Julia Mayo Torne


Committee for Research and Exploration Grantee, Expeditions Council Grantee


Photograph by Javier Pinzón

Current Location: Panama

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

I always dreamed to be an archaeologist. I loved the idea of traveling, adventures, and the mystery of ancient cultures. I was a girl with lots of imagination. My idea of what archaeology was supposed to be was so far from the reality of this discipline. I was very influenced by the stereotypes of legendary film archaeologists. Over time I discovered that archaeology is much more serious than anything I could imagine but I was not disappointed. This profession still has the appeal of mystery and the challenges to discover all that has been long forgotten.

How did you get started in your field of work?

I started working on archaeological projects in Galicia, northwestern Spain. The first time I attended an archaeological site was when I was studying in high school. I participated in an archaeological excavation at a place close to my town, El Barco de Valdeorras, where a large town near one of the most important roads of the Roman Empire in Hispania, the Causeway XVIII or Via Nova, was built around 2000 years ago. In 1993, studying at the University of Santiago de Compostela, I felt interest in pre-Columbian history and became a volunteer on an archaeological project in Panama, the country where I was born and had not been in 24 years.

What inspires you to dedicate your life to your work?

I think there is nothing as sad as death and the oblivion. Unearthing feels that we are rescuing from oblivion individuals and entire nations, beliefs, traditions, adaptation strategies, etc. On the other hand I feel that modern nations need to resurrect their past to overcome the challenges of the future.

What's a normal day like for you?

No guns, no exhausting pursuits, but this makes it less exciting. I live in Panama and my agenda is, as with bears, different depending on the seasons. During the dry season I get up and go on the archaeological site. Luckily I'm digging now at a site very rich in information; it is so nice that every day we discover something interesting. This excavation is found in an archaeological park. It is very nice and comfortable. We have lunch at the site and in the afternoon just before nightfall, my team and I return to our project house. We review what we've done that day, we have coffee, talk on the porch of the house, and then go to bed and read a bit before the light turning off. During the rainy season I swap the excavation site for the lab; there we work on analysis of the artifacts found in excavations in the dry season and conservation.

Do you have a hero?

Anyone who is able to show humanity and to do so anonymously, and without expecting anything in return, is a hero to me.

What has been your favorite experience in the field? The most challenging?

One of my favorite moments was research in the Rio Grande and Escalona, Valencia, Spain. We saw several rock shelters with paintings on the rocks from the Epipaleolithic. These accounted for hunters with bows and arrows and some extinct animals in the area. It was really impressive and so gratifying to walk and contemplate beautiful scenery as beautiful art. The paintings are in natural places, lonely and isolated.

What are your other passions?

I like cooking and traveling.

What do you do in your free time?

My free time I dedicate to my family. I spend much time outside my house so for me it is a pleasure to spend time quietly with them doing anything.

Inside National Geographic Magazine

  • Photo: Ornaments excavated from the site include a human-headed pendant about five inches tall.

    The Golden Chiefs of Panama

    The excavation of a cemetery more than a thousand years old has uncovered tombs of powerful warriors adorned in gold. It's one of the richest discoveries in the Americas in decades.

In Their Words

Unearthing feels that we are rescuing from oblivion individuals and entire nations, beliefs, traditions, adaptation strategies, etc.

—Julia Mayo Torne

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