February 3, 2004

A unique Winter visits students in Mexico

Driving along the Pan-American Highway on an excursion for the Latin American Civilization program, Professor Marcus Winter directs two 14-seat vans to pull over at a garbage dump in the middle of the arid Oaxacan backcountry.

It's January of 2004, and 23 University of Chicago students have chosen to spend their winter quarter in sunny and temperate Oaxaca, Mexico, as opposed to the frigidity of ice-encased Hyde Park. After a long day of visiting local Zapotecan ruins from as early as 500 BCE—Dainzu, Lambityeco, Yagul, and Mitla, to name a few—the students are tired, not from the usual U of C ailments of sleep deprivation and stress, but simply heat exhaustion. Needless to say, the students are curious about the significance of candy wrappers and empty Coke bottles to indigenous Mexican people.

Professor Winter has some enlightenment up his sleeve. He asks the class to look beyond the trash at their feet and imagine what could be hidden beneath the large mounds on which they stand. This does not look like an archaeological site, yet it is—or at least a potential one.

Students are surprised to learn that this site is just one of many unexcavated pre-Hispanic sites that will probably never be unearthed, for lack of time, interest, and funding. Although the southern state of Oaxaca is famed for its relics of ancient urban centers that are now open for public perusal, Winter explains that there are just too many sites in the area that would require endless resources to excavate.

If Winter had the time and the budget, he would gladly dig up every last pre-Hispanic Mesoamerican site. Archaeology has been his passion since childhood, some of which he spent right in Hyde Park. Born in Boston, his family moved to 5804 South Harper Avenue when his father became a professor at the University of Chicago Theological Seminary in 1955.

The move coinciding with his adolescence, Winter enrolled at what is now the University of Chicago Laboratory School, where he spent his high school years. At 15, Winter was given the opportunity to work in Arizona on a project funded by Chicago's Field Museum. Two summers in the fertile archaeological landscape of the American Southwest was enough to bring Winter back to Arizona for his graduate studies, after receiving his B.A. in German from Amherst College.

In 1966 as a student at the University of Arizona, Winter was invited to assist a professor in surveying an archaeological site in Oaxaca. After working there on various projects for several summers, Winter decided to move permanantly to Oaxaca upon receiving his Ph.D. in archaeology. Since his move to Mexico 32 years ago, Winter has been an employee of the government-funded Instituto Nacional de Anthropologia e Historia (INAH), responsible for surveying and excavating all archaeological sites in Mexico. Winter has become a significant figure in the world of Mesoamerican archaeology, having taken part in many important excavations as well as establishing some of his hypotheses as accepted dogma within the field.

Winter is actually not a professor. Having no formal association with any university—Mexican or otherwise—he had only on occasion had the chance to enlighten groups of students with his vast knowledge. While his career is focused on research and excavations, Winter also has a passion for teaching.

When University professor in anthropology Claudio Lomnitz met Winter while on sabbatical in Oaxaca in 2003, he offered the archaeologist a teaching position in the new Latin American Civilization study-abroad program. Lomnitz had proposed it to essentially replace the defunct Buenos Aires civilization program.

When asked, Winter immediately jumped at the chance.

Winter's expertise gives University students a unique opportunity to gain firsthand knowledge of one of the most archaeologically rich areas in the world. Students roundly praised Winter's relaxed demeanor, vast knowledge, and impassioned teaching style. "I really enjoyed the quarter," said Sharlie Gabb, a third-year in the College. "I think Winter is awesome and extremely qualified for this position, and we were really lucky to have him as our professor. He's very passionate about his work, and also intelligent, yet laid-back and approachable, which made for a perfect combination."

Kara Martin, a third-year in the College concentrating in international studies, is primarily interested in current politics, and did not expect to be especially interested in pre-Hispanic Mexican history. "I wasn't planning on being interested in archaeology, but his class was fascinating," she said. "I really learned a lot about ancient Mexico."

The Oaxaca trip has not just been about learning the difference between the Toltecs and the Teotihuacanos. In addition to the required civilization and Spanish classes, students take advantage of all that Oaxaca, and southern Mexico, has to offer. Despite being one of the largest cities in Mexico, Oaxaca has an intimate charm: cobblestone streets, colorful colonial archicture, and nagging street vendors selling wares from hammocks to fried grasshopper snacks.

Students' three-day weekends are filled with last-minute adventures to Chiapas and Veracruz, as well as relaxation on the sometimes nudist beaches of the Oaxacan coast.

But it is not all fun and games. Many students have complained of chronic sunburn, and the oppressive 80-degree heat makes them pine for the comforts of Hyde Park in winter. Some, like second-year in the College Sam McMyler, aren't bothered by such problems. "The weather is always magnificent," he said. "Being able to wander around the streets in the afternoon…it's always interesting."

Some students have said that living for two-and-a-half months in another country has required a great deal of adjustment. "For the first time I´ve really not fit in," said third-year in the College Emily Walker. "I stand out as a foreigner."

But, she added, the program has allowed for a high level of cultural exchange. "The people here are very accepting and anxious to converse," Walker said. "And the food is amazing."

The three weeks of Winter's class concluded with a two-hour exam, immediately followed by an eight-hour joyride to the Oaxacan coast. Students celebrated the end of their first section of the civilization course with a dose of rest and relaxation on the beaches of Huatulco.

In a collective effort on the sand, students replicated a step pyramid unique to ancient Mesoamerican culture, complete with a Corona bottle spire as a sacrifice to the rain god, and initials "M.W." at the top. It is one pyramid that Winter will not have the chance to excavate.