Ojer Kan (“Long Ago”) Project: Archaeology Media in Kaqchikel Maya Language

Alvarez Spark Innovation Award recipient, Jocelyne Ponce, traveled to Antigua Guatemala, Guatemala to create short educational videos on archaeological topics in Kaqchikel Maya language.


I was born and raised in Guatemala City, Guatemala. I became interested in Maya civilization in elementary school, as the country houses over 5,000 archaeological sites. We learned impressive facts about Lowland Maya civilization, which developed in the sub-tropical Peten region of the country (ca. AD 2000- AD 900). Monumental buildings, elaborate writing and calendrical systems, and extraordinary art were some of several characteristics of the Lowland Maya. Nonetheless, our lessons did not mention many accomplishments by the Maya that lived in the central highlands, whose descendants still inhabit the region today. Classes did not emphasize the relations between the different groups and how the Lowland Maya actually depended on a network of interactions with other regions to obtain several goods. Obsidian, for example, is a razor-sharp volcanic glass that was used for making tools for daily use and ceremonial objects and can only be obtained from the highlands.


Tikal, a Lowland Maya site in Guatemala

Today Guatemala is a country with over six million speakers of Maya languages, many of whom are Kaqchikel descendant groups living in the central highlands. Since the 1980s several Maya groups in Guatemala have sought a shared identity through a cultural and intellectual revitalization movement. The Classic Maya civilization has been one of the most significant aspects to define a shared Maya identity, but information on archaeological topics is currently not available in indigenous languages. Misinterpretations of ethnohistorical documents and archaeological data have also resulted in misconceptions of local indigenous populations. Additionally, Guatemala’s national educational curriculum on the Maya and other indigenous groups is limited and refers to past societies as “primitive”.

The result is people growing up thinking that everything great about the Maya ended after the tropical urban centers were abandoned ca. AD 900 and the Highland Maya were simply not as great. Besides the conflation of time periods and cultural developments, the lack of accessible academic information has led the public to overlook the importance of local cultural heritage that lack traits such as monumentality and fine art. This has led to several archaeological sites and artifacts becoming prone to illegal activities such as looting and trafficking.


Iximché, the Kaqchikel capital in the Guatemalan Highlands at the time of the Spanish conquest

Based on my personal experiences and current academic position as a PhD candidate specializing in Maya archaeology, I came up with this project to help overcome a knowledge gap that is currently not being filled by the public education system in Guatemala. My goal was to provide academically informed content on topics of past Maya culture to Kaqchikel native speakers and students, and to promote the protection and appreciation of local cultural heritage through the creation of short educational videos. Media has the advantage of making information accessible without any cost to the public and providing easily sharable academic content to people regardless of location. The Maya language component was an important and unique part of the project, as most of the archaeology outreach efforts are currently in Spanish.

For these reasons I collaborated with Tijax Samuel Vásquez, a local teacher, linguist, and Kaqchikel native speaker from the town of Santa María de Jesús. Samuel and I met in 2018 while I was a student in Tulane’s Kaqchikel Maya language and culture summer course, and we kept in touch since then trough social media. In July 2023 we worked together in Antigua Guatemala brainstorming and creating content for the Ojer Kan Project (ojer kan means “long ago” in Kaqchikel). We came up with interesting archaeological topics for the public, created academic content in Spanish, and translated it to Kaqhikel. We filmed in Antigua Guatemala, as we were based in the beautiful colonial city, and we learned how to edit videos. Samuel and I thus gained valuable content creation and video editing skills that we can apply to future projects. This is important for me as a changemaker because it helped me improve my storytelling skills that are crucial to convey academic content to the public.


Filming in Antigua Guatemala

I initially proposed to film six videos, but we ended up filming ten. We learned that the filming location is not as important as making the video content appealing, especially because not everyone is interested in academic content. Initially our videos were about 3-4 minutes long in average, but we decided to make them shorter to make them more interesting to a younger crowd. Our videos still need to go up on social media and we will be able to test whether they are equally successful in the different platforms.


Museo de Arte Colonial

Jocelyne Ponce and Tijax Samuel Vásquez in Guatemala’s Museo de Arte Colonial

Some important insight that I gained is that the way academics want to convey information is not always compatible with how the public understands and perceives it. More importantly, academic terms oftentimes do not have literal translations in indigenous languages. This is particularly relevant to archaeologists that collaborate with modern indigenous communities, as academic and indigenous perceptions of the past are not always compatible. I consider this the biggest lesson of this project, as it raised questions for me about the best approaches that scholars can take to make their research accessible to the public and how they can better incorporate local communities in every step of the research process.


Filming in Antigua Guatemala

In the future I hope to expand the project by filming videos in different formats. From shorter ones for platforms such as TikTok and Instagram to longer ones that can be distributed in public schools. It would also be amazing to see a project like this one in other indigenous languages so different groups can have access to accurate academic information in their own language. Lastly, I hope to expand the academic scope of the videos and cover more specific topics. Not only is my collaborator more knowledgeable about archaeology now (and hopefully the people that watch our videos will be too!) but through this experience I learned how to become a storyteller and engage more actively in a collaborative project.