The Explorers Journal_fall_2011(1)


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The Maya Research Program is a U.S.-based non-profit organization (501C3) that sponsors archaeological and ethnographic research in Middle America. Each summer since 1992, we have sponsored archaeological fieldwork at the ancient Maya site of Blue Creek in northwestern Belize. In 2012 we again offer opportunities to participate in our field program and learn about the Maya of the past and today.

The Blue Creek project is open to student and non-student participants, regardless of experience. Participants will receive training in both excavation and laboratory techniques and receive a “crash course” on the Maya and archaeological methodology. The Blue Creek field school is certified by the Register of Professional Archaeologists.

Academic credit and scholarships are available. Please see for additional information. MRP’s Welker scholarship deadline is April 1st, 2012.

We invite students and volunteers to participate in the Maya Research Program’s 21st year of our Blue Creek archaeological project in Belize.

2012 Field Season Dates:
Session 1: Monday May 28 - Sunday June 10;
Session 2: Monday June 11 - Sunday June 24 ;
Session 3: Monday July 2 - Sunday July 15;
Session 4: Monday July 16 - Sunday July 29

For additional information please contact the Maya Research Program:
1910 East Southeast Loop 323 #296
Tyler, Texas 75701

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The Explorers Journal_fall_2011(1)

  1. 1. RETURN OF E XPLORERS CLUB FL AG # 51 SCORPIONS, WETL ANDS, AND JADE 20 years of fieldwork at Blue Creek, Belize by THOMAS H. GUDERJANFor more than 1,500 years—from evident at Tikal, Copán,ca. 500 b.c. to a.d. 1100—the Palenque, and El Mirador—allancient Maya culture flourished built during the Classic Periodfrom the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, (ca. a.d. 250–850) when Mayaacross the highlands of Chiapas civilization reached it apogee.and Guatemala, into the Petén, Then, in the mid-ninth cen-south into Honduras and El tury, their civilization mysteriouslySalvador, and east and north into “collapsed,” resulting in the nearthe lowland areas of Tabasco, abandonment of these onceCampeche, Yucatán, Quintana Roo, and Belize. great centers of art and culture in favor of smaller,Today, their extraordinary achievements are architecturally less ambitious settlements that52 TK TK A NEW DAY DAWNS AT THE BLUE CREEK RESEARCH STATION. PHOTO BY COLLEEN HANRATTY © MRP.
  2. 2. were more widely dispersed across the landscape. that the principal buildings at the site were razed, What events and processes led to such a dra- expanded, and modified throughout the site’smatic societal transformation in such a seemingly occupational history. Each remodeling was ac-short period of time? Was it the result of persistent companied by a “termination ritual,” that is a cer-warfare, environmental overexploitation, overpopu- emonial closing of the building with the depositionlation, drought, or some combination of these? Or of offertory caches.were there other factors involved that remained On top of the escarpment the terrain is a mix-unknown? These were questions we hoped to ture of eroded limestone hills separated by largehelp answer when we began work at Blue Creek in expanses of clayey soils that are prized by mod-northwestern Belize two decades ago. ern large-scale farmers. These bajos and bajitos Superficially, Blue Creek appears unexcep- range in size from a square kilometer to 40 squaretional: surrounding its main plaza are 15-meter-tall kilometers. No Maya homes have been foundbuildings, relatively small by Maya standards, as on them, and on adjacent hillsides fields, wereis its only ballcourt. And the site is largely devoid expanded and terraces and dams built, indicatingof the inscribed stelae depicting Maya rulers for that the bajos were fully cultivated in the Earlywhich so many other sites are famed. Yet its loca- Classic period. Moreover, below the escarpmenttion on the Río Hondo—a critical trade artery be- are equally rich soils, but these were subject totween the great Classic capitals and the coastal seasonal inundation that could easily lead to com-regions (which saw a florescence in the wake of plete crop losses. To prevent this, several hundredthe collapse) made it a tantalizing target for under- kilometers of drainage ditches were dug as earlystanding the change in this mutable landscape. as the Early Classic period and maintained until Two decades of multidisciplinary field research the abandonment of Blue Creek ca. a.d. 850.are now paying off, revealing a site with a long oc- By the end of the Late Preclassic period ( a.d.cupational history—from the Middle Preclassic to 150–250) and through the Early Classic periodthe Terminal Classic (ca. a.d. 200–1000)—that is ( a.d. 250–600), Blue Creek became a wealthyproviding a wealth of information on the sociopo- city. We found a building (Structure 9) with a setlitical forces that may have been in play during this of plaster masks of the image of an Early Classiccritical period of ancient Maya history. ajaw or king, along with a unique set of dedica- The central precinct of Blue Creek is atop the tory caches, which identified the site’s axis mundi100-meter-high Bravo Escarpment, which divides or symbolic central place. These included nearlythe low coastal plain from the karstic upland 1,000 jade artifacts, the fourth largest collectionhills. The site core consists of two primary build- of Maya jade ever found. More accurately knowning groups: Plaza A, a large plaza consisting of as jadeite and nephrite, these were prized infive Early Classic period structures, one Late the Maya world and, like many naturally sourcedPreclassic building, and a ballcourt; and Plaza products of great value, came from a restrictedB, a series of Classic period buildings running area and were available only to elite members ofnorth-south, including a palace. The central pre- society. Other prestige goods have been found,cinct also contained the houses of lesser nobles including metamorphic grinding stones, obsidianand those who served the ruling elites. It is clear tools, and sponges from the Caribbean, indicatingfrom the architectural remains we have excavated that Blue Creek was considerably wealthier thanIMAGES FROM LEFT: AN EARLY CLASSIC POLYCHROME LIDDED BOWL, FOUND WITH SACRIFICED INFANT INSIDE STRUCTURE 4; TERMINAL PRECLASSIC THE EXPLORERS JOURNALPOTS AND JADE ARTIFACTS, TOMB 5; AND A LATE CLASSIC LIDDED VESSEL DEPICTING GOD K, STRUCTURE 3. PHOTOS BY BILL COLLINS © MRP.
  3. 3. other comparable cities. political families for nearly a millennium. In 2000, Blue Creek’s wealth derived from two equally excavations of a tomb in one complex revealedimportant factors. The first was the availability the burial of an important person, probably theof some of the richest and most extensive agri- founder of a family lineage, beneath a shrine. Hecultural soils in Central America. Blue Creek en- was interred ca. a.d. 150–250 with ceramic ves-compassed an area of approximately 150 square sels and a jade acrobat pendant, indicating thatkilometers, more than half of which was used for he may have been a shaman or religious leader.agriculture. This was simultaneously used for dif- The burial of another important male, perhaps aferent agricultural practices, from small household son or grandson, was found in front of the shrine.gardens to the large-scale production of upland Judging from the continued expansion, construc-non-irrigation and lowland drained field farming. tion, and wealth attested here, the house and itsBlue Creek produced far more food than its popu- tombs belonged to a family of increasing politicallation could consume. A wide variety of crops and economic influence.were grown, including Other barrios didkakaw (cacao) which not attain the samewas used as money. power and authority as The second factor Kín Tan. Sayap Ha, forwas its extraordinary example, located eastaccess to trading mar- of the central precinct,kets. Blue Creek is at and surrounded bythe headwaters of the ditched agriculturalRio Hondo, the north- fields, had houses ofernmost river draining a modest character.into the Caribbean Most of these wereSea, a three-day canoe thatch-roofed, woodentrip. It was possible pole homes, and ex-to export goods on cavations yielded littlecanoes bound for cit- in the way of prestigeies in the north, which goods apart from onehad lesser agricultural founder burial that ispotential and a higher contemporary with therisk of crop failure. Blue earliest one at Kín Tan.Creek would have also This consisted of abeen the final port of male buried under thecall for canoes traveling from the Caribbean en floor of a house with a variety of grave goods, in-route to the interior. From here commodities were cluding a royal head carved from bone, and a pairmost likely conveyed overland to Petén sites such of shell ornaments inlaid with exotic stones andas Tikal and Uaxactún. coral inscribed with imagery from Teotihuacán in In addition to linking Blue Creek into the ex- Mexico. Although the founder of this lineage clear-tensive Maya trade system as a provider of com- ly achieved some prestige, his descendants didmodities traded for long distances, we recognized not inherit and build upon his wealth and power.that Blue Creek was composed of numerous Blue Creek’s sociopolitical structure changedgeographically separated neighborhoods. Typical during the sixth century, perhaps in part due to theof most Maya sites, each had their own leadership wider shifts of power and trade in the Maya world.and local religious shrines, but was beholden to During this period a massive caching event oc-the elites who lived in the central precinct. These curred at Structure 4 in Plaza A.A large part of theoutlying residential districts or barrios were sepa- building was removed and a masonry lined shaftrated by broad expanses of agricultural lands. A was constructed. Caches were placed around thekilometer west of the central precinct, a residen- shaft, including more than 100 ceramic vessels.tial district known as Kín Tan comprises a group The shaft then was filled with incense, nearly aof large masonry houses occupied by important thousand jade artifacts, and a human finger.54 A PAIR OF PLASTER MASKS DEPICTING AN EARLY CLASSIC AJAW OR KING GRACE THE WEST FACE OF STRUCTURE 9, TOP. PHOTO BY BILL COLLINS © MRP. THE 2011 MRP TEAM, BOTTOM, WITH EXPLORERS CLUB FLAG #51. PHOTO © MRP.
  4. 4. During the Late Classic period ( a.d. 600–900), protect sites in this part of the world—where log-significant population growth took place at Blue ging and the clearing of sites for cultivation andCreek. In addition to the expansion of the elite pasturage proceeds apace unchecked—is to ownresidences within the site core, 85 percent of them. We have succeeded in halting bulldozing atall construction in Kín Tan occurred then. While several sites simply because we asked as friendsthe large ditched agricultural systems below the to stop the destruction. However, such efforts haveescarpment had been in place for several hundred proven temporary. As time passes, circumstancesyears, growing platforms were built at its base to change and sites become at risk again. Recently,expand the amount of productive land. And in the through untold amounts of political maneuveringarea of the bajos separating residential compo- and with financial support from colleagues and anents atop the escarpment, terracing and cross- bridge loan, our not-for-profit was able to acquiredrainage features were built to expand the amount Grey Fox, a medium-size Maya center near theof arable land, which may have been driven by Mexican border, which is still in unlogged forest.lowered productivity due to soil erosion. Despite Over the past two decades our project hassuch efforts, Blue Creek’s agricultural potential grown to encompass a multidisciplinary team ofwas increased by less than five percent. researchers working to further refine the story of By the end of the Classic Period, construction this Maya state. Preparations are now underwayactivities in the central precinct and adjacent resi- for the 2012 summer season, during which wedential areas, such as Kín Tan, came to an abrupt hope to uncover yet more details on the lives of thehalt. Ultimately, the Terminal Classic is marked at Maya of Blue Creek. For those interested in joiningBlue Creek by the abandonment and termination our project, we have grown from a rather bare-bonesof sacred structures, both within the site core and operation to a fully functional research station withwithin its most elite residences. electricity, water, and even flush toilets! We have For the past few seasons, we have focused on a permanent lab, curation space, and a wonderfultwo important areas—Chum Balam-Nah, an elite Mennonite woman, Margaretha, who cooks andresidence a kilometer south of Plaza A, and a makes our lives easier. Despite such amenities, welow-lying area known as the Alacranes Bajo, 25 still often wake up in the morning to find scorpions inkilometers to the west, which is being transformed our coffee cups.into rice fields and pasturelands. The bajo isringed with small- and medium-size settlements,including Nojol Nah and Grey Fox, newly discov- INFORMATIONered centers with monumental architecture some15 kilometers west of Blue Creek. In addition, The Blue Creek project is open to student and non-student partici-we have devoted part of our ongoing research to pants. Participants will receive training in archaeological field anddeveloping a better understanding of wetlands laboratory techniques. Academic credit and scholarships are avail-agriculture. Also, during the past two years we able. For information: been flying over the Río Hondo Valley fromBlue Creek to the Caribbean, where previous 2 0 12 S E A S O N D AT E S :work had shown that there were many ditched ag- Session 1: Monday, May 28–Sunday, June 10ricultural systems. We were surprised, however, Session 2: Monday, June 11–Sunday, June 24at their extent and scale. The entire valley, several Session 3: Monday, July 2–Sunday. July 15kilometers wide and 100 kilometers long, looks Session 4: Monday, July 16–Sunday, July 29more like a result of modern agribusiness than theold swidden model of 40 years ago. Unfortunately, much of our work is directed by a BIOGRAPHYneed to keep ahead of the bulldozers. Vast areasare being cleared for mechanized agriculture and A Fellow of The Explorers Club since 1991, Thomas H. Guderjan,the damage done to Maya sites cannot be under- Ph.D., is on the faculty of the University of Texas at Tyler, president ofestimated. In 2010, for example, several thousand the Maya Research Program (, andhectares of land surrounding Nojol Nah were director of the Blue Creek Project. He is the author of The Nature of acleared. Long ago, I realized that the best way to Maya City (University of Alabama Press, 2007). THE EXPLORERS JOURNAL