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Clues to an Ancient Civilization: Archaeologists and students unearth history of the Maya in Belize


Discovering ancient Maya cities in the jungles of Belize may seem like a scene from an Indiana Jones movie, but for students participating in the Programme for Belize Archaeological Project (PfBAP), it is all part of a day’s work.

PfBAP team in spring 2001
Programme for Belize Archaeological Project team visits Cahal Pech, western Belize, spring 2001.

Led by University of Texas at Austin Professor Dr. Fred Valdez of the Department of Anthropology, the project has resulted in the discovery of 60 Maya sites. Among these sites are four major cities dating from 1000 B.C. to 900 A.D. in what is today known as the Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area in the northwestern part of Belize. Major Maya cities discovered include Dos Hombres, Maax Na, Great Savannah and Gran Cacao.

“We’ve been able to identify a number of different strategies and adaptations the Maya implemented to survive there,” Valdez said. “It is amazing to see how many people must have been there and how much they changed the landscape. They did very well there for a long time.”

Surveying, mapping and excavations have given the researchers insight into the political, physical and social environment. The Maya had advanced agricultural capabilities including the use of reservoirs to support significant crops.

The team has excavated temples, palaces, homes and tombs revealing the kinds of materials the Maya were able to acquire and manipulate. Some examples of their findings include wall paintings and glyphs carved into pottery and stone which gives the researchers some clues about the history of the region. Other examples include ceramics, a mosaic mirror, stone tools and jewelry of greenstone, shell and pottery. There are some traces of perishable materials as well, including textiles from clothing, wooden implements and indications of other items.

“With the cities located closely together within a 20 kilometer radius,” Valdez said, “we are trying to determine how the small towns and villages tied into the bigger cities, who was dependent upon whom and what types of interactions occurred.”

There are several theories about what happened to the ancient Maya civilization. Some believe a war caused the ruins of this civilization. Based on his recent research Valdez believes it was a combination of a natural disaster and war or war-like activities.

“Warfare is a symptom of something else going on,” Valdez said. “When times are bad and things get rough conflict develops as a means to resolve issues. There is increased conflict to gain resources—whether it is more land, water or people.

“We don’t know what the critical conflict is symptomatic of,” Valdez added. “I happen to think it was a serious drought in addition to overpopulation leading to over-exploitation of resources. Most of the Classic Maya probably died at or near their home.”

The University of Texas at Austin was conducting research in Guatemala, when it was invited by the Programme for Belize to extend its research boundary to include the Rio Bravo area. About 260,000 acres are available to the university for research and its field school.

Although the ancient Maya city of La Milpa in the Rio Bravo area was discovered in the late 1930s and continues to be studied by Boston University, the surrounding area had proven to be so difficult to get around in that very few people had been there since. New exploration began after the Programme for Belize, a Belizean non-profit conservation organization, purchased the reserve and added a gravel road.

The original research project of The University of Texas at Austin has grown to include a field school that attracts students and researchers from across the globe. There are a number of specialists who visit the school throughout the spring and summer sessions. Areas of expertise range from forensic anthropology, ceramics, stone tool technology and agricultural systems.

Ceramic vessels recovered by the PfBAP team
Ceramic vessels recovered by the Programme for Belize Archaeological Project team from an ancient Maya tomb.

“Field school students work with the graduate students and other researchers on real problems concerning Maya civilization,” Valdez said. “All the work they do is original research, so when our undergraduate students are going on reconnaissance or excavating material they may be the first to see the artifacts uncovered in at least a thousand years.

“Students rotate weekly from one area to another so they get different kinds of experience,” Valdez added. “They don’t just end up assigned to this structure or that survey, they get a broader experience. They are welcome to come back during subsequent seasons and focus on something specific.”

“It is a life changing experience,” said Rissa Trachman, an anthropology graduate student who has participated in PfBAP. “I have learned so much about Maya archaeology while living in a rain forest. It is an amazing opportunity for students. It is both academically stimulating and personally fascinating.”

All the materials that are found are documented and analyzed in the field. Significant finds are turned over to Belize’s Department of Archaeology. If there are materials that need special analysis, such as carbon dating or plant or bone identification, an export permit can be granted for up to two years for study.

For more information about the PfBAP’s spring and summer sessions, visit the Mesoamerican Archaeological Research Laboratory (MARL) Web site.

Michelle Bryant

Photos courtesy PfBAP

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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