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.
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 resourceswhether 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.
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)