Meet Distinguished Research Master Heather McKillop
McKillop is the Thomas and Lillian Landrum Alumni Professor in the LSU Department of Geography & Anthropology and founder-director of the LSU DIVA Lab, which stands for Digital Imaging and Visualization in Archaeology.
LSU archeologist Heather McKillop is best known for her research into ancient Maya
coastal trade routes and for her related discoveries of a roughly 1,200-year-old wooden
canoe paddle and jadeite scraping tool, both found underwater in a mangrove peat bog
below the sea floor in Belize. What’s less known is how appropriate it was for her
in particular to have a canoe paddle become one of the defining finds of her career.
Back in Canada, where McKillop grew up, she became a certified master canoeist and
always envisioned a future as a wilderness canoe tour guide. Instead, she now leads
small groups of students and lots of human imagination to an early civilization in
Central America where society revolved around salt.
Dr. McKillop, I didn’t know you originally had other plans than becoming an archeologist?
Growing up in Canada, I had great opportunities to go to summer camps and learn skills, especially wilderness canoeing and water sports. I eventually went to Trent University because a lot of my canoeing friends went there already. My plan was to keep canoeing, but major in English. I came from a small Shakespearean town, you see, and knew all the plays. But once I got started, I had to take courses in five different areas and one of them was anthropology. And I really loved it!
Meanwhile, I had my summer job taking people on wilderness canoe trips in northern Canada. I didn’t do any archeology, I did canoeing—and that’s what I wanted to be, a canoe guide. For coursework, I thought archeology would probably be the thing that combined being outside, working with people, and doing something intellectual the best. So, I wrote to some archeologists who were doing research in Central America and got an opportunity to go there for five months in the middle of winter to work with them in Costa Rica.
Then for my master’s, I returned to Trent for archeology. The summer before I started, I was on my canoe-tripping job; we took turns taking adults for week-long trips, and we’d guide them through a wilderness area. That was my dream. But I got a call from the professor who works in Peru, who said, “We’d like you to come with us to Peru this summer.” And I said, “I already have a job.” And he said, “Well, quit.” “Why? I love it.” He said, “What is this job?” And I said, “My canoe tripping job!” So, he said, “What do you want to be when you’re 40 years old? Do you want to be a wilderness canoe guide, or do you want to be an archeologist?” And—this is a testament to how nice this professor is—I said, “Can I call you back?” [laughs] Can you imagine? Anyway, I called him back and said yes, that I would like to go.
How did Belize eventually become your area?
My advisor was working in Belize and the commissioner of archeology there came up to Trent and wanted someone to come work at an island site just outside Belize City. The site I excavated for my master’s was later destroyed for tourism development, but I ended up going to University of California Santa Barbara for my PhD and someone suggested I look in the far south of Belize where no one ever goes. So, I applied for a permit and went to Wild Cane Cay. [Points to a framed photograph of large coconut palm trees and a dog.] That’s my dog Tiger in Wild Cane Cay. I did my dissertation there; it was a trading port along the Yucatan trading route. He’s a mixed breed with the mentality of a herding dog, the perfect watch dog. He’s from Belize. I traded him for a broken fishing rod, and we each thought we had a better deal.
Did the name of your dog Tiger have anything to do with LSU?
No, not at all. But I knew about LSU, of course. I knew about Latin American research here, and coastal research. And I knew Louisiana was warm, and closer to Belize. Louisiana historically has a lot of ties with Belize and the Caribbean.
Is that why you took a job here?
I came down here in April when the azaleas were blooming, and—guess what—they took me canoeing!
Tell me more about the area in Belize where you’ve been doing your research all these years.
It’s a remote coastal area and let me tell you how remote! One year, I had a person
come down and work with us—but he wouldn’t fill out any forms. I found out later that
he had been working as an undercover drug enforcement agent in New Jersey and was
literally told, for his own safety, to get lost for a few weeks, so he came down and
worked on my project.
We operate off of a generator in the jungle. We live 15 miles by boat from the nearest town and the area where we work is 15 miles further out. It’s called Paynes Creek Salt Works, and that’s where the ancient Maya boiled brine in ceramic pots over fires to make salt and harden it into salt cakes, in dozens of wooden buildings. Originally, I called them salt sheds, but salt kitchens is a more appropriate term. This was the Classic Maya, so AD 300-900.
Rapid sea-level rise eventually flooded the salt works, which were abandoned. The sites are now completely underwater, but the mangrove peat creates an anaerobic and highly acidic environment that preserves wood and other organic remains. So far, we’ve mapped 110 underwater sites and recorded over 4,000 wooden posts that define rectangular buildings, as well as other wooden objects preserved below the sea floor.
Why did they build buildings just to boil saltwater?
It rains a lot in southern Belize. It’s a common way to make salt all around the world where it’s wet and you can’t do solar evaporation and don’t have salt mines.
How has this area in particular intrigued you for so long?
Salt was hugely important to the ancient Maya. Salt is a biological necessity and had to come from the coast.
Also, I get to be on the water every day, in the water, working on the coast. I’m out at sea driving a boat, learning how to navigate the waves, the currents, and the shoals, and we’re out there with the dolphins and learning how to fish and catch a big barracuda and cook it up and eat it. It’s a dream for me to be out there. I love the wilderness, and we are truly in the wilderness. People say, “Oh, I’ve been to Belize,” but no one comes where we are.
The government in Belize, they were trying to persuade me. “Why don’t you come work at one of the big sites in the interior?” I said, “Maybe later.” I’ve got so many questions I still need to answer. And now that we have the wood, some of my colleagues are jealous; “Oh, you’ve got the wood.” They have stone buildings, but they don’t have wood—they don’t. And my students walk on water. We go to a conference at the end of field season, we go present our findings, and everybody knows, “There’s Heather and her students and they have the wood; they have the canoe paddle.” And now we have the jadeite tool with the rosewood handle. We find stuff! We discover things; there are sites out there and we find them. I don’t want to work anywhere else.
Tell me about the day when you found the jadeite tool. It’s a gouge? Was it used to scrape salt from a salt cake or maybe scale fish?
Likely. We have no fish bones, no animal bones, but that’s because all of the calcium carbonate is eaten away by the mangrove peat. But the evidence is overwhelming that they were processing fish. Not only making salt cakes, but salting fish, to trade inland.
We were in the water of course. I was at post 250 and my boat driver Jackie—who’s been struck by lightning twice, by the way—was at post 252. He said, “Look at this!” And he’d pulled up the jadeite gouge. “Jackie, feel around a bit more around the post, see what else you can find.” Next, he brought out a wooden handle and put them together and they fit together perfectly. Everyone around just zoomed in. It was so exciting. The tool could have been on a shelf in the building that used to be there; it’s strange that it was right next to a post. As it turns out, it’s the only jadeite object with a wooden handle in the Maya era.
How do you actually do underwater archelogy?
We used to walk systematically back and forth in the shallow water, looking for sites.
Then we changed our methods and instead of walking, we started floating on research
floatation devices, or RFDs; that’s the technical term. We float in lines, systematically,
across; pivot and go back in rows. Just like you canvass on land. The area is about
five square kilometers.
Next, our plan is to go back to Ek Way Nal, where we found the jadeite gouge. We’re going to excavate the building where it was found. And this time, we’re going to be diving, using a system of hoses from a gas-powered compressor. We don’t have to go down very deep, we just need to be able to stay down and work and not come up for air.
How else has your methodology changed?
We started taking 3D-scanners into the field in 2011 because the wood, as soon as you take it out of the water, begins to decay. And the pottery, if you let it dry, since it’s saturated with saltwater, the salt comes to the surface, expands, and exfoliates and destroys everything. So, we keep everything in plastic bags filled with water and then transfer what we’ve found to plastic containers with water.
Based on our scans, we can then print replicas in our lab. Our 3D scans are precise replicas that we can study for research, use in teaching, and share digitally or by 3D prints.
Has the COVID-19 pandemic in any way changed your approach?
To me, it’s still just as important to go to Belize because LSU is a research university, and we got a federal grant to do this work, and this is what a research university is all about. We were about to leave at the end of March for three months of underwater excavations. We hope the pandemic will subside by next dry season so my student Co-PI on the project—a former LSU grad now at UT Tyler—and I can resume the field research. Until then, we’ll see what discoveries can be made in the lab.
Also, I have a lot of lab space here and my labs are full of students and projects. I can’t wait to go back.
I have so many questions, still. We have no sign of residences, so where did these salt workers live? And how was the production and distribution of salt organized? How did people get their salt, and who was in charge? I want to know about the whole industry. Salt has sometimes been controlled by state governments, like the Romans and the Chinese. We know they were taking salt cakes with them by boat to market. We measured the pots and found that they were standardized, so you could have a unit of salt. Standardizing is important for trade; you could even cut it in half and trade half.
I just can’t wait to be out there again.
You haven’t grown bored with paradise?
No, I haven’t. [laughs]
Since 1972, the LSU Council on Research has presented the award of Distinguished Research Master to two LSU faculty on an annual basis in recognition of outstanding career accomplishments in research and scholarship. One recipient is chosen within the fields of the arts, humanities, social, and behavioral sciences, and another recipient within the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The award consists of a University Medal, a certificate designating the recipient as a Distinguished Research Master, and a salary supplement.
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