional Archaeology Project: A Multidisciplinary Study of the Maya Collapse." The book, which was published in 2006, discusses the methods, evidence recovered, analysis, interpretations and implications that arose from the Petexbatun Archaeology Project that took place between 1988-1995. The book thus offers a compact documentation of the extensive Petexbatun Archaeology Project that people can easily read to learn more about how archaeology can help explain how the collapse of the Maya occurred. An advantage of this book is that it offers analysis of the laboratory findings after the project was completed. This analysis is not present in other articles that were written during the project because the laboratory analysis had not been conducted yet. Before the Petexbatun Archaeology Project, there was much debate among archaeologists about the extent, pace, nature, and cause of the collapse of the Maya civilization. Petexbatun was chosen as the site of excavation because if its size, importance to the Mayan civilization, as well as its ability to answer burning questions about the Maya. Throughout this book, Demarest is able to describe the project and its results in a compact fashion that is able to answer some of the questions about Mayan collapse [7]. Another one of Dr. Demarest's most famous books is "Ancient Maya: The Rise and Fall of a Rainforest Civilization," which was published in 2004. The book offers a brief yet thorough documentation of the Mayan civilization. Some of the topics covered in the book include geography, chronology, archaeology, history, adaption, economics, religion, ideology, politics, collapse, legacy, and lessons of the Maya. Demarest called on his own, as well as the research of others to write the book. It provides a very good collection about the Maya and is a good introduction to the topic of Maya and archaeology [3].


Aside from Dr. Arthur Demarest's numerous contributions to Mesoamerican archaeology, he is perhaps most well known for his pioneering and continued involvement in community archaeology as well as community development. One of Dr. Demarest's most well known philosophies is that archaeological projects can be used to better the lives of people who are living in poverty [1]. This idea is known as community archaeology, which is a form of community development. The idea of community development in archaeology is to hire local people to help throughout the excavation process. There are many benefits of doing this including providing a source of income for people that may be living in poverty. A problem that often occurs in archaeology excavations is that poor locals will loot excavation sites and sell the stolen artifacts for income. An easy solution to this problem is to hire these locals to work on the project. This protects the artifacts and also provides the locals with work. Another advantage for community archaeology is that the locals can work closely with their own heritage as opposed to outsiders handling ancient artifacts [2]. There are numerous projects that communities can participate in including archaeology, restoration, as well as eco-tourism. The projects are then led by experts and the community can then earn a livable income all while being able to work closely with their heritage [2]. This type of community development has positive impacts on communities that last for a long time. Dr. Demarest has a community development aspect to almost all of his archaeology projects in order to improve the lives of the local people. Community Development is perhaps one of the most important and influential aspects of Dr. Demarest's impressive career.

Dr. Demarest is also very well known for his contributions to Mesoamerican Archaeology. Dr. Demarest is one of the world's leading experts in this field after working in the field for over 30 years. He has written several books and many articles that will be preserved in time and read for years by Maya enthusiasts and aspiring archaeologists. His work is well documented and will also be used in academics for years to come. Dr. Demarest has also trained several generations of archaeology PhD students so that they too can be successful in the field of archaeology. Dr. Demarest has also inspired countless numbers of people to take an interest in ancient Mayan culture as a hobby. Dr. Demarest's career is sure to last for many years to come and he will undoubtedly inspire many more generations of students and hobbyists to take interest in Mesoamerican archaeology and Mayan culture.


[1]: Bawaya, Michael. "Arthur Demarest Profile. Living among the Maya, Past and Present." Science (New York, N.Y.)313.5795 (2006): 1876-7. Web

[2]: Bawaya, Michael. "Maya Archaeologists Turn to the Living to Help Save the Dead." Science 309.5739 (2005): 1317-8. Web

[3]: Demarest, Arthur Andrew. Ancient Maya: The Rise and Fall of a Rainforest Civilization. 3. Vol. Cambridge;New York;: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Web.

[4]: Demarest, Arthur. Arthur Andrew Demarest Curriculum Vita. n.d. Web. 25 April 2016.

[5]: Demarest, Arthur. Arthur Demarest. n.d. Web. 25 April 2016.

[6]: Demarest, Arthur. Arthur Demarest Bio. n.d. Web. 25 April 2016.

[7]: Demarest, Arthur Andrew. The Petexbatun Regional Archaeological Project: A Multidisciplinary Study of the Maya Collapse. 1st ed. 1. Vol. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press,       2006. Web.

[8]: Salisbury, David F. Inscriptions Found at 1000-Year-Old Sacred Ball Court Provide Insights into the Maya Civilization's Final Days. Exploration. 7 May 2004. Web. 25 April 2016.

[9]: Schuster, Angela M.H. Maya Palace Uncovered. 8 September 2000. Web. Archaeology. 25 April 2016.

Images Referenced

[Image 1]: Woodhams, Douglas C., Melanie Moran, and Mimi Koumenalis. Archaeologist Arthur Demarest. Digital image. Vanderbilt University. Exploration, 18 Nov. 2005. Web. 14 Apr.                  2016.

[Image 2]: Ancient Maya Front Cover. 2004. Google Books. Google Books. Web. 23 Apr. 2016.