William Saturno


Committee for Research and Exploration Grantee, Expeditions Council Grantee

Photo: Archaeologist piecing together fragments from a Maya royal tomb

Photograph by Kenneth Garrett

Photo: Bill Saturno

Photograph by Mark Thiessen, National Geographic

Birthplace: Albany, New York

Current City: Boston, Massachusetts

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

I always wanted to be an archaeologist. As a child I loved dirt. In fact, as my mother tells it, there was often no separating me from it. I used to conduct "excavations" in my backyard using my mother's silverware for makeshift trowels. I never did find anything of note, other than spoons left bent and twisted from my previous excavations.

How did you get started in your field of work?

It was while I was in college that I first realized that archaeology was something that people actually did rather than just fantasized about. One of my professors recommended a field school at Grasshopper Pueblo in Arizona. After the first day I was hooked. It was a couple of years later while working in Mexico that I visited the Maya site of Palenque and knew that I wanted to spend my life studying the Maya.

What inspires you to dedicate your life to archaeology?

The people. I love the work I do, the puzzles, the mystery, but more important I love the people I get to work with. I have spent the last 12 years working in northeastern Guatemala, and the passion of my colleagues, students, excavators, and their families is all the inspiration I need. I see being an archaeologist as both a great privilege and a great responsibility. I have been entrusted with the recovery, interpretation, and preservation of the material remains of the past, with the history of an ancient people, and the heritage of a modern one.

What’s a normal day like for you?

I wake up around 5 a.m. and usually spend an hour or so before the sun comes up answering emails and reading. Then I have a quick breakfast and trundle off for a 40-minute drive from our base camp through the jungle in my old Land Rover, with a small 4x4 caravan of colleagues, students, and laborers in tow. From 7:30 until 4 I spend my day walking around the ancient site, supervising various excavations. My favorite time is spent trying to figure out architectural sequences, putting together the whole picture from the little pieces left behind. At the end of the day the caravan returns to camp for a river water shower, a hot meal, and rest for the next day. Wednesdays and Sundays are movie nights where we project movies on a big sheet and enjoy popcorn under the stars.

Do you have a hero?

There are many archaeologists that I have looked up to throughout my career, but if I had to pick a hero, it would have to be Ian Graham. Perhaps the most interesting, yet unassuming, man ever to walk the planet. He spent decades exploring the forests of Guatemala and Mexico recording Maya sites and their carved monuments before looters could spirit them to the black market. He is one of a kind, a man of history and substance, and perhaps the last of his kind, in the breed of a 19th-century explorer, in the modern era.

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

My favorite and most challenging experience in the field was excavating the San Bartolo murals. Being the first person to see them after more than 2,000 years, uncovering them bit by bit, with each part more beautiful than the last, is an experience unlikely to be matched. The excavation was also the most difficult I have ever done. I had to excavate straight up into the rubble used to fill the room by the Maya in antiquity. It was like dismantling a very intricate puzzle with each stone holding others in place and the knowledge that removing the wrong one would have tons of stone crashing down on top of me.

What are your other passions?

My family, soccer, opera, and snowboarding

What do you do in your free time?

My free time is largely spent either on the sidelines of soccer fields watching my sons practice and play, or driving to and from said fields.


Maya Exploration

In Their Words

I have been entrusted with the recovery, interpretation, and preservation of the material remains of the past, with the history of an ancient people, and the heritage of a modern one.

—William Saturno

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