REPORT: Successful Exploratory Visit, August 12-15, 2011

Belizean Archaeological and Environmental Sites Visited, Belize

The Belize Foundation organized and funded an exploratory visit to Belizean archeological sites and Mayan Plantation to determine the best locations for more in-depth archaeological and environmental study.  The team consisted of Dr. David V. Gibson, IC² Institute, The University of Texas at Austin, and president of The Belize Foundation; Dr. Logan Wagner, Texas A&M University, a specialist in architecture and Maya archaeology; and Margaret Cotrofeld, technical writer/editor at IC² Institute, The University of Texas at Austin, as team photographer.  Download the report with 55-page photo journal.

Friday, August 12, 2011
With the support and guidance by Mayan Jose (Pepe) Garcia and his assistant, The Belize Foundation team spent Friday, August 12, 2011 exploring several Maya sites on the Northern Belize coast on or near Mayan Plantation, formerly known as Salt Creek Estate.  For our first exploratory visit we stopped at a small island, less than 3,000 sq. ft. (within the island group called Hen and Chicks) where we located what seemed to be a midden deposit, an area where Maya craftsmen worked seashells into scraping tools, bowls or artifacts of ornament.  As would be expected in these waters, local fishermen continue to use the island as a fishing campsite base.

Ready to depart: Dr. Logan Wagner, Dr. David Gibson, and Jose Garcia (assistant in the background)

Next we boated around a peninsula through Pott’s Creek and landed at a location where many pieces of potsherds, mostly orange ware, were strewn around.  Fragments of “mayolica” blue ware were also observed on the grounds suggesting a possible colonial era campsite.  In this same general area are three unexplored Maya Mounds.

To gain access to the closest mound we “beached” the boat at a different location and cut a path for about three hundred yards through mangroves growing in six inches of water.  Solid ground is reached near the base of the southernmost Maya Mound, which we climbed and briefly surveyed for future exploration possibilities.  At the top of the mound, soil was 16 to 24 inches deep over stone, determined by piercing the forest floor with a machete.

Potsherd seen at Potts Creek

We then traveled to the well-known Rocky Point at the water’s edge located about one mile North of Potts Creek.  We determined that this site would make an excellent base camp for future explorations as there is a lovely beach area and open space on dry land.  Small Maya artifacts were examined in this area (but not removed) along the coast and on the forest floor including a Maya stone anchor and an obsidian blade.  The Rocky Point area could also provide excellent access to the nearby lagoons and the Maya mounds located there as well as a large Maya mound that is located further inland from Rocky Point.  Preliminary observations suggest this mound is approximately of 20 feet high from ground level.   An approach to any of these Maya sites will need to be built for easier access, whether by land or by water, using paths and piers with boardwalks.

Next we visited Midwinter’s Lagoon, a very large and shallow body of water (about 15 miles long), that is accessible only through a narrow entrance and small canal.  Near the passage to Midwinter’s Lagoon we beached the boat and explored on foot.  Several smaller Maya mounds were visible at different locations around the lagoon bringing additional attention to the possibility of Maya Marine Archeological Sites.  In addition these pristine lagoons are excellent locations for world-class birding and fly fishing as well as marine studies in lagoon ecologies.   At this location we also identified pottery artifacts from Maya and British eras as well as bricks that are believed to have been boat ballast in the logging era of the late 19th century.  English pirates and Spanish galleons of the 17th and 18th centuries were active in these waters.

Wilson’s Snipe (left) and Great Egret land at Midwinter’s Lagoon

Saturday, August 13, 2011
On Saturday, we drove a four-wheel-drive vehicle to Pott’s Creek, by way of Salt Creek Road traveling for about 8 miles through Mayan Plantation from west to east.  The road was built with a tamped caliche base in order to be able to drive though swampy areas. This road is occasionally used by local fishermen.  About mid-point on this road is an expansive horse farm including a historic two-story residence; barns; stables; and corrals.  Built at the end of nineteenth or beginning of the twentieth century, the ranch complex is an excellent and picturesque example of turn of the century vernacular tropical ranch architecture.   Not visited on this first excursion are the architectural remains of a historic logging camp and mill at the north end of Mayan Plantation.  Both of these architectural sites are examples of early European architecture that are well worth restoring, preserving and possibly reactivating for economic, cultural, and historical interests.

Monday, August 15, 2011
On Monday we visited, again by boat, the excavated site of Chac Balam consisting of a series of platform mounds at the North end of Ambergris Caye.  Because of similarity of size, location, and function, this excavated site gave us an idea of what might be expected at the unexplored sites on Mayan Plantation.  In order to access Chac Balam, our boat maneuvered “the cut” a canal about 20 to 30 feet wide across the upper Ambergris Caye peninsula at the Belize/Mexico border.  Cut by the Maya through the mangroves in the sixth century AD, the canal has become a sheltered area inhabited by manatees and other rare species of the region.  The canal connects Chetumal Bay with the open sea, saving ancient seafaring Maya from having to navigate over fifty miles around the whole of Ambergris Caye to reach the open sea.

Past the canal, on the western shore of Ambergris Caye, the archeological excavation at Chac Balam reveals the use of stone facing stairway leading to what archaeologists have determined served as burial monuments for lower echelon members of a mainland Maya community.   These burial sites have recorded findings of jade ear spools, bloodletting tools, and bloodletting receptacles that would have been used by elite members of Maya culture.  Many shards of coconut walk pottery, which were commonly used in Mayan ritual activities, were also found at this location.  Unlike most sites in the region, Chac Balam’s marl platforms were faced with cut limestone to produce a façade similar to mainland monumental architecture.  The tomb excavation at Chac Balamc Balam mound in particular was capped with a series of marl floors.

A tomb excavation at Chac Balam

Not far from the Chac Balam archaeological site, the Bacalar Chico Museum is dedicated to local archaeological and natural inventory including archaeological artifacts such as ceramic potsherds and a remarkably intact and complete fired clay tripod plate.  Stone bi-faced arrowheads, flint arrowheads and obsidian blades are evidence of a trade items imported into the site.  Architectural renderings and floor plans of the mound, shed light on the platform nature of the small ceremonial center.  The results of Chac Balam’s excavations, gives us an idea of what to expect at Rocky Point and lagoon located mounds and their architectural arrangements.  It should be noted that excavation at Chac Balam began with looting, which was followed by archaeologists with more scientific methods of excavation.  The Mayan Plantation (Salt Creek Estate) mounds are believed to have a scientific advantage inasmuch as many are believed not to have been previously looted.

Chac Balam site artifacts on display at the Bacalar Chico Museum

Doctor Wagner has noted that the pattern of Maya activity across the Belizean coastal region suggests an important area of Maya studies that has yet to be fully defined and explored:  Maya Maritime Culture.  The exploration of the mounds that are on Mayan Plantation and surrounding areas could very well provide groundbreaking archaeological study for this area of Maya studies.

In conclusion, the short amount of time spent at Mayan Plantation and its environs allowed us to gain a clearer perception of the scope of the yet-to-be-explored rich archaeological, historical, and environmental assets.  Due to fragile nature of the archeological, environmental, and historical sites within Mayan Plantation we suggest that it is important to begin ASAP appropriate documentation, excavation, and restoration procedures.   In this regard, we look forward to the potential of building an archeological inventory and establishing environmental benchmarks to better understand the history and nature of this largely unexplored area.  Next steps include applying to the Belize government for excavation permits and for establishing a field-study campsite with access to Maya sites on Mayan Plantation.   Additional study and research excursions are being planned for December 2011 and throughout 2012.

E.  Logan Wagner, PhD, AIA
David V.  Gibson, PhD
Margaret Cotrofeld, Photographer, Technical Writer/Editor

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